Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Butter — which kind to use

Butter1Butter is a wonderful and tasty ingredient although I know it gets a bad rap for health reasons. We use it in all types of baking as well as savory applications. In this Cooking Tip, I would like to discuss whether the type of butter you choose makes a difference to your end result.

One of the main choices you will have to make when purchasing butter is whether to get salted butter or unsalted (sometimes called sweet) butter. Most chefs and food resources will tell you that you should only use unsalted butter in your cooking and baking. These are the reasons:

  • You want to control how much salt goes into your item. Since all salted butters contain different amounts of salt, it is better to go with unsalted butter and then add your own salt as desired.
  • Salt is used as a preservative and extends shelf life. In theory, then, unsalted butter (which has a shorter shelf life) should be fresher.
  • Unsalted butter has a lower water content, something that you want in baked goods. Excess water can interfere with gluten development – a concern for some baked goods. When Cooks Illustrated did side-by-side comparisons of brownies and biscuits made with the same brand of butter – one salted and unsalted – they found that those made with salted butter were a little mushy.
  • Salt can mask butter’s delicate flavor. This is a detriment where butter is the star ingredient such as in buttercream frostings, butter cookies and certain sauces such as beurre blanc.

There are times that salted butter may be preferred. It is great for spreading on bread, adding to your veggies or just when you are not concerned about the amount of salt in your dish. There are also certain recipes that have been developed using salted butter.

Does the brand of butter matter? Perhaps. Cooks Illustrated did a tasting of seven different supermarket brands of unsalted butters. They tasted the butters plain, in pound cake and in sugar cookies. Although there were definite flavor differences, they would not hesitate to recommend any of them for your use. Their ultimate winner was Challenge unsalted butter. I tend to use Land O Lakes. I especially like their half-sticks as I only need to take out a small amount at a time and leave the rest protected in the freezer.

For salted butters, Cooks Illustrated preferred Lurpak, a butter from Denmark. preferred President whereas Epicurious preferred Cabot Natural Creamery butter. I like Kerrygold as well as Kroger’s Private Selection Salted French Butter. So, what do you like? Let me know.

Some butters are termed “cultured”. In the culturing process, the cream is fermented before churning leading to that more complex flavors. This may be great for spreading on your bread but probably not so good for baking.

Another difference you will see is European-style butters (aka premium butters). They are touted for having a higher fat content than regular butters although this difference is small. Many think European-style butters are better for baking but this is a personal preference. Because of their higher fat and lower water content, King Arthur Flour cautions that if “used in a recipe not calling for it specifically, European-style butter can create a greasy, sometimes drier result than grade AA butter.”

People often wonder if they can substitute salted butter for unsalted and vice versa. As always, I strongly recommend going with whatever type is called for in your recipe, especially if it is a baked good. The usual question is if you can use salted butter when unsalted is called for. The answer is a qualified “yes” but be aware that you may want to decrease the other salt in your recipe. Try decreasing the salt by ¼ teaspoon per stick of butter.

If, by chance, your recipe calls for salted butter and all you have is unsalted, you may need to add salt. It can be difficult to know how much to add as brands vary in their salt content. Challenge recommends adding ¼ teaspoon for every stick of Challenge unsalted butter. Other brands do not always tell you what they recommend for their brand but Challenge’s suggestion is a good place to start.

Butter is a perishable food item and, therefore, should be stored properly. Most butter manufacturers recommend storing butter in the refrigerator. The American Butter Institute has a slightly different take. They say you may leave your butter at room temperature but there are cautions. First, since salted butter is less likely to go bad, if you want to leave your butter out, this is the kind to go for. If you have unsalted butter, refrigerate.

The FDA states that “traditional butter and margarine have had a long history of safety without time/temperature control.” (Time/temp control is a recommendation that tells us that foods can be dangerous to eat if not kept at the correct temperature for the correct amount of time.) When they say “traditional” butter, it means butter with at least 80% milk fat. Much more caution must be taken with products with lower fat, higher water and lower salt levels. It also presumes that the product is pasteurized.

Butter will eventually spoil. State Food Safety states “For best quality, keep butter in a covered dish and use it within 10 days. You can also refrigerate or freeze butter to extend its shelf life.” Keep butter in its original wrapping when refrigerated. For longer storage, you can freeze it. An additional wrapping of foil will help to preserve its freshness.

I must admit that I love butter for all sorts of uses. An all-butter pie crust is delicious and flaky. Adding a small pat of butter to your pan sauce gives it a wonderful silky texture and fuller taste. Yes, we may need to watch how much we eat but I could never eliminate it totally. Could you?