With such a variety of small-batch artisan butters, national & store brand butters, and European cultured butters available on the market, both in the U.S. and abroad, how do you know if one is “better” than another?
And does it really make a difference if you bake with unsalted butter or salted butter?
In short, what is the best butter to use for baking?
The answer is actually simple:
Use the highest quality, freshest butter you can get, and use unsalted butter when you bake.
Granted, you do indeed want some salt in your baked goods. The salt will bring everything together so to speak, balancing and enhancing the flavor of the end product.
But you, the reigning duchess or duke of your home kitchen, want to control the amount of salt so it’s best to start with a blank slate and add it yourself.
Commercial producers add salt as a preservative. That salt extends the shelf life of the salted butter and it will last 4-5 months. Unsalted will only last 2-3 months in comparison.
Add to that, salt can mask other flavors. It may not be readily noticeable to you but if your butter has sat in the fridge or freezer for months on end, chances are it has taken on the smell of the stew you made and stored, the brick of fresh Parmesan you’ve got tucked away, or the sliced onions you’ve been meaning to use.
Don’t buy and store butter for months on end. Bake with the freshest butter available – always!
Now imagine this scenario: You wake up one morning with a burning desire to bake cookies and, lo and behold, you only have salted butter on hand?
Oh, for the love of Pete. Nothing seems to go as planned sometimes, right?
Hey, it happens.
Don’t let it ruin your day. All hell is not about to break loose – just use the salted butter but just remember to omit the added salt called for in the recipe.
Ok, so you know unsalted is the best butter to use for baking. Now how do you decide which brand of butter to buy?
These should be your determining factors:
- What you plan on baking
- What brands are available to you (which is determined, in large part, by where you live and where you shop)
- What you can reasonably afford
Butter is a solid fat made from cow’s milk and it’s made up of butterfat, water, and milk solids, otherwise known as curds. The higher the butterfat content, the richer and more flavorful your dough will be. In some baked goods the butter is the shining star so a higher butterfat content will make a significant difference.
Additionally, butterfat produces tenderness whereas water is actually a binding agent which can toughen up your dough if used in excess.
Here in the United States, the USDA regulates the amount of butterfat that’s required in butter and the minimum amount is 80%. European butters, on the other hand, contain anywhere from 83% – 86% butterfat so they contain less water.
Less water = more butterfat = more flavor
If I bake banana bread, cookies, or brownies, although the butter is an important ingredient, it’s not the predominant flavor. In this case it’s perfectly OK to use a good-quality national or store brand butter.
However, when I make shortbread cookies, a pie crust, or a brioche, I want the butter to be the most celebrated flavor. This is the time to splurge. I would definitely use a butter with a high butterfat content, whether it be an expensive European butter or an organic artisan butter from a good creamery.
The easiest way to determine what butter you like is to slather some on a bagel, toast, or a crusty baguette, and see how you like it. Find a few brands you like, that are readily available to you, and stick with them for most of your baking.
I often fantasize of living in a place where I can wake up early and walk to the local creamery to buy fresh-made butter, winking at Betsy the cow out in the pasture, knowing her and I have a special bond.
However, cows gave way to cement buildings and replanted palm trees a long time ago in my area and I don’t live anywhere near a dairy farm. I’ve never even been on a true farm and the closest I’ve ever come to milking a cow is sitting 8 feet away from my flat screen watching a re-run of I Love Lucy.
So my reality is that I buy my butter at the supermarket. I prefer Land O’ Lakes, Kerrygold, and Plugra (a European style butter produced in the U.S.), but there are also 2 or 3 store brands I really like as well. For the most part I stick with them, the Land O’ Lakes, and the Kerrygold.
I have a special affinity for European cultured butters that will never wane, but I save them for spreading on my favorite bagels or for topping a fluffy baked potato. And, I usually am not willing to share.
So what is the best butter to use for baking? In my humble opinion, it’s the freshest, highest quality, unsalted butter that you can afford to buy.