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There are words that simply make me smile. Butter is one of those words. Whoever accidentally agitated cream that first time has my undying love and admiration. But all butters are NOT the same, and a basic understanding of the main styles and their best uses can prove highly useful in your cooking life.

There are two basic categories of butter: cultured and sweet cream. And a third, the "new kid on the block", is European style.

Listen to Allrecipes "Homemade" podcast to hear about Dorie Greenspan's refrigerator full of butter and more!

Sweet Cream

This is in all probability the butter you grew up with. Who among us is not familiar with the Land O Lakes box? This style is made by taking fresh cream and churning it until the whey separates and you’re left with a very clean, straightforward tasting butter. It’s referred to as “sweet,” not because it’s sugary — but because it’s not fermented. This butter is perfect for sautéing, baking, buttered toast, and glazing vegetables. Many cooks, myself included, prefer unsalted butter because, that way, we control the salt level. But sweet cream butter is also available salted. Just be aware that there is no industry standard here, so different brands have different salt levels.

butter pats on a butter dish

Cultured

Cultured butter is made by letting cream ferment (a little or a lot) before churning. The fermenting can occur by letting the cream sit out for a time, or by the introduction of cultures that stimulate fermentation. This style of butter also comes both salted and unsalted. Your first taste will come as a bit of a surprise and, I hope, a revelation.The flavor is tangy and a bit sour. Some cultured butters that ferment longer even move into the “cheese-like” realm. I love the assertiveness of cultured butter, and find myself using it in all of the ways I use sweet butter. 

It’s also good to know that the whey left after churning the fermented cream is TRUE buttermilk. Try it sometime when you have access. If all you know is  grocery store buttermilk, you’re in for a real treat. And your baking will thank you as well.

European Style

European style butter has long been the butter of choice across the Atlantic. And it is rapidly gaining a place in the American kitchen as well. It is a very lightly cultured, high-fat butter with a lower water content. The taste is luxurious because of the higher fat content, and just a tiny bit “strong” from the culturing. It can be used in any of the ways the other styles are used, but it really comes into its own in baking. The high-fat/low-water characteristics help to create baked goods that are flakier, and that rise higher. Plus, you’ll be pleasantly shocked at the deep caramel and hazelnut flavors that occur when you use it to make browned butter. Of course, its decadent flavor and “mouthfeel” will work wonders when simply melted over vegetables, or spread on toast.

All styles of butter are delicious and can be worthwhile members of your kitchen. Just be sure you know what each of these styles brings to the party and your cooking and baking will take a giant step up!