Butter is a kitchen staple nearly all the world over. We bake with it, cook with it, dip in it, and occasionally just slather it across things in all its rich, luxurious glory. We love it (most of us) and often take it for granted. It’s just there—salted or unsalted—in a tub, as a stick, or in little individually wrapped packets.
Not being much of a baker, I never put too much thought into plain butter. Its existence was quite enough for me. That is, until I went to Ireland for the first time.
That was when I discovered the flavorful joy of grass-fed cultured butter. Bright yellow, like the heart of a daisy, imbued with a depth of richness that filled my mouth with pleasure without leaving a slick of oil on my tongue, perfectly salted and utterly glorious, butter became my favorite food in a country whose farm-to-table culinary prowess are nothing to sniff at. In fact, my first bite of farm-churned butter, slathered on a proper scone was enough to convince me that there was, indeed, gold at the end of every rainbow in Ireland—and its name was butter.
I was ruined forever, and upon my return, looked at our pale American brands with disappointment. When Kerrygold hit our local stores in suburban Long Island, New York—albeit years after its initial introduction to the States—I pounced. And apparently, so did many others, as it rightfully took the title of the second-highest selling butter brand in the country. And we woke up as a nation, paving the way for other European and specialty butters to climb to the forefront of American consciousness.
However, is too much of a wonderful thing still just too much? As our supermarket shelves fill up with all types of niche butters now, it's easy to get overwhelmed. If the variety now available is enough to make you go "OMGhee"—no worries! Know which side your bread is buttered with this crash course on the good stuff.
Margarine, Spread, Plant-Based…"Butter"
Taste them side by side and you’ll most definitely believe it's not butter. Actual butter is a semi-solid emulsion made from the fat and protein components of dairy. Milk and cream are actually just molecules of fat suspended in water; agitated enough through say, churning, this butter-milk fat breaks through the membranes that keep the liquid it’s suspended in together, then stick together to create a solid. The leftover liquid is buttermilk, useful and delicious in its own right.
Margarines and their slightly lower-fat sibling, spreads—now remarketed as plant-based butters—are non-dairy and therefore vegan and lactose-free. They've been in wide use since they came out of France in 1869 as a cheaper swap for real butter, using beef tallow in its composition. Today, they're manufactured substitutes made from water and vegetable oils, the quality of which depends on the brand you choose.
Salted or Unsalted?
That depends entirely on what you’re trying to do with it. Unsalted butter gives you complete control over the flavor balance, making it ideal for baking, while salted butter saves you that extra step when spreading it on a nice hunk of freshly-baked, sesame seed-studded Italian bread. Either is usable for cooking as the salt is negligible—it's typically less than 1.7 percent. Just bear in mind that unsalted butter stays fresh for less time (two weeks) while the salted version stays good in the fridge for longer (two months) and is safe for counter keeping.
Sweet Cream Butter
This is a fancy alternate way to refer to grocery store stick butter. Commercially manufactured to be 80 percent butterfat by industry standard, with the remaining 20 percent comprised of water and milk solids, it’s made from pasteurized fresh (aka “sweet”) cream. It can come in salted or unsalted forms, but a common misnomer is to use this term to refer to the unsalted versions, even though all butter not made with sour cream is technically sweet cream. Use this for spreading, for enriching sauces, cooking, and any basic butter needs. All-purpose, practical, and easy to acquire, this is quite literally the solid choice.
Raw Cream Butter
A rare outlier, even in Europe, this is butter made from unpasteurized whole milk, direct from the cow, skimmed by the dairy farmers, and produced laboriously in small batches. The cream may be cultured or uncultured, but this type of butter is not available commercially in the United States. However, if you should ever get your hands on some raw milk (RealMilk.com can direct you), you can try making it yourself in a blender. Just note that it'll only last about ten days before going rancid, unlike conventional butter, which lasts longer due to the pasteurization process that burns off microbes and pathogenic bacteria that contribute to spoiling.
For those looking to reduce some fat and cholesterol in their diets, this is an option that tries to meet the happy medium between butter and its substitutes. This type reduces the amount of milk fat found in its makeup by cutting it with water, skim or buttermilk, gelatin, food starch like tapioca, and other thickeners, emulsifiers, and additives. It’s suitable for topping vegetables with as a flavor enhancer or on baked goods. However, it should not be substituted for regular butter or margarine in frying and baking as the chemical structure may not be up to the task.
The act of whipping denotes that air has been beaten into it, resulting in increased volume and a softer, more cloudlike consistency. It's commonly done with nitrogen gas at the manufacturing site to protect it from oxidation. At room temperature, it’s mousseline and airy, even foamy, and spreads with a nearly unconscious ease. Cold, it's apt to break a bit and dissolve quickly on a warm surface. Although you can’t use it for baking, whipped butter is great for when you want the butter's flavor to accent, not dominate, whatever it’s topping, such as with pancakes, muffins, or fruit-studded breads. It's also a wonderful technique in which to introduce flavors, like cinnamon, honey, herbs, and more.
Unlike light butter, this is still essentially butter at 80 percent fat. However, similar to the light versions, vegetable oil may be added to it in order to keep it softer at colder temperatures since oils don't solidify as easily as milk fat does. This is another type of butter that's designed purely for instant-gratification topping, coming out of the tub easily and smoothly and melting down quickly without necessitating the need to remember to take it out of the fridge in order to use it right away.
This just means that the cows from whence the milk came were not injected with antibiotics or growth hormones and were fed a diet free from toxic pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. This diet could be grains like corn, oats, and wheat, or grasses of various types, but unless it's specified on the product packaging, it's likely a mix in line with what's given to ordinary dairy cows, making it no different in taste, texture, or application from common sweet cream butter. Which is just to say it's a bit more of a conscientious version of the non-organic version.
Let's get into our specialty butters now, starting with homegrown Amish butter. Traditionally slow-churned in small batches at family-owned and operated farms, it’s become more widely available as manufacturers catch on to increasing consumer demand. It's typically identifiable by its oblong, sausage shape—not unlike a roll of polenta—and parchment paper wrapping, and most often sourced out of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio, using milk from pasture-raised cows on those Amish farms. Although it's not technically grass-fed butter, as the diets of these cows are usually supplemented with grains, there is enough natural variation in their diets to impact the taste and feel of the butter, which is far milkier and more complex than what is conventional. However, that can also be attributed to the average additional 5 percent of butterfat that goes into its making, which is enough to step up your game dramatically when it comes to baked goods that are meant to taste butter-rich. Watch your laminated pastries rise like never before with a log of this gold in hand.
They say you are what you eat and that philosophy holds true through the food chain. Grass-fed butter is the variegated golden stuff that haunted my taste buds and changed my outlook on butter forever and its virtues are many. Its taste is deep and rich, its hues at times cheery and mellow and at other times, bold and bright. It melts at lower temperatures than its standard counterpart and tastes—for lack of a better word—more buttery than butter; there's a concentration of flavor in it that makes your taste buds jump a wee bit more. Grass-fed butter is distinctive as a spread, delightful in cooking, and noticeable in baking.
If the word "cultured" in dairy recalls the zippy tang of yogurt, you're on the right track. Conventional mass-produced butter uses fresh sweet cream which is then pasteurized and processed as quickly and efficiently. However, traditional butter was made from cream that was collected over time and allowed to ferment a bit before it was churned. During this souring process, bacteria convert the milk sugars into lactic acid and diacetyl introduces aromas that add a fuller flavor to the cream. It's culturing that goes into products such as creme fraiche, sour cream, and Mexican crema. This process is what gives the cream—and cultured butter—that extra bite that makes the initial impact seem richer, the flavor bigger, and the finish cleaner. Today's cultured butter incorporates lactococcus and leuconostoc bacteria to give it that same effect, and the result is a nutty, full butter that's edgier than grass-fed and more nuanced than sweet cream.
Before cultured butter hit the mainstream, it was often labeled as European-style, due to the fact that it's the more preferred version overseas (for good reason!). But now, just to add to the confusion, it doesn't necessarily have to mean that the butter was cultured. Many butter producers now add this moniker to their label simply to denote that this line has a higher percentage of butterfat than the American standard—upwards of 82 percent versus the ordinary 80 percent designation required to call a product butter. On top of this, certain European-style butters have protected geographical indications, which means not all butters of this designation are created equal. No matter where it's from, though, this butter is fantastic for baking, since—like the Amish butter—its lower moisture content makes it a better leavening agent for flakier results. Splurge for this for viennoiserie or patisserie projects and you'll see the difference.
Devon/Double Cream Butter
This is not often found outside of the United Kingdom, but it's worth mentioning as a treat that's in between butter and clotted cream, which is when cream is heated then left to separate and spoon onto teatime treats. To make butter, at least 36 percent fat is required (the starting range for heavy whipping cream in the United States), but double cream is 48 percent—not quite double, but significantly more, when you consider that half-and-half is already 12 percent milk fat. Should you go abroad and stumble on this, do be generous with it—who knows when you’ll have another opportunity to experience this decadence?
Rather than made with milk cream, this kind of butter is made from whey cream, in which this cheese-making byproduct is separated then churned in much the same "way." This is not a common butter and is distinctive in its lower fat content and cheesier characteristics. For instance, it's saltier, tangier, a bit oilier, and may have traces of casein or cheese culture. It's also cheaper, despite the fact that a thousand pounds of whey will only yield you three pounds of butter. You can find this in Sweden (called mess-smor) and parts of England, where it can be used for topping, baking, and cooking.
You may be familiar with this form of butter for dipping your crab legs in. Or you might recognize it from its Indian and Ayurvedic traditions. However you recognize it, this sight of liquid gold is unmistakable. Essentially, this is solid butter melted down, cooled, and separated by its fat layers, which are skimmed off until the only thing that remains is butterfat in its very purest form. It's lactose-free, toasty, and has a higher smoking point, making it even easier to cook with than if it still had its water and milk protein components. However, due to its intense concentration, it is higher in saturated fat. Discover more about ghee, down to the clarity of the butter itself, and taste its richness.
Another heated butter form, brown butter is simply butter of any kind (other than clarified) that has been melted down and allowed to caramelize and toast. Specifically, when the milk solids start to brown. This becomes an extraordinarily simple, yet extraordinarily delicious sauce with a bevy of uses. Learn how to master this technique here.
The same principles apply for different animal sources, which will all impart their own distinctive flavors. It is thought that the earliest butters were made from sheep's or goat’s milk due to the fact that these livestock species were domesticated before cattle. Yak butter is a specialty of Tibet, and can also be found in Pakistan’s Hunza Valley, where a product called maltash is clarified and aged underground for quite some time. This practice is similar to the production of smen, of Moroccan origin. And in developing nations in Africa and Asia, sour milk is sometimes used in place of cream for a laborious version of the good stuff.
Vaisey-Genser M. Margarine | types and properties. In: Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition. Elsevier; 2003:3704-3709. doi:10.1016/B0-12-227055-X/00738-0