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What Is Butterbrot?

By Caitlin Shih
Updated May 16, 2024
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The word "butterbrot" is rooted in the German language and literally translates to "butterbread" or "bread with butter." In its most basic form, it is exactly that, but many cultures have since developed modern variations of the German breakfast food. Butterbrot is generally comprised of a single slice of bread with no more than one extra ingredient layered on top of the butter, and these ingredients may vary by recipe. In this way, it is different from a sandwich, which has its roots in England, but overtime, it has been largely replaced by other breakfast foods. The butterbrot is also the origin of the adage that buttered toast always lands butter side down.

The butterbrot traditionally utilizes sourdough bread, known in German as grey bread or graubrot, but other kinds of bread may also be used. It can be either toasted or plain, and toppings differ depending on what meal the butterbrot is a part of. Breakfast butterbrots usually involve layering things like jam, marmalade, or cream cheese on top of the butter. Chocolate spread, peanut butter, or sprinkles can also be used. For heavier meals, layers of cheese, cold cuts, or eggs of any style may be layered on in addition to simple vegetables.

The origins of the butterbrot go back to Germany in the 1300s, where it was often eaten as an alternative to porridge, and some regions in Germany added herbs or spices to their bread. Fifteenth century Germans mainly ate buttered bread if they were farmers or otherwise of the common class, but by the 17th century, the food had become much more popular. The traditional butterbrot differs from the English sandwich in its usage of firmer bread such as sourdough or black bread. In addition, it is a food that remains, for the most part, traditional, whereas the sandwich has been greatly expanded to include all sorts of more complicated combinations of food. Although buttered bread still remains a staple in Germany, its popularity has declined in many other areas of the world due to the introduction of other breakfast foods such as cereals and breakfast pastries.

The urban legend that buttered toast always lands butter side down is a variation of Murphy's law, which states that if there is anything that can go wrong, it will. This saying has even been scientifically tested by different enthusiasts and many have developed different theories as to why they believe the phenomenon tends to occur. One more common explanation is that the buttered side is heavier, but for most, the saying is no more than an amusing legend.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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