Which Type of Butter Is Best for Your Recipe
A guide to all of the types of butter you'll find along the dairy aisle and when to use which.
Butter makes everything better. It is just a fact. Sweet, savory, whatever you like to cook, butter improves it. Whether it is an all-butter pie crust delivering apples to your face or finishing a pan sauce with a knob of butter to make it glossy and extra delicious, butter is fundamental to all areas of cooking.
A fact that was a heck of a lot easier to embrace when your butter aisle options were essentially sticks or tubs, unsalted or salted, with only a couple of brands to choose from. But these days, the butter section of the dairy case can be confusing. There are now imports from Europe and American-made European-style. Cultured, artisanal, clarified, flavored. And yet, most recipes still call for either unsalted or salted. So how to know which butter to use when? Here is my handy guide.
Unsalted vs. Salted
Most recipes will call for unsalted butter which allows you to control the amount of salt in your dishes. If the recipe does not specify, it’s generally safer to opt for unsalted. Salted butter is my preference for anointing breadstuffs, especially morning toast or English muffins. I keep salted butter on my counter in a butter bell, which is designed to allow you to keep softened butter at room temp, for easy morning spreadability. Salted butter is also terrific when making salted caramel, giving you a consistent amount of salt throughout.
European butters are higher in fat content, making them particularly good for eating spread on bread. Because they are imported, they are usually your highest price butter option, so I usually save the splurge for special occasions. A favorite European option for me is Lurpak, their lightly salted is my go-to for dinner parties on the table.
These American butters are made with higher fat content in the European style, and this is my standard butter for most applications. You get all the benefit of the Euro butters but at a lower price point. My desert island butter, if I was forced to choose just one for the rest of my life is Plugra. I was an early adopter of this European-style butter as soon as it hit the shelves, and it is the butter I keep on hand for almost all of my cooking and baking. I love the fact that it comes in salted and unsalted, and in both half pound rectangular slabs and full pound solid bricks. The pound bricks make really lovely square slabs to put out on your table for dinners, but also are useful when you are doing things like dotting butter on top of a baked dish, giving you the ability to make thin sheets that really get good coverage for crispy tops. I keep a stash of both salted and unsalted slabs and a couple bricks in the freezer pretty much at all times. The higher fat content is ideal for butter-forward baking like biscuits, pie crust, laminated doughs like puff pastry or rough puff, and the like, or for things like caramel. It is also the perfect thing to gloss out a sauce.
We’ve all been looking at those basic boxes our whole lives. And I do keep some of this basic butter around for some of my cooking and baking. I like that it comes in half-sticks as well as full, which makes for easy measuring. A lot of recipes call for butter in tablespoons, so while I prefer recipes that deal in weight measures, I’m lousy at math, so being able to easily count off the right amount often trumps the slightly higher quality of the European-style butter, especially for baking where butter is just a fat and not a flavoring, like cookies and cakes and brownies. Land O’ Lakes is my preferred brand, and I keep one box of regular sticks and one of half-sticks in the freezer.
Clarified Butter or Ghee
Butter from which the milk solids have been strained off has a much higher smoke point, so it doesn’t burn like regular butter, and tends to have a slightly nuttier flavor than regular butter. I use clarified butter or ghee a lot in savory applications like sautéing, or blooming spices, or searing meats because I often prefer the flavor to oil. Ghee is a staple of Indian cookery, and it is shelf-stable, so you can keep a jar in your pantry. It is also easy to make yourself using regular butter.
Cultured and Artisanal Butters
These butters are hand crafted, often from cream that has been allowed to age a bit to bring out some really lovely tang and sometimes almost a mild cheesiness to the butter. You might find them in logs or rolls. These are great butters to serve on a cheese platter, where a bit of butter between your bread and the cheese actually improves the flavor of the cheese, or on the table with rolls or sliced bread to accompany a meal.
Flavored butters, or compound butters, can make your cooking easier. Kerrygold sells a garlic herb butter that’s essentially a one-step schmear to garlic bread that is really delicious. I keep black or white truffle butter in my freezer, because the easiest and yet most elegant dinner party side dish is wide pappardelle noodles tossed with truffle butter, lemon zest and chives. Compound butters are easy to make on your own, just mix softened butter with any variety of herbs, spices, fruits or jams, honey, whatever floats your boat. Plugra once had a compound butter contest that I entered… eighty-seven times. I love me some compound butter. My favorite is Stuffing Butter, which I have shared with you before, but with the season upon us, it seems worth reminding you.
Starting to appear more regularly at stores like Whole Foods, this butter made from goat’s milk is a wonderful addition to your repertoire, especially if you have friends or family who are lactose intolerant. It tastes like a mix of mild goat cheese and butter and is a fun ingredient to play with.