What Is Butter?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Close up of butter

The Spruce 

Butter is a fat made by churning the cream of milk, most often from cows. India, the European Union, the United States, and New Zealand are the top butter producers. Due to its rich, creamy mouthfeel and sublime flavor, which no other product can come close to matching, butter is by far the preferred fat to use for many cooking applications, including everything from sauce making to baking or even just spreading on bread.

Fast Facts

  • Fat: 12 grams per tablespoon; 80 percent
  • Melting Point: 98.6F
  • Smoke Point: 350 F
  • Storage: Room temperature, refrigerator, or freezer
  • Shelf Life: 1 to 3 months refrigerated; up to 1 year frozen

Butter vs. Margarine

Margarine is a common alternative to butter, primarily when it comes to improving cholesterol levels. It is a processed product made from vegetable oil (often labeled "vegetable oil spread"). Where butter has a high saturated fat content, non-hydrogenated margarine includes more monosaturated fats (the "good" type). The taste is close, though there is a noticeable richness in butter. The important consideration is how they work when cooking. Butter offers a richer flavor and its fat adds to the texture of baked goods. Margarine will create flatter cookies, less flavor, and tends to break down when frying.

Varieties

The typical butter is unsalted and in the category of sweet cream butter. You will also find salted butter, which has a small amount of salt added as a preservative. Clarified butter and ghee are the pure, golden butterfat from which the milk solids and water have been removed. It can be heated up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit before it starts to smoke and is preferred for making a roux. European butter can have as much as 86 percent fat. It is more flavorful, contains less water, and is better for making flaky pie dough or puff pastry. Europe also has more cultured (or sour) butter, which is lightly fermented to give it a tangy flavor.

Butter Uses

When heated, butter develops a magnificent nutty flavor as the milk solids (proteins and sugars) caramelize. When butter is used as a cooking medium, such as for sautéeing vegetables, it complements and enhances the flavors to the food. It also adds complexity to the flavor of sauces. In baked goods, it contributes to the flavor and texture.

Butter can be prepared in many ways. It's commonly used by the tablespoon and sliced from a stick of butter, baked goods use a whole or part of a stick, and it can be melted for dips, frying, sautéing, and other uses. You can also make whipped butter or flavored butter to create an interesting spread for toast, pancakes, and other bread items.

How to Cook With Butter

Butter has the lowest smoke point of any form of fat, at around 350 degrees Fahrenheit. When cooking at temperatures above that, use a combination of butter and some other oil, like canola or safflower. Butter will melt at 98.6 degrees, the same temperature inside your mouth.

Take butter out of the fridge at least 30 minutes before use so it softens. When baking, use unsalted butter because salt toughens the gluten in the flour and any extra salt can throw off the recipe. When preparing pastry and pie crusts, butter can make the dough slightly more difficult to work with because it's harder than shortening. Shortening doesn't have any flavor, so bakers may use a combination of the two.

What Does It Taste Like?

Butter has a flavor all it's own. Generally, butter is soft, creamy, and rich, with just a hint of sweetness, which is why the word "buttery" is often used to describe other foods.

Butter Substitute

There are many possible butter substitutes. Which you use will depend on the recipe and your personal preference. Oils can be used instead of butter for frying and sautéing. Coconut oil is a popular alternative for many things. You can also use margarine and the various dairy-free butter options available.

Vegetable shortening is a common substitute for butter in baked goods. Shortening is pure fat, though. If you substitute one for the other, keep in mind that shortening has 20 percent more fat by weight, while butter brings additional water to the mixture, which could affect how the recipe turns out. Applesauce, avocado, banana, and yogurt are baking options as well.

Butter Recipes

A lot of people say that butter makes everything taste better. There's some truth to that because it's used in almost every type of recipe you can think of. Bread, cookies, cake, sauce, ice cream, and even beverages use butter. It works equally well in meat, seafood, and vegetable dishes, too.

Where to Buy Butter

Butter is sold in grocery stores, supermarkets, and specialty food stores. Online retailers are good places to find gourmet, specialty, and international butter. You will spend more on real butter and higher-quality or organic butter than you would margarine, but it's generally inexpensive. Butter's most often sold in 1-pound boxes that contain four 1/2-cup sticks. Larger quantities are available as well. Spreadable butter is available in tubs; it generally contains canola oil to make it easier to spread. In most cases, buy unsalted or "sweet" butter. The extra salt in salted butter can throw off a recipe and you can add it if needed.

Storage

Butter hardens when it gets cold, which leads to the debate about whether to refrigerate it or not. The USDA recommends storing unsalted and whipped butter in the refrigerator. Salted butter's preservatives make it fine to store at room temperature for about one week. However, you can also keep unsalted butter in an opaque butter dish outside of the refrigerator for about a week without any ill effects.

Butter can be frozen in the original package and a resealable freezer bag. The USDA says it will keep for up to a year. Use it within a month once thawed. If the butter has a flavor or smell that seems off or is discolored, it should be discarded.

Nutrition and Benefits

Butter is a fat, so it's not surprising that it contains 12 grams of fat per tablespoon. About 7 grams of that is saturated and 3 grams are monosaturated. Salted butter can have around 91 milligrams of salt. Butter does provide vitamins A, D, E, B12, and K2, as well as a trace amount of calcium. However, this is not a significant portion of a daily diet, especially when it's eaten in moderation, which is recommended for overall health.