Pastureland Butter is Key Ingredient in Scotch Shortbread

Most of the buzz about grass-fed cows focuses on their lean and flavorful meat. But what about their milk?

Making butter and cheese from the milk of grass-fed cows is a lot like making a varietal wine. This is not the plonk composed of a crushed mixture of grapes from a bunch of different vineyards. No, grass-fed milk offers terroir, a sense of place, and the courage to actually taste like something.

Such butter and such cheeses are being made right here in Minnesota. Pastureland, a collective of organic farmers who raise pastured grass-fed dairy herds in the Southeastern part of the state, is making some of the most distinctive butter and cheese I’ve tasted in years, from anywhere.

The butter is blue-ribbon, a real throwback to an earlier time. I fell in love with the unsalted, but appreciated the salted for the way it reminded me of my grandmother’s farmhouse table. Both of them are organic and cultured, meaning they’re made from lightly soured fresh cream, which gives the butter an old-fashioned tang and zip. As a butter to eat with bread, the cultured kind is so much more interesting than the sweet, and it’s good for cooking, too.

Not only does it look good—its bright goldenrod hue brought some sunniness into my late-winter kitchen—but this butter performs. Weighing in at 82 percent butterfat, it’s more like a good French butter than a domestic one, most of which have 80 percent butterfat. In fact, it reminded me of Plugra, the high-fat French butter I used when I cooked in restaurants. Butter this dense is good for eating, but it’s essential for baking. Make no mistake, those two little percentage points can make all the difference between a good pie crust and a killer one.

But the subtle flavors in both the butter and the cheese really won me over. Plain scotch shortbread, a simple cookie of flour, sugar and butter which relies on the butter for all of its flavor, drew major perks when made with Pastureland Unsalted. (The recipe is below.)

And the intensified flavors of milk from a pasture-grazed cow were really apparent in the cheese. In the Meadowlark, a cave-aged clothbound cheddar, I was struck by the shifting flavor notes: first sweet herb, then a funkier liner note of earth — but balancing, appealing — and then back to a tang of sweet cider. Imagine all of this in an aged cheddar with its characteristic dense and fudgy texture. Plenty interesting enough to hold down a cheese plate, and firm enough to pull double duty as a grating cheese.

The shape-shifting flavor profile in the cheese has everything to do with the grass. In a sense, these Pastureland farmers are raising two artisanal products: grass-fed cow’s milk and tasty pasture grasses for the cows.  Michelle Benrud, one of the founding members of Pastureland who, along with her husband Roger, raises a grass-fed herd in Goodhue, says the cow’s diet has a direct and dramatic affect on the cheese. “I think it’s a challenge when you get into artisanal cheeses, " she explains, "because the milk behaves differently depending on what the cows are grazing.” They feel like they’ve found some experienced cheesemakers who can handle their living, changing product, but this kind of cheesemaking is a bit of a lost art, guided more by intuition, taste and experience than pure science.

So what kinds of grasses are the cows -- and, indirectly, the cheese-eaters -- feasting on?

“In the spring," Benrud says, "it’s brome grass, timothy, orchard, bluegrass, and fescue."  Then, as summer progresses, more heat-tolerant grasses and legumes sprout up, such as reed, canary grass, clover, alfalfa and sorghum-sudan, a type of sorghum with a high sugar content and a temperament suited to July’s temperatures. "We we don’t feed grain, so we want our grass to have as much energy as possible.”

The result is butter so dense it crumbles from the knife, and cheese that reflects the flavors of the prairie -- not just by the season, but by the week. Kudos are deserved all-around, to hard-grazing cows and to the dairy farmers who give a hoot about flavor.

Scotch Shortbread with Sea Salt (adapted from a recipe by Maida Heatter)


  • ½ pound (1 cup) butter
  • 1 cup confectioners sugar
  • 1 ½ cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½ cups sifted cornstarch
  • Hawaiian sea salt for garnish (any coarse sea salt, such as fleur de sel, would work)


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • In large bowl, cream butter until soft.
  • Add sugar and beat for a few minutes.
  • On lowest speed, gradually add flour and cornstarch, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula and beating only until incorporated.
  • Pat the dough into a 9 x 13 pan and smooth surface with an offset metal spatula.
  • Prick evenly with the tines of a fork at ½-inch intervals.
  • Sprinkle with the coarse sea salt.
  • Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes, or until light golden brown at the edges and set in the middle.
  • Cool before cutting into small rectangles.

Amy Thielen
worked in New York for 8 years, cooking with chefs David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. She also developed recipes for
Country Living Magazine, tested recipes for Martha Stewart, and worked on two cookbooks. Now, she lives with her husband and son in Park Rapids, Minnesota, in a house so lodged in the woods that the wolves' howls are louder than her neighbor's barking dog. She teaches cooking classes at Cooks of Crocus Hill, writes food stories for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and keeps a blog called Sourtooth.