Butter Basics

Learn how to navigate all the butters in your supermarket dairy aisle, then find out which applications require the different varieties.

There’s so much butter in the butter aisle. Next to the many brands of salted and unsalted sticks sit local butters in cute tubs, grass-fed butters in logs and blocks, cultured (sometimes called European-style) butters in foil-wrapped bricks, and even goat and olive oil “butters.” What’s the difference? What should you do with each one? There’s no better time to find out than now.

Like all foods with a wide range of costs, price will give you some (but not a complete) indication of how to eat it: Use less expensive butters for common dishes, and more expensive for dishes where the butter is a star.

Regular butters, aka stick butters, are our go-to for basic cooking — sauteing onions, whisking into sauces, making mac and cheese and basic baking. With stick butter, it’s generally better to go with unsalted so you can add your own salt to the dish as you see fit.

Organic butter is made with certified organic milk according to organic standards. These standards specify feed, living conditions and use of medicines and growth agents on dairy cows who make the milk. Organic isn’t necessarily an indicator of flavor.

Cultured butters are made by allowing the cream to ferment slightly before it’s churned into butter; this gets you a tangier, more pronounced cheesy flavor, as well as a slightly higher butterfat content (86 percent versus 80 to 83 percent in noncultured butter) that lends itself very well to pastry production. The more butterfat in butter, the less water, so the crisper and flakier the dough becomes. The density and lack of moisture makes them work well in pie dough, pastry, cookies, cakes and frostings.

Grass-fed butters and local butters can be more nuanced and more flavorful than stick butter, as a grass-fed or pastured (that is, varied) diet for cows ends up affecting the flavor of the milk. These are our favorite butters when flavor counts: compound butter, whisking into butter caramel, brown butter sauce for pasta or fish. Cooking fresh local peas, asparagus. Drawn for lobsters.

Eating butters (not their technical term, but that’s how we think of them) can be any combination of the above: cultured or noncultured, grass-fed or not, local or not (there are some regions of France that are famous for their butter, and they make incredibly delicious butters according to exacting local specifications). But these butters are the ones that are so tasty that it’d be a shame to do anything with them besides eat them (on a slice of bread, on a baked potato, on a spoon if no one’s looking). With these, salted is totally fine — some of these have larger salt crystals that crunch in your mouth, some have a fine dusting of sea salt on top, and some don’t have any salt at all.

Use this butter temperature guide for specific applications:

Frozen (or extra-cold) and grated for delicate, flaky pie doughs

Fridge-temp for sliding under chicken breast skin, and making buttercream

Room-temp to make compound butters, slathering on toast

Melted for making garlic bread, brushing on biscuits, drizzling on corn

Browned for glazing carrots, tossing on spatzle

Next Up

Use Butter Better

Is butter bad for us, or does it just have an image problem?

How to Brown Butter

Brown butter has a golden color and a nutty, toasted flavor, which is the result of the milk solids caramelizing. It's not hard to make, but it can burn easily, so you have to watch it.

What Is Clarified Butter?

Once you start cooking steak in clarified butter you’ll never go back.

What Is the Best Substitute for Shortening?

You probably already have them in your pantry.

What Is Shortening?

When we think shortening it’s Crisco that comes to mind, but it’s just one of several options. Do you know the rest?

What Is Extra Virgin Olive Oil?

Extra virgin olive oil, affectionately known as EVOO, is a pantry staple. Why does it come in smaller bottles and cost more than regular olive oil? It all has to do with how the olives are pressed to extract the oil that goes into the bottles.

How to Cook Dried Beans

Here, a step-by-step guide to cooking dried beans. The good news? Most of the work is hands-off.

Be Smart About Salt

We've all heard that too much sodium can be harmful to our health, but what does that actually mean?

What Is an Air Fryer?

Thinking of picking up one of these countertop workhorses? Here are the basics to acquainting yourself with the air fryer, including the pros and cons of cooking with one.

The 20 Ingredient Substitutions You Need to Memorize

With our advice and tricks, you can stop second-guessing simple ingredient swaps forever.
More from:

Cooking School

Latest Stories

Related Pages