Thanks to TikTok, lingering early-pandemic baking trends, and the keto dietification of American culture, there’s never been a better time to be butter. The high-fat dairy all-star has come a long way since it was vilified in the ’90s: You can hardly turn anywhere now without seeing it nestled next to hunks of crusty sourdough, smeared on cutting boards, or thrown into mixing bowls for creaming. Butter is back. And hopefully it’s here to stay.
The resurgence of butter — and its simultaneously softened ;) public image — means there are more options for butter lovers than ever before. On the refrigerated shelves of the average grocery store, American consumers can now take their pick of cultured, compound, and European butters, all sporting an array of butterfat percentages and price tags, the latter ranging from the fairly affordable to the “damn, that’s expensive.” Small-batch creameries are making butter with tradition in mind, while big dairy companies are expanding past plain stick butter to cultured and European-style options.
Whether you’re hoping to construct one of your own butter boards to display on TikTok, you want to know the difference between cultured and compound, or you’re just trying to mix up a batch of chocolate chip cookies, it seems like you have to have a Ph.B. to know how to buy butter these days. So let’s get started with the basics.
So, what is butter?
In its simplest form, butter is the result of churned cream, most commonly sourced from cow’s milk (though butter is also made from the milk of other mammals, including goats, sheep, and yak). “Cows convert grass into this really beautiful, fat-and-protein-rich product that we get to turn into butter,” says Jonathan Russell, the head churner and production manager at Banner Butter in Atlanta. “Butter is really an ancient product that brings in the best of the land and the terroir.”
When the cream is churned, butterfat is separated from buttermilk, which is then worked to the desired consistency — either with salt added or not — then sold in the semisolid form you recognize at the grocery store. While industrial practices have little in common with the way butter was made pre-industrialization, the standard ingredients should stay the same: “The ingredient label on butter is sweet cream and salt,” says Heather Anfang, senior vice president of U.S. dairy foods at Land O’Lakes. “It’s such a simple product.”
Is cultured butter different from regular butter?
Yes. Culturing butter is the process of adding bacteria to the cream and letting it ferment. The practice is as old as butter itself — long before refrigeration was invented, culturing was a way to ensure that butter not eaten that day would keep for longer. (Now, the refrigerated supply chain and salt do the preservation part for us.)
At Vermont Creamery the culturing process takes 20 hours, while at Banner Butter it can last up to 36. “That’s how we found the sweet point that uses the culture we are using, that gives us the flavors we desire,” explains Russell. “You can let that go to the very extreme end — you’d get some truly funky butter — for up to a week.” Cooling down the tanks where the butter is being cultured stops the process, he adds: “Once we get there, we pump what is now essentially creme fraiche into the churn and we start churning it.”
Besides having a tangy, nutty taste, cultured butter is also creamier and richer than uncultured butter, and has a higher butterfat percentage. Cultured butter is much more common in Europe, though not all European butter is cultured.
Why is it sometimes called sweet cream butter?
If you buy butter labeled “sweet cream,” that doesn’t mean your butter is going to taste sugary. The term is what dairy producers use to distinguish their butter from those made from cultured (or soured) cream. Sweet cream butter will have a straightforward buttery taste, one that’s less flavorful or tangy than a cultured butter.
What’s the difference between American butter and European-style butter?
Over the past decade, you may have seen European butter brands — like Kerrygold from Ireland, Lurpak from Denmark, and Beurre d’Isigny from France — start to populate your grocery store shelves. It used to be that European butters were an insider secret among pro bakers because butter in Europe has a higher butterfat content, which in turn makes baked goods richer and tastier. In America, butter contains a minimum of 80 percent butterfat, whereas in Europe butter starts at 82 percent.
The proliferation of cultured and higher-butterfat butters on American store shelves “started with all the imported butter — the French butter or the Irish butters,” says Vermont Creamery president Adeline Druart. The domestic success of brands like Kerrygold inspired more American brands to experiment with higher butterfat content. As a result, “what has happened over the past decade is that American domestically made butters have upped their game,” says Druart. After decades of butter denunciation, Americans are demanding richer butters, too.
Where does ghee fit into this?
Ghee is a type of cultured clarified butter where water has been cooked off and the pure fat from the butter remains. Ghee is made by “simmering butter, and then clarifying it over heat to separate out the milk solids and water,” Rituparna Roy wrote for Eater. “The process yields a pale yellow or amber liquid that transforms into a smooth spread once it cools and solidifies.” For many cooks, ghee is a wonderfully rich and flavorful option to use in place of canola or vegetable oils, as it has a remarkably high smoke point as well as a deep flavor that you can’t always get from other cooking fats. It also has the benefit of being lactose-free (since the milk solids are strained off in the process of making it), so it may be a good choice for people with lactose intolerance. There are numerous ways you can use ghee for both cooking and baking, though it tends to be more expensive than regular stick butter due to the amount of milk that goes into making a small jar. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense to use it in a pumpkin muffin recipe — try it for a roast chicken or parathas, or wherever butter flavor is able to really come through.
What should I be looking for when I read the ingredients on a pack of butter?
The ingredient list shouldn’t contain more than cream, salt, and cultures, unless you’re buying a compound butter like ramp or cinnamon. You may find unsalted butters on grocery store shelves, however, that note the addition of “natural flavorings” or annatto on their ingredients list. Often, diacetyl, a flavor compound that occurs naturally in fermented cream and lends a buttery flavor, is added to unsalted butter as a preservative — salted butter doesn’t call for it since salt functions as a shelf stabilizer. In a Cook’s Illustrated taste test, diacetyl-enhanced butter wasn’t much bigger on flavor than butters that weren’t enhanced with the compound. So if you’re looking for a pure, tangy butter flavor, go for a cultured butter and skip the butters with natural flavorings added. If you’re seeing annatto on your ingredients list, it’s used as a natural dye to boost the butter’s yellow hue.
Why is some butter more yellow than others?
“The color of our butter changes throughout the year because our cows are at different points throughout the cycle. The flavor profile changes slightly. We like that; we think that is actually what it’s supposed to be,” says Banner Butter’s Russell. Depending on what a cow is eating and when, the butter can change from a very pale white to a deep golden yellow. Kerrygold butter is said to be so yellow because of the Irish grass, which is rich in beta-carotene.
What’s all this about a butter shortage?
In September, the Wall Street Journal reported on a forthcoming butter shortage and cost increase for the grocery store staple, motivated by several intersecting factors (including but not limited to climate change, consumer demand for high-fat products, labor shortages, the war in Ukraine, you name it). The thing to know is that while bigger companies like Land O’Lakes say they will have the inventory to meet demand, the price of butter might be more expensive than you’re used to. If you’re planning to do a lot of holiday baking, check out your local restaurant supply store to buy in bulk and freeze.
With ever more butter options to supply your baking and cooking projects, here’s a shopping guide to help you find the best butter for every need.
What to spread on toast (or a butter board)
Domestically, there are a good number of small-batch butter-makers that produce butter that is cultured, is made from the milk of grass-fed cows, and is higher in butterfat than commodity brands. At the grocery store, you’ll often find small-batch butter brands in the specialty cheese case rather than in refrigerated storage alongside the milk and eggs. That’s where brands like Banner Butter, Maine’s Casco Bay Creamery, or Vermont’s Ploughgate Creamery are sold — along with, if you’re lucky, a few imported small-batch butters and butter made from cows in your state. If you see Beurre Bordier — a French butter that boasts 84 percent butterfat and comes in several compound flavors, including yuzu and Espelette pepper — be sure to snag it. It’s made in Brittany with the 19th-century malaxage technique, which uses a wooden wheel to knead the butter.
Why would you want to specifically buy an artisan-made, high-butterfat, cultured, or compound butter for a butter board — and not just throw any old stick of butter on there? Because if the objective of a butter board is to really show off the ingredient, you’ll want a butter whose flavor is in the foreground. “It’s like winemaking. You can blend cherry with vanilla to the grape juice and have a flavor, or you can age your wine in old barrels for a very long time,” says Vermont Creamery’s Druart. A long maturation brings out flavors in the cream; the result, Druart says, “is a very rich flavor profile that has hazelnut tones, that has cooked bread [flavors]. You put this butter in your mouth — it’s like, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t know butter can taste that good.’”
For all-purpose baking and cooking
“Your base stick butter that’s been out there forever is the most versatile of products, right?” says Land O’Lakes’ Anfang. “You can freeze it. You can leave it out so it softens. You could just do anything with it. A lot of the innovation stems from [that foundation], so it’s either a different packaging, a different fat level, a different flavor.”
For that reason, you can’t go wrong with a classic stick butter when you’re baking and cooking. Just make sure you’re looking at the label for additives and try to buy organic, if you can. (One reason people go for butters from outside the U.S. is there are stricter laws surrounding hormones in dairy cows.) Things to pay attention to when buying stick butter are whether you want salted or unsalted butter and whether you want the flavor of the butter to be present in the foreground or the background.
Many professional chefs and bakers will recommend using unsalted butter no matter what you’re making, so that you have better control over seasoning and since the salt content varies among salted butters. But occasionally you’ll hear from bakers that using salted butter adds a little extra to your baked goods — just make sure to adjust the recipe’s salt content according to your tastes. (It’s common in Europe to find butter that is semi-salted, too, which is an innovation America could use more of.) When you’re making pastries, pie doughs, cakes, muffins, and biscuits, butter with a higher butterfat content will serve you well, making any baked good richer and tastier.
A great European-style butter for baking
Despite the sound of its name — “plus gras” translates to “more fat” in French — Plugra is actually a European-style butter made by the Dairy Farmers of America. It has an 82 percent butterfat content and, by extension, falls more in line with actual European butters, such as Lurpak or Kerrygold. Plugra is often the choice of American pro bakers because of its light color; darker butters like Kerrygold can lend a stronger yellow color to baked goods. That said, Kerrygold is also a great choice for baking and cooking, though it’s truly excellent by itself on bread.
The choice for ghee
If you have the time and wherewithal, you can make your own ghee at home. If you decide to, the most important thing you can do is pick high-quality cream and curd to inoculate it with — whatever you choose will end up in the ghee’s final flavor. Not sure you have two days to make ghee? Pure Indian Foods ghee is made with milk from grass-fed cows and its only ingredient is organic milk.
Cultured butter goes well with everything because of its naturally rich and tangy flavor. Brands like Vermont Creamery (whose butter is all cultured) are readily available in most grocery stores, and even bigger brands are getting into the cultured butter game. The depth of flavor in cultured butter makes it excellent for baked goods — think buttermilk biscuits and flaky pie dough — and its high smoke point means that it’s a good option for cooking. Note, however, that when you cook with cultured butter you may lose some of its special rich flavor. That’s why cultured butter really excels in baking — it can add a buttermilk-style tanginess to desserts and baked goods.
Nicole Miles is an illustrator from the Bahamas living in West Yorkshire, U.K.