Why there's no better comfort food than bread and butter

It's a classic for a reason: Unlocking the enduring allure of bread and butter

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 1, 2023 2:00PM (EDT)

Loaf of bread and butter (Getty Images/sandoclr)
Loaf of bread and butter (Getty Images/sandoclr)

We'd awakened early, before the clamor of the city's weekend had begun in earnest. Rose and I had met in high school French class, and now, decades later, she lives the dream as an ex-pat in Paris. At her neighborhood bakery, we purchased crusty baguettes still warm from the oven. Back at her apartment, her husband, whose family is from Brittany, laid out the table with the butter that is the pride of his birthplace. Then, while French pigeons cooed outside and strong coffee brewed on the Moka pot, we sat down and ate. And I don't know if anything else I've consumed in recent memory was as perfect and beautiful as that simple breakfast of fresh bread and creamy, salty butter.

What is it about bread and butter that hits the spot like nothing else in the world? Why is that specific combination just so damn good? To the western palate, few things are so ordinary and yet so evocative. 

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Maybe it's the bread. While no one's saying the road to happiness is paved exclusively with pasta and potatoes, they sure do affect our mood. Nearly twenty years ago, MIT researcher Judith Wurtman observed that "Carbohydrates raise serotonin levels naturally and act like a natural tranquilizer." But it's not just the carbs in bread that make it so glorious. 

"A perfectly baked bread, with its aromatic allure, has a unique texture," says Andrew Carter, founder of Leon Bistro and a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, "crusty on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside. This interplay of textural contrasts is a sensory delight. And, its comforting flavors come from the Maillard reaction during baking, resulting in the sweet, toasty flavor undertones."

 Or maybe it's the butter. Echoing Anthony Bourdain's famed insight that a generous amount of butter is your favorite restaurant's secret ingredient in everything, Dan Gallagher, an ISSA Certified Nutritionist with Aegle Nutrition, states simply, "The secret to bread and butter is in the butter." As Gallagher explains, "Fat is a great way to increase flavor and butter is almost exclusively fat. Adding butter to your bread makes your bread taste so much better, which is why it's such a classic, albeit simple staple for many people." Fat is also necessary for brain function and mood, and studies including a 2018 paper published in the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology show a link between low fat diets and depression.

"The secret to bread and butter is in the butter."

Or maybe it's just the power couple effect. Bread and butter is "the quintessential comfort food combo," according to Rosie Elliott, owner of the recipe and advice site Kitchen Appliance Answer. "As a chef," she says, "I completely understand the enduring appeal." For Elliott, the pleasure begins even before the first bite. "It truly satisfies on every level. The feel of a fresh loaf, still warm from the oven, crunching slightly as you slice it open — pure tactile joy. That first inhale of the yeasty aroma as it hits your senses? Heavenly. In a health-conscious world of low-carb and gluten-free," she says, "the simple pleasure of buttered bread endures. That perfect bite will always reign supreme in my book." 

"In a health-conscious world of low-carb and gluten-free, the simple pleasure of buttered bread endures."

Elliott's awareness of bread and butter's place in our world of dietary taboos rings true. So I wonder if some of the thrill of bread and butter might come in the pure indulgence of it all.

Like plenty of Americans, I have lived a life steeped in diet culture, where burgers were ordered without buns and the fridge always contained a tub of Shedd's Spread. There is a primal place in my psyche that can't forget the sight of my mother nervously pushing away any restaurant bread basket as if it were a bowl of snakes. And so while I regularly get my carbs and fats from more conventionally approved sources like sweet potatoes and avocados,  I'm also happy to embrace the utter frivolousness of bread and butter. After surviving the eras of South Beach, Atkins, keto, paleo, Whole 30 and all their ilk, it feels amazing to silence the inner critic that says that you could just avoid them altogether, the warnings that they'll spoil your waistline or at least your appetite. 

Fortunately, time has eroded some of bread and butter's bad reputation.

Writing in the New York Times in 2014, Mark Bittman pointed out that "The real villains in our diet — sugar and ultra-processed foods — are becoming increasingly apparent," and recommended, "You can go back to eating butter, if you haven't already." The wisdom of Bittman's advice to "abandon fake food for real food" also explains why that Paris breakfast was so wonderful. It was just good, real food. It was fresh, well made bread made from good flour that came from good wheat. It was golden butter made from high quality cream from very special cows. 

You don't have to go to France to experience the beauty of bread and butter (but I'm down if you want to go). It's just about giving yourself permission to enjoy the real thing with real gusto. Rarely in life do we give ourselves that kind of permission, to eat with gratitude instead of apology. I think that's at least part of why that French breakfast was so transformative.

To my mind, the ne plus ultra is a warm baguette (freshly baked or gently heated up in the oven) with a swoosh of high butterfat, salted butter, applied generously enough to leave bite marks when you nibble on it. But I'd be hard pressed to turn down any variation. Toasted brioche with butter and jam is not just delicious but possibly the best smelling thing in the world. The European custom of adding some ribbony ham or a line of anchovies on top of a buttered slice of bread is a classic for a reason. But there is something startlingly elemental about sticking with those two humble ingredients. They're comforting, they're nostalgic, they're perfect.

In the weeks since that memorable recent morning in Paris, I've found myself returning again and again to that unbeatable combination, keeping a block of salted butter on the counter and picking up small, crunchy rolls for myself in the morning. It's bliss. I still love olive oil and I still eat fruits and vegetables. But these days, I am trying hard to put into practice that life is about balance, and remember that we do not live by plant-based poke bowls alone. "It's about connecting to something basic yet profound," says Andrew Carter, "connecting to the earth, the simplicity of life, and the comfort of home. That's a universal appeal, transcending cultures, cuisines, trends, and dietary preferences. In a world increasingly moving towards the complex and the elaborate, the bread and butter duo is a reminder that sometimes, the most straightforward things can bring us the most pleasure."





By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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