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. Tracey Allen

    This was a highly informative article. I though2 using European butter would be best wherever I bake Madelines, browned butter blondies, and chocolate truffles. I know now I don’t have to buy the expensive atidd to make delicious goodies. The tip about not using salted butter was an eye opener. Thanks again.

    Reply
  2. Trang Kang

    Really great article! Would you have tips on baking with ghee? Several of your articles extensively do comparisons with different fats, but not ghee.
    Would be lovely to find out😃

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We wish we were able to get our hands on some ghee to test with, Trang! It’s 100% fat so we imagine it would behave more similarly to shortening, but with much more flavor. Maybe someday ghee will be more readily available in Vermont, we certainly hope so since its such a well-loved ingredient around the world. Annabelle@KAF

  3. Sarah Kneip

    Thank you so much for these articles and blog posts! I’m an amateur baker with a dream to become a more professional baker in the future. I’ve learned so much for y’all, from technique, to quick-tips, to expanding my baking vernacular overall. I can’t wait to continue upping my baking game with your advice and expertise (and to have my cake and eat it too)!

    Reply
  4. Lynn E

    I so enjoyed this article and wish I had known more about European butters a few weeks ago. I have a big problem. I just purchased 12 (yes – 12) pounds of Land of Lakes European style butter to use for my Christmas cookies. Kroger had it on sale for only $2.00 a pound – reg $6.00. I thought I struck gold and even vacuum packed it. Now I’m afraid to use it. Are there any specific types of cookies that it may work with? It was suggested to use a little less. Should I add some water? Any ideas would be appreciated. So much for that bright idea!

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      Hi Lynn, don’t worry — you did strike gold! You just need to be mindful about how to use it and adjust your expectations for the texture of your cookies slightly. The results of using European-style butter aren’t “bad” by any sense. They’re just different: more cakey, more crumbly, more delicate, and can be a bit greasier. You can try using slightly less of the European-style butter (try using 80-90% of the amount called for in the recipe) and adding additional liquid if the dough seems dry. Another approach to try: if your recipe calls for 2 sticks of butter, use one European and one regular Grade AA butter. You might want to try using it in recipes where the rich flavor will shine through, like sugar cookies or cookies that have a pastry base (like rugelach). Good luck, and have faith that your recipes will turn out deliciously. Kye@KAF

  5. Gina

    When I first moved to the U.S I was never able to replicate my wonderful Choux pastry profiteroles with American butter they would always turn out flat and greasy. I don’t remember which butter I used back then. I will have a look on your website to see if you have a recipe that I can try duplicating for Gateaux St Honore It was always such a show stopper.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Gina, you can try using our recipe for Cream Puffs and Eclairs to top off your St. Honore Gateaux base. It should puff up nicely in the oven, leaving lots of space for filling with tasty cream! Kye@KAF

  6. Kim

    I always use AA unsalted butter for my baking. However once in a while I have had to substitute regular butter. The kick is, the butter I buy comes from the local Amish and is without a doubt, the best butter we have ever had!!! Recently I had been struggling with my pie crusts being inconsistent. It was frustrating! I thought I had lost my “pie mojo”! Not sure if it has to do with the humidity we suffer in Oklahoma in the summer or not. The fix: add a dollop of coconut oil to my pie crust recipe, in which I use only unsalted butter. I do not like hydrogenated fats and never use them. The coconut oil is nearly the same texture as Crisco, and seems to keep the dough from getting glutinous, which is what the problem was. I have my mojo back!!!

    Reply
  7. Hartsky

    What happened to Crisco…it’s half and half and doesn’t make flakey pie crusts any more…Don’t they make real Crisco like I had in the past…

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It’s true that sometimes brands reformulate their products as manufacturers evolve, which happened with Crisco in 2007 when they eliminated trans fats from their products. If you aren’t achieving the same flaky texture you once were with Crisco, you might consider using it in conjunction with another fat like butter, lard, or coconut oil to see how you like the results. Each fat has unique flavors and textural qualities that it imparts, so you may want to do some experimenting and see what combination your taste buds enjoy best. Good luck! Kye@KAF

  8. Bob

    I worked at Walmart for a while after I retired. I could scan an item and find out where it was made. At that time the Great Value butter was made by Cabot. Same butter, cheaper price

    Reply
  9. Nancy Robinson

    I found the blog and comments on the best butter to use in baking most interesting and helpful. However, I have long been wanting to know if when a recipe calls for just butter and doesn’t designate salted or unsalted, whether to assume it is salted butter and adjust the salt in the recipe accordingly when using unsalted butter or vice versa?

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden, post author

      Hi Nancy, if the recipe doesn’t specify, you can assume that the butter should be unsalted. This is quite standard across baking resources, as most bakers are eager to add their own salt and control the final flavor in your baked goods. Kye@KAF

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