Butter: What and When?

Since the beginning of my cookie baking career in 5th grade, I’ve always had questions about butter. What happens to my cookies if I melt the butter? What is brown butter and why is it awesome? Why are there so many types of butter, and what’s the big deal about this fancy European brick butter? The list goes on, and I’m still working on getting to the bottom of many questions. As the holidays draw nearer, I thought I’d help demystify the enigmatic fat that is ~butter~. I talked (virtually) with some of the butter and baking experts of the what’s what of butter. Read on to the one of several posts that will help you make better choices in butter.

First: what is butter?
Butter is churned milk or cream, usually from a cow. The first part of churning separates the skim milk from the buttercream. In the churning process of the buttercream, the butter fat and buttermilk are separated. Have you ever shaken a jar of heavy cream until it gets chunky, with thinner liquid running through the lumps? That’s exactly that – the butterfat, sometimes called popcorn butter, and the buttermilk (sold in cartons just like milk). The buttermilk is separated from the butterfat, and more churning yields regular velvety-textured butter.

How is European butter different from American butter?
Regulations in America require butter to have a butterfat percentage of 80% or more. Land o’ Lakes butter is almost 81% butterfat. European butter tends to have closer to 85% butterfat. This means less water in your butter. A good way to see this is when you brown half a cup of American butter, and half a cup of European butter, you’ll come out with a higher volume of butter with the European butter, because the water in the butter evaporates in the browning process. European cows also tend to eat better than American cows, and are often fed grass instead of mysterious corn feed.

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This is a 1 lb block of butter from Plugra

What is cultured butter?
Cultured butter is not fully synonymous with European butter. European butter is usually cultured, but cultured butter is not always European. Culturing the butter doesn’t make for a higher fat content. For example, Organic Valley sells a cultured butter, and aΒ  European-style cultured butter. The cultured butter has a butterfat content of 80% (thank you, Twitter) and their European-style cultured butter has a butterfat content of 84%. According to Cook’s Illustrated, cultured butter is “made more slowly, with cream that’s allowed to ripen for a few days to develop flavor and then inoculated with bacterial cultures before churning.” The bacteria release lactic acid, giving this butter a deeper flavor that some describe as tangy.

Okay, so that’s all great…but which butter does one choose when baking? And is that butter different if baking cookies or pie crust or croissants or ???

Salted vs. Unsalted
First of all, I’ll start by saying that unless I’m in a pickle, I use unsalted butter for baking. Not that I measure every ingredient to the last granule, but it helps keep your salt amounts accurate. Not all salted butter is treated equally; brands don’t have the same salt-to-butter proportions.

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USA vs. Europe
Who’s butter’s better? Consider King Arthur Flour’s shortbread experiment described in their article “Butter for Baking: Which Kind Should You Use?” where they use European butter and American butter for the same recipe. The shortbread with the European butter came out both drier and greasier than the American butter shortbread. Not ideal for cookies. However, these attributes may be just what you need for your buttery, flaky pie crusts and croissants. That being said, with the extra butterfat goes the extra water, which would help pastries rise in the oven during evaporation. The choice ultimately comes down to several factors, and your personal choice. Maybe you’d rather sacrifice some (potentially minor) height for a flakier pain au chocolat.

Cultured vs. Uncultured
My answer to this is simple: since cultured butter costs more, use regular, uncultured butter. The extra money is not worth the extra flavor you probably won’t enjoy anyway. I asked Kye Ameden, author of the King Arthur Flour article from above, why in the article she said cultured butter isn’t the best for baking:

“[W]hile 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.”

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I did a quick cookie test with a simple recipe (no chocolate chips/solid objects) to see if these claims could be proven. In one batch, I used Cabot AA unsalted butter, and in a second batch I used Plugra unsalted butter. My hypothesis going in was that the first batch would come out higher due to the higher water content of the American butter, and the Plugra flatter, and greasier. However, just the opposite happened.

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I wasn’t all too scientific with this experiment. There are many variables that could have been altered unintentionally. For example, the butter may have been beaten more the second time around. This is a good example of all the little things that can make a difference in your cookies. When seeking consistent results, be vigilant and have patience.

Take these truths bestowed upon you to forge head in this holiday season, and bake your friends’ sorrows away. And stay tuned for the next installments of Butter!

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5 thoughts on “Butter: What and When?

  1. Loved reading this.
    Would you use American, uncultured butter for buttercream too? I see a lot of American cake recipes use buttercream and I personally hate making buttercream because I always just taste the butter (which I love, but more on a fresh piece of bread, not on a cake). I do bake with European butter though, because I haven’t been able to get any American to try. So maybe it’s the same as with cookies and how the taste comes through?

    Or maybe I just need to test different recipes…who knows.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Alice! Great point…I imagine the particulars in taste of the butter would come through more so in a buttercream than a cookie, since there’s fewer ingredients/factors to alter the original butter taste. I would actually consider a European butter for buttercream, depending on how “tangy” it was. Lots of different brands taste and act differently (in my experience, Plugra vs Kerrygold). But the European butter may provide a nice velvety texture to the frosting that an American butter wouldn’t have. It’s all personal taste, really…let me know if you get your hands on some American butter!

      Like

  2. Sorry that I’m replying so late! Thanks for the advice. You know I never thought of different brands acting differently.. I mean it makes sense, but it just didn’t occur to me. I see lots of buttercream in my future, haha, but I really want to find a combo that works.

    Liked by 1 person

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