As a nation we were warned of the impending butter shortage this fall and we braced for the lack of sweet, creamy, I-can-believe-it’s-real butter on our shelves as we headed into the holiday season of baking and greasing our foods to stave off the winter chill. But now that the holidays are upon us in earnest and I need to plan for my cookie exchange, is there actually a butter shortage, or was it the Y2K of food scarcity claims?
The week before Thanksgiving, the butter giant Land O’Lakes, or LOL as its logo says, assured the public in a statement on its blog (even butter has a blog!) that despite reports from many news outlets the amount of butter in circulation was not lower than in previous years.
LOL went on to say that “business is going well,” an indication that I will personally have enough solid dairy fat to make it through my holiday baking projects. It’s not that there’s less butter (less in storage, perhaps, but not less of it on shelves), it’s that inflation has come to call yet again, driving up the price. I see how it is, Big Butter. You have the goods, you’re just charging more for them. No wonder business is booming. Unless it’s not, because people aren’t buying as much butter, because it costs more…? The plot thickens like a quality buttercream.
While the butter biz was buzzing about people not buying butter earlier this year due to price increases, one monstrosity came bursting onto the scene that changed everything: the butter board. Sales of butter boomed this fall due to the viral trend of slathering butter all over one’s charcuterie board and asking one’s friends to double-dip crusty bread into the spread, cold and flu season be damned.
So, the shortage is a mirage. We are not out of butter. And we are still buying it, despite the price, thanks to our continued (rightful) fetishization of this saturated fat.
In researching butter trends of the past couple years, most headlines vacillate between “Is Butter Back?” and “No, Butter Is Not Back” and “Is Butter Healthy?” and “Is Butter Bad?” The answers to these questions are largely immaterial; I just need to know whether the butter industry is trying to get me to stockpile or not. Did Big Butter inspire the butter board, the way the pork lobby meme-ified bacon? If so, these people are marketing geniuses. Either that, or delicious butter kind of sells itself, regardless of industry trends and potential health concerns.
Scarcity does drive up prices, as does the illusion of prestige. And that doesn’t just go for regular butter. Vegan butter usually runs $5-7 per 8-10 oz., but at most stores, it’s running on the higher end of that scale this year.
Here’s a tip: Crisco, aka vegetable shortening, is vegan, and you can get twice the amount for the same price as the vegan butter at the time of this writing. Butter, which used to be only a few dollars per cup, is now rivaling gas prices, coming in at about $5 per package. That is an increase of more than a dollar a pound from what it was at the beginning of 2022. Margarine, which is made up of a blend of oils instead of dairy and therefore is usually vegan, seems to be comparable to shortening prices, aka half the price of butter.
So, vegan butter costs the most, then cow butter, and shortening or margarine are the least expensive options. However, most bakers and cooks will tell you that taste and texture are very different depending on which of these products you use.
I can’t prove that there is any conspiracy at play; there’s no evidence that the rumored butter shortages were an invention to drive up sales, nor that Big Butter had anything to do with the butter board, which was created by a Portland-based restauranteur and vegetable farmer. Butter is on the shelves, though at a higher price point. Like pretty much everything else.
Whatever the case, it seems I don’t have to worry. My friend is bringing me a block of butter from her freezer stash later because, as she puts it, “A good Norwegian will never let a friend be without butter.” Christmas is saved.