There are many different types of butter to choose from at the grocery store. Here’s an easy guide to the most common varieties. Learn which to select for cooking and baking.
Table of Contents
- What is butter?
- How is it made?
- American Butter vs. European Butter
- Watch the video
- Unsalted Butter
- Salted Butter
- Cultured Butter
- Irish Butter
- Grass-fed Butter
- Organic Butter
- Amish Butter
- Goat and Sheep Milk Butter
- Clarified Butter
- Brown Butter
- Whipped Butter
- Light Butter
- Compound Butter
- Plant-Based Butter
- What are the grades of butter?
- Why is some butter labeled with sweet cream?
- When to use salted vs. unsalted butter
- Substituting salted with unsalted butter
- How to store butter
- Alternative butter substitutes
- Other resource guides
The rich flavor and spreadable texture of butter make it a versatile ingredient for any dish. Spread it on toast, add tenderness to baked goods, saute it with vegetables, or turn it into a sauce. Butter is a workhorse in the kitchen. We often gravitate towards our favorite, but there are many types of butter to choose from that are worth exploring.
Learn about the unique qualities of salted, cultured, clarified, American, European butter, and more! I’ll show you which works best for cooking, baking, or just enjoying as a topping. Butter makes your food more delicious. Plus, learn tips for how to store butter to keep it fresher for longer.
What is butter?
Butter typically comprises at least 80% milk fat, about 16% water, around 2% salt, and 2% other milk solids and proteins like whey and casein. Specific criteria must be met in the United States to be legally called butter.
Butter is defined as “made exclusively from milk or cream, or both, with or without common salt, and with, or without additional coloring matter, and containing not less than 80 per centum by weight of milk fat, all tolerances having been allowed for.”Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, Title 21, Section 321a
Many varieties are made with lower amounts of fat, or plant-based options, which would technically not be considered real butter. But it’s still important to discuss their applications.
How is it made?
Butter is commonly produced from cow’s milk, but it can also be made with goat and sheep’s milk. Making butter involves churning the cream from the milk until it’s separated into butterfat solids and liquid buttermilk. Some manufacturers add bacterial cultures to the cream during production.
This ripening step ferments the milk sugars like lactose and converts it to lactic acid, adding a slight tanginess. Salt can be added as a preservative and to add a savory taste. Butter is pale white to yellow, or more golden, with coloring agents added like carotene.
American Butter vs. European Butter
Most American butter is produced using sweet cream, with no less than 80% butter fat. Look for grade AA for the smoothest texture and best taste. However, more producers are making cultured butter, or European-style, with a higher amount of butterfat for a richer and creamier texture, even up to 85% butter fat. Versatile to use in baking and cooking.
Typically European butter is higher in butter fat, European Union regulations call for between 80 to 90% butter fat. Most fall between 82 to 95% fat. The cream is churned longer to concentrate the fat levels, creating a softer texture, quicker melting, and often a brighter yellow hue. European butter can make some baked goods greasy and dense from the higher fat level. It’s great for adding on toast, crepes, scones, and flakey pastries like croissants and puff pastry.
Watch the video
Unsalted butter gives the most control over seasoning levels in recipes without added salt or other flavorings. The delicate cream flavor shines through. This type is my go-to butter for cooking, baking, and making buttercream frosting.
The amount of salt added to the butter can vary between 1.25 to 1.75% by weight, depending on the brand. Per one stick (½ cup or ¼ pound), there can be between ¼ to ½ teaspoon of added salt. Try different types to see which you like the best. Salt acts as a preservative, extending the shelf life a few months compared to unsalted.
Salted butter typically contains more water than unsalted butter, which can interfere with gluten development for baked products. It’s best to use as a shortcut for seasoning, especially on toast, sauteing, or finishing a dish like pan sauces. Make sure to taste before adding more salt.
To add a slightly tangy, soured taste to the butter, pasteurized cream is fermented with bacterial cultures before churning. Most European butter adds cultures, becoming more popular with American producers. Look for cultures on the ingredient label or the front of the package. Typically higher in butter fat for extra richness. Fantastic for sweet baked goods when you want to balance the sweetness or toast.
Many American brands have adopted the European higher butterfat style for a creamier product. Plugrá is a popular brand made in the United States by Dairy Farmers of America. It’s named after the french words “plus gras” or “more fat.” It contains 83% butterfat and is more affordable in the states than imported butter. It’s often used to make croissants and puff pastry baked goods.
A European-style butter made with about 82% butterfat. This type of butter uses Irish dairy cows, which yield a deep yellow color from the beta carotene in the grass the cows consume. The imported product is almost double in price compared to American varieties. However, the taste is very delicious. With the higher price tag, use it to spread on crusty slices of bread, scones or make a luxurious pan sauce.
Produced from grass-fed dairy cows instead of grain-fed. The butter will have a darker yellow color from the beta-carotene in the cows’ diets. Some studies suggest butter from grass-fed cows had higher omega-3 fatty acids, and conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs) compared to regular butter. The rich flavor lends well for topping on bread or use in cooking and baking.
It is made with pasteurized, organic cream. Certified organic must be at least 95% organic ingredients, and the cream is required to come from an organic farm. The cows eat foods like grain, corn, or grass that are organic, with no use of pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or antibiotics.
To be labeled as organic in the United States, the cows must be given access to at least 120 days of pasture grass (or 30% dry grass feed). Grass-fed diets make for a deeper yellow color due to the beta-carotene in the food and increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Best used for spreading, cooking, and baking.
Produced in Amish communities, it’s hand-churned, scooped, and rolled in parchment paper, sold in 1 to 2 pounds logs. The log-shaped butter is churned to yield about 84% butterfat for a super creamy texture. Best used in baked goods like biscuits, scones, croissants, puff pastry, or pie crusts.
Goat and Sheep Milk Butter
It is made from goat or sheep milk. Goat milk is a good option for lactose-intolerant consumers. It will have a tangier and more pungent taste than cow’s milk. Sheeps’ milk butter has a distinct flavor; grassy, tangy, and sweet. Spread on bread, make buttermilk biscuits, toss with roasted vegetables, or top on pan-seared lamb chops.
Clarified butter is melted butter with the foamy milk solids removed by skimming with a spoon. The water, butterfat, and milk solids are separated, leaving just the golden fat. This increases the smoke point of the butter from about 300 to 350ºF (149 to 177ºC) to upwards of 450ºF (232ºC).
Use it for sauteing, roasting, pan-frying, grilling, and searing. Use as “drawn butter” for dipping with seafood like crab legs, shrimp, and lobster or making hollandaise sauce. Follow this step-by-step guide for how to clarify butter.
Ghee is clarified butter that has been cooked longer to brown the milk solids. This adds a nutty, toasted aroma and flavor. It’s strained through a cheesecloth to remove any browned bits. Indian cuisines use it to make curries and stews. It’s also a popular condiment in Keto and Whole 30 diets. It’s straightforward to make homemade ghee.
Butter that has been gently melted and browned. The milk solids are toasted for a few minutes until they turn golden brown in color and develop a nutty aroma and flavor. This adds a butterscotch-like taste to savory sauces, popcorn toppings, quick bread, and my family’s favorite chocolate chip cookies. Ghee uses this process to make a rich clarified butter. Learn how to make brown butter in minutes!
An easy-to-spread option when you want a light buttery taste in foods. Air is incorporated into it, making up nearly 50% of its volume in the finished product. If substituting in a recipe with regular butter, double the amount. This makes a fluffy and soft spread on foods like toast and scones.
Light butter is classified as having 40% or less butterfat. They can be sold as reduced-fat butter or buttery spread since they can’t be labeled as butter, which must be at least 80% butterfat. To reduce the amount of cholesterol, saturated fat, and calories, more air can be added, or other ingredients like water, plant-based oils, or gelatin for thickness. It’s easier to spread than butter. Best used on toast or seasoning vegetables and proteins. Do not use it for baking.
Made using softened butter and combined with additional seasonings. Add fresh herbs like Rosemary, thyme, oregano, lavender, basil, chives, and parsley. Spices like coarse salt, freshly cracked black pepper, paprika, spicy chile powder, curry, cumin, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Add fresh citrus peel like lemon or orange.
Make it sweet with honey or maple syrup. Serve in a small bowl or roll, chill and slice into rounds. Customize the flavors to serve with steaks, roasted turkey, seafood, sauteed vegetables, or crusty bread.
A type of spread that’s used as a butter substitute made from solidified vegetable oils. It’s typically lower in fat, around 51% for some products; therefore must be called a spread. A mixture of fats like soybean oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil can be used. These typically have no trans fat and partially hydrogenated oils, but make sure to read the labels.
Margarine is mixed with water and sometimes whey to add milk solids for body and flavor. There are dairy-free products available. Soy lecithin helps to emulsify the mixture, and beta-carotene is added for color. It can be used to substitute real butter for baking, but the higher amount of water in margarine will give a softer product.
Plant-based butter is a dairy-free oil spread. It’s a great option for vegan diets or those looking to omit dairy. Make for a mixture of plant oils and water. Typically contains around 79% fat to mimic the texture of dairy butter. Fats can range from olive oil, avocado oil, palm kernel oil, soybean oil, coconut oil, or sunflower oil.
Faba bean protein helps to add body, similar to milk solids. Soy lecithin emulsified the fats to stabilize the mixture. Beta carotene is added for color. Sold in tubs as a spread for cooking, topping, or in sticks for baking.
What are the grades of butter?
The United States Department of Agriculture grades butter for quality. The highest grade will have the most pleasant taste.
- Grade AA (highest) is the most spreadable product.
- Grade A is slightly more coarse in texture.
- Grade B is stickier and crumbly.
I used to taste test butter in college for research, and you can notice a difference if you examine it closely. Try to see if you can taste the variance. It’s a fun experiment.
Why is some butter labeled with sweet cream?
This labeling on packages helps with the distinction between regular and cultured butter. Most butter made in America uses this as the main ingredient and can be salted or unsalted.
When to use salted vs. unsalted butter
I prefer to use unsalted butter in cooking and baking. I can better control the sodium level and taste of the recipe. Plus, the salt can vary between brands, from ¼ to ½ teaspoon per ¼ pound. Salted butter works best for spreading over crusty pieces of bread, pancakes, or waffles, whisked into a sauce right at the end of cooking, or for briefly sauteeing vegetables.
Always check the seasoning level! The added salt in the butter enhances the savory taste and is a preservative to prolong the shelf life.
Substituting salted with unsalted butter
The rule of thumb goes, for every one stick of salted butter (½ cup, 8 tablespoons, or ¼ pound): Add ¼ teaspoon table salt, ¼ teaspoon Morton kosher salt or sea salt, or ½ teaspoon Diamond kosher salt.
How to store butter
Suppose you want spreadable butter ready at a moment’s notice. In that case, it’s okay to keep it at room temperature in an airtight container, like a butter keeper, for about two days. Replenish the stock every few days. Any longer, the fat will rapidly oxidize when constantly exposed to air. The best temperature for spreading is between 65 to 72ºF (18 to 22ºC). If your kitchen is hotter than that, keep it chilled and use my different methods to soften butter quickly.
It’s best to use refrigerated butter within one month for the best flavor. Since butter is mainly composed of fat, it will be exposed to oxygen over time. This will cause lipid oxidation, which turns the fat rancid and develops off-flavors as the fatty acids oxidize. Instead of storing the butter along the side door of the refrigerator, move it to the back where it’s cooler. If not using the butter within a month, place it in a resealable bag and store it in the freezer for up to 4 months.
When to add food to butter when sauteeing?
To know when the fat is hot enough to saute foods, wait for the milky white foam to subside. This means that the water in the butter has bubbled off and evaporated at 212ºF (100ºC), allowing the butterfat to heat up. This will reach around 350ºF (177ºC) for lightly browning the food. Using temperatures any higher, I recommended using clarified butter to ensure the milk solids don’t burn in the hot pan.
Alternative butter substitutes
Of the approximately 80% butterfat, it contains about 67% saturated fat, 29% monounsaturated fat, and 4% polyunsaturated. It also includes Vitamins like A, D, and E. Margarine, plant-based butter, and spreads provide lower saturated fat alternatives. If you are looking for a lower saturated fat option to replace butter in baking, you have plenty of options!
Of course, nothing matches butter’s taste, texture, and functionality, but using ingredients like avocado, pumpkin puree, and even beans provides healthier options.
For quick cooking or making sauces, at moderate heat between 300 to 350ºF (149 to 177ºC), use any butter above 80% butterfat. For higher cooking temperatures and longer time, like roasting or pan searing, use a higher smoke point butter (400ºF/204ºC and above), like clarified butter or ghee, that has the milk solids removed. This will prevent burning, which results in a bitter taste.
Unsalted butter is best for baking when a recipe calls for butter as it gives the most control over seasoning. Sweet cream butter is used for most applications unless you want to add tanginess from cultured butter. Use at least 80% butterfat products for baking. Any lower will significantly change the texture, making for a softer product due to higher moisture.
European-style butter is higher in fat than American butter, between 82 to 85% butterfat. This works well for pie crusts, quick bread, croissants, and puff pastry. Be careful, as the extra fat can make baked goods greasy or dense. The fat levels in unsalted American butter are at least 80% unless made in the European style. It’s very versatile to use in all baked goods.
Other resource guides
- 22 Types of Cooking Oils
- 8 Types of Salt
- 33 Types of Italian Pasta
- 14 Types of Sweet Potatoes
- 15 Common Types of Nuts
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