Varieties of Butter and Their Uses
Butter is that magical substance made from cream (usually from a cow). We use it at all temperatures: melted it is a sauce, at room temperature it is a spread, and cold it goes into pastry. Technically, butter is a water-in-oil emulsion where the milk proteins serve as the emulsifiers between the water and fat molecules. There are many different varieties of butter, so let’s take a look at the differences in and uses of each.
Unsalted Butter (Sweet Butter)
Unsalted butter, sometimes referred to as sweet butter, is just regular butter with no salt added. It’s best for baking so that you don’t exceed the amount of salt called for in the recipe.
Salt adds flavor to butter, so salted butter is best for spreading and seasoning (for example, on vegetables). Salted butter will last longer than unsalted butter since the salt acts as a preservative. This is one of the most popular varieties of butter.
Whipped butter is regular butter with air whipped in. It is easier to spread than regular butter. It is not good for recipes since the volume is different. You can purchase it salted and unsalted, but we recommend salted since whipped butter is primarily for spreading.
Making cultured butter is similar to making yogurt or sour cream, where after pasteurization, the cream has live cultures added so it can ferment. Cultured butter will have a tangy, acidic taste and a creamy texture. You can use cultured butter like regular butter, but it will affect the flavor of the final product.
American (or for our purposes, “regular”) butter has about 80% milkfat, and European butter has about 85% milkfat (and therefore less moisture). Slow churning and culturing gives it a creamier texture. It’s also more expensive than regular butter. Use European butter when baking buttery desserts or in sauces when you want them to be extra rich.
Raw butter is made from unpasteurized cream. Some people believe raw butter is superior since the heat of pasteurization can alter the nutrients in the butter. Consuming unpasteurized dairy products does come with the risk of consuming pathogens. Raw butter tends to be expensive. Do not cook with raw butter. The cooking temperature will destroy any preserved nutrients, so it’s a waste of money.
Compound Butter (Flavored Butter)
Flavored butter is just butter with flavorings such as chives, garlic, herbs, spices, etc. added. Use it to top steak, vegetables, breads, and other foods that pair well with extra seasoning. This is a variety of butter you can customize and make yourself at home.
Organic butter is made from certified organic cream, meaning the cows are not exposed to pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, etc. Cows that produce organic cream are also pasture fed, which can drastically change the flavor of the product. Some people believe the organic product is healthier.
Also referred to as “reduced fat butter,” light butter can be used as a lighter spread than regular butter. Don’t bake with light butter since it has more air, a lower fat content, and a higher moisture content.
Butter blends aim to provide the flavor of butter with the (possible) health benefits of other fats (like vegetable oil), and the convenience of being spreadable straight out of the refrigerator. These should only be used for spreading, as the blend of different fats can drastically change the texture and flavor of baked goods.
This product is not truly butter at all, as it contains no animal products. Rather, it uses a blend of vegetable-based oils (like coconut, almond, palm, avocado, olive, etc.) to make a product that has a similar taste and texture to butter but is a variety compatible with vegetarian, vegan, and dairy-free lifestyles. You can use it in baking, but usually with different results than butter.
Goat butter is like regular butter but made with goat’s milk instead of cow’s milk. The flavor is different, and many people who have trouble with lactose intolerance can digest goat’s milk (and goat butter) without trouble. You can use goat butter just like regular butter, but it will produce a different flavor profile.
Real Amish butter (as opposed to a manufacturer’s butter that is only marketed as Amish) is made from Amish family-owned cows, hand-churned with no mechanized equipment, rolled, stored in parchment, and sold in 1 or 2 lb logs. Use Amish butter like regular butter for rich, delicious results.
Smen butter is a fermented butter originally from the Middle East. The makers of smen heavily salt it to preserve it without refrigeration. The fermentation process gives this butter a strong, cheesy flavor. It’s especially delicious in Moroccan, Middle Eastern, and North African dishes. Of all these varieties of butter, this one can be the hardest to find. We recommend ordering it online or looking at a Middle Eastern Market.
To make ghee (clarified butter), heat, separate, and remove the milk solids. The clarification process also reduces the moisture. Ghee has a paste-like consistency and has a higher heat tolerance than regular butter. Use ghee for frying or sautéing.
Gently heat butter to toast the milk solids. This will give you browned butter, which has a nutty, toasty flavor. It’s great for deepening the flavors of a variety of dishes.
We have a few butter bonus tips for you: To soften butter quickly for a recipe, grate it on a cheese grater or a butter blade. Another idea is to heat a glass bowl with boiling water, then place the butter under the bowl for a couple of minutes. Yet another idea is to smash your butter between pieces of waxed paper with a rolling pin. For butter you want to serve at room temperature, we recommend a butter bell, which keeps the butter spreadable and pest-free. You have lots of options when it comes to varieties of butter, so have fun trying them all and experimenting with what type you prefer for different applications!