Butter for Baking: Which Kind Should You Use?


Our magazine, Sift, is filled with stunning photography and delicious recipes. But it’s also a great educational resource for bakers. From time to time, we pick out a reader’s question from Sift to feature here in our blog — like this one from our Spring issue:

Q: It seems to me the dairy aisle is getting more complicated by the day. When your recipes call for butter, what kind do you mean? European? Cultured? Whipped? Salted? Does it make any difference? – Cis Campbell, Denver, CO

In today’s world of ever-increasing choices, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when choosing a seemingly simple ingredient like butter. The grocery store shelves are crowded with different brands and varieties, yet most recipes call for simply “butter.” Choosing butter for baking can quickly become a conundrum.

If you ask any of our test kitchen bakers, they’ll tell you that baking is all about specificity: how much and what kind of ingredients you use determine the texture, flavor, and appearance of your baked goods. So what do we mean, exactly, when our recipes call for “butter”?

At King Arthur Flour, we use grade AA unsalted butter for baking

That means it’s 18% water, at least 80% butterfat, and 1% to 2% milk solids.

Why grade AA? It’s the most buttery in flavor of all three grades: AA, A, and B. It has a light, fresh flavor and smooth texture — a perfect butter for baking and using at the table.

Our recipes are developed using this type of butter, so if you’d like to replicate the same delicious results at home, we recommend using grade AA unsalted butter, too.

We use 1-pound blocks of Cabot butter in the test kitchen, but you can use whatever brand your local grocery store stocks. There’s a myriad of butter possibilities that await in the supermarket.

Take a peek at the labels next time you’re browsing the dairy aisle. You might be surprised at all the tempting varieties you come across when trying to choose the best butter for baking.

European-style

European-style butters have less water and are higher in fat, ranging from 82% to 86% butterfat. If used in a recipe not calling for it specifically, European-style butter can create a greasy, sometimes drier result than grade AA butter.

We decided to bake up two batches of our shortbread recipe using grade AA and a European-style butter to see if there was any difference in how “leaky” they were.

Butter for Baking via @kingarthurflour

Both shortbreads were left to sit on craft paper for two hours after coming out of the oven. The size of the grease stains says it all — the higher fat content of the European-style butter caused a greasier, sandier texture in the end.

Don’t write off European-style butter just yet, though. Some pastry chefs swear by it for making croissants. They think it makes their laminated dough more workable at colder temperatures, and also makes a richer pastry.

But there are also those who argue that just a little bit more water in butter can be a good thing. Water turns into steam in the oven, which helps create lovely layers in croissants, and a flaky texture in scones and biscuits.

We wondered if the water content would create a visible difference in the texture of scones. To find out, we baked our scones two ways, one version with European-style butter and one with grade AA.

Butter for Baking via @kingarthurflour

The European-style scone had more of a cakey texture, while the grade AA scone had that classic craggy, layered look. It also rose nicely, where the European-style scone looked slightly sad and slumped.

Butter for Baking via @kingarthurflour

If you ask me, I’d say save the European-style butter for spreading on a slice of chewy baguette at the table to really experience its velvety consistency.

Or if you’re determined to bake with this luxurious ingredient, try using slightly less of it (start with 3/4 of the amount called for), and chilling your dough before baking.

Whipped

Next up is whipped butter, another kind that’s more suited to being used at the table rather than in your baking.

Whipped butter is designed to be more spreadable, so it’s aerated with a special type of gas. It also contains additives like stabilizers or vegetable oil to keep it from oxidizing or going bad.

These qualities make it tricky to bake with, because 1/2 cup of whipped butter weighs notably less than a 1/2 cup of grade AA butter.

Butter for Baking via @kingarthurflour

Even though it looks full, the half-cup measure on the left didn’t quite weigh a full 4 ounces. Just another great example of why baking with a scale is important for accurate results — if I had just scooped out the butter and added it to my recipe without weighing, I would have been 1/8 oz. short.

You’d need to use about 2X as much whipped butter to equal the amount of grade AA butter, and there’s no guarantee that the texture or flavor would be the same. So best to save whipped butter for spreading on your toast and biscuits.

Cultured

Speaking of flavor, cultured butter is my favorite when it comes to taste. It’s slightly tangier than traditional butter and has a super creamy mouth-feel. Sounds romantic, right?

Well, here’s the science: Cultured butter is inoculated with live bacteria that release lactic acid, creating its zippy taste.

Butter for Baking via @kingarthurflour

There are many companies that make cultured butter — Organic Valley and Vermont Creamery are often found in my fridge. (Vermont Creamery even sells its cultured butter in a cute little basket, adding to the appeal!)

Although cultured butter is undoubtedly delicious, it’s not the best butter for baking. Instead, slather it onto warm baked goods as they come out of the oven. You’ll be thanking the bacteria for all the delicious work they do!

Salted

My love for salt dominates almost all other flavor cravings at times. But when choosing butter for baking, I always use unsalted, and we recommend you do, too.

Salt acts as a preservative and masks any potentially funky flavors, so salted butter often sits on grocery store shelves longer than unsalted does. To ensure you’re using fresh butter, choose unsalted.

Another plus: you’re able to control the amount of salt in your baked goods when you bake with unsalted butter. You determine the ultimate flavor. Using unsalted butter is a win-win.

Hint: If you’re like me and love a salty kick in your sweet treats, increase the salt just a bit by heaping your measuring spoons rather than leveling them off.

Butter for Baking via @kingarthurflour

But if you find yourself stranded in a kitchen with only salted butter, it’ll work in a pinch. Most brands add about 1/4 teaspoon salt per 1/2 cup stick, so adjust your recipe accordingly.

Let’s return to Cis in Colorado and the initial butter quandary. Does the kind of butter make any difference in baking?

A: It definitely makes a difference! All butter is not created equal when it comes to baking.

Butter for Baking via @kingarthurflour

As we like to say in my family, “There are no bad options.” Butter is one of the creamiest, most delicious ingredients out there, and by using butter in baking you’re already on the right track.

You’ll likely experience differences in the flavor and texture of your baked goods if you use something other than grade AA unsalted butter, but you’re welcome to do a bit of experimenting until you find your favorite butter for baking.

Beyond butter

Now some of you might already be thinking beyond butter — what about margarine? Or shortening? Check out our blog post on Cookie chemistry to see what effect these ingredients can have on your baked goods. (There’s even a part two for those of you that really want to delve into the subject.)

What about using coconut oil? Or even vegan butter? We’ve got you covered there, too. Check out my fellow blogger Alyssa’s post, Substituting fats in gluten-free baking. Even if you’re a gluten lover, you can learn something.

Let’s do something with all this butter knowledge and bake! What are your favorite buttery recipes to bake? Please share them in the comments below.

Thanks to photographer Nic Doak for taking the pictures in this butter-filled blog; and to Sift editor Susan Reid for talking butter with me as often as I asked.

Kye Ameden
About

Kye Ameden grew up in Fairlee, Vermont and has always had a love of food, farms, and family. After graduating from St. Lawrence University, she became an employee-owner at King Arthur Flour and is a proud member of the Digital Marketing Team.

comments

  1. Modeane Collins

    what about using lard and what adjustment do I need to make when subbing for butter or shortening? I’m talking about my home rendered lard, not store bought.
    thanks

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      Hi Modeane, lard is 100% fat, whereas butter has some liquid and milk solids in it as well. This means that your baked goods might be slightly more dry and possibly a bit more tender/crumbly if you replace the butter 1-for-1 with lard. You might be interested to read this article on using different fats and liquids in biscuits, which has a full section about lard. It tends to work best in savory recipes, and you might consider using slightly less lard than the recipe calls for and also adding a few tablespoons of butter. We hope that helps! Kye@KAF

  2. Barbara Whitehead

    The hint about salted butter staying on the shelf longer I find amusing. Probably because I live in the South, in any case the salted butter sells much faster than unsalted. If the ‘good stuff’ goes on sale, the shelf for salted butter will be empty quickly while the unsalted supply lags far behind. Literally everyone uses salted butter (and everything else I think).

    Reply
  3. Sophie

    Oh man, this makes so much sense. I used Kerrygold butter to make my signature nutella cupcakes, a recipe I’ve made and even sold a million times and it turned out dry. I thought premium butter would translate into premium taste. It did smell wonderful while mixing. Then I realised the last time I used President butter it also made my cake rather dry. Now, I know to reserve it for eating.

    I wonder, would adding more milk to the recipe help to offset the dryness?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Sophie, it sounds like a light bulb went off for you! Baking conundrum solved. You’re more than welcome to try adding a bit of additional milk next time to see if that makes your cakes more moist, but we think you’ll find that surprisingly, using Grade AA butter is key here. If you do any comparisons, we hope you let us know which version you prefer. Kye@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We love home-made butter, Miyoko! We just wouldn’t recommend it for baking since you’d have little way of judging the actual water vs. fat content. Plus, it’s so delicious that we’d prefer to reserve it for use when the flavor can really be savored, as on toast. Mollie@KAF

  4. Carole

    I always use regular AA butter with good results, but lately results are poor for both baked items and savory ones. It almost seems as though the butter is made with oil. Baked goods are flat, some other items are swimming in oily liquid. A neighbor has noticed the same thing, and we’re wondering what the manufacturer could be doing to change the butter. I started with all fresh ingredients, but I am really disappointed.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re surprised to hear that, Carole. You might consider trying a different brand to see if it’s a problem you’re experiencing with just one particular kind of butter. Using an organic butter might also ensure you get the fresh, creamy taste you’re looking for. Also be sure to check the best by dates on the package to ensure the butter is fresh! Kye@KAF

  5. Monica

    I have discovered recently that “more expensive” doesn’t necessarily mean “better” when it comes to butter. I found this out the hard way while melting butter in my microwave. Every time I tried to melt Hotel Bar butter or Breakstone butter (both among the more expensive brands), they would spatter all over the microwave, while this did not happen with the store brand (Shop Rite). Lo and behold! The Shop Rite butter is clearly marked with the Grade AA shield, while the other two expensive brands are not. The only A A butters in my super market are Land O’ Lakes and the store’s own brand! Obviously the non-AA brands have considerably more water in them. Sam’s Club’s own brand of butter is also Grade AA, so I’ve been using Shop Rite and Sam’s for all my baking unless there’s a great sale on Land O’ Lakes, and they all work equally well, and taste good too. I only keep a couple of sticks of butter in the fridge at a time and store the rest in the freezer-usually three or four pounds worth. I NEVER want to run out of butter. Too much baking to do!

    Reply
  6. Janice

    What is the difference baking with butter, shortening and butter shortening? Have friend says not to use butter. She says cookies doesn’t rise with butter.

    Reply
  7. Mitchell

    I used kerrygold unsalted butter in my cheese straw recipe. It made them flat! If I cut back and use less than the whole brick would it work??

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Mitchell, you can try cutting back on the amount of butter you use to make the dough, but your cheese straws will inevitably be less flaky with this kind of butter (European-style). The small amount of water that’s in Grade AA butter helps make the layers in pastries like these. You might want to save your Kerrygold for toast and get some butter for baking! Kye@KAF

  8. JoAnn

    I tried European butter in my xmas butter cookies. I did not like the flavor at all. I thought it would be better since it was more expensive. I am sticking to land o lakes from now on !!!!

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      Carmen, while cultured butter is delicious, it tends to have a unique flavor that’s not always welcome in all recipes. Consider your favorite pumpkin bread or chocolate chip cookies; the zippy tangy might seem out of place. It also tends to be more expensive than Grade AA butter, so we like to save it for putting on top of baked goods when we’ll be sure to enjoy the flavor to the fullest. Kye@KAF

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