All the Types of Butter, Explained

Some of my favorite memories of eating involve butter. On top of pancakes or frozen waffles, as a roux for the first time I made macaroni and cheese, or whipped into frosting for cupcakes. But there are so many types of butter out there these days that it can be hard to know what to use for what. I know to use unsalted for baking so I can control the salt levels, but still reach for salted butter for morning toast. But what’s the difference between sweet butter and cultured butter? Is European butter just fancier, or will it actually improve everything I put it on, like liquid gold? And do I have to make my own clarified butter, or can I just buy ghee?

Thankfully, most of those questions are answered in Dorie Greenspan’s new Short Stack book, Butter. The world-renowned baker and James Beard-award-winning cookbook author published her 13th book about her favorite ingredient for sweet and savory dishes (from a French chocolate tart to super-buttery potatoes), and we’re sharing her explanation of the different types of butter and how to use them below. Use this knowledge to make buttered breadcrumbs for Sausage, Squash, and Cornbread Gratin, bake your first Apple Pandowdy, or make a buttery sauce for pasta. We know that butter makes everything better.

Salted & Sweet Butter

Butter comes either salted or sweet (also called unsalted). Although all salted butter contains some amount of salt (salt used to be added as a preservative, but today it’s added primarily for flavor), some salted butters are noticeably salty. The problem is the word “some.” Since the
amount of salt can vary from butter to butter, it’s best to use unsalted butter in the kitchen and add as much salt as you’d like to each dish
. If you prefer salted butter, use it—just remember to adjust the salt in each dish.

Cultured Butter

With this kind of butter, the cream is treated with cultures (like yogurt), allowed to ferment and then churned. The
result is a fuller flavor with noticeable acidity
. It’s easier to find cultured American butters these days, but, as with salted butters, not all cultured butters are the same. My favorite, made by Vermont Creamery, has tang and produces a different (and wonderful) sensation on your tongue due to its very high butterfat content. I rarely use this butter in cooking, but I do like it in baking.

Photo by Alex Lau, styling by Sean Dooley

The only way to make our favorite chocolate chip cookies better is by using browned cultured butter.

European Butter

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