Cake

Amanda Hesser Uses Land O'Lakes Butter—Should You?

September 24, 2015

When is expensive butter worth the price, and when can you trim the fat?

I expect to pay high prices at the grocery store for pine nuts, imported tomatoes, and almonds, but butter always makes me do a double-take. It's not like Parmesan (which I might be able to skip over for breadcrumbs—who knew!)—there's just no good, cheap substitute when I'm testing a cake.

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Sometimes I suck it up and pay over $6 per pound—the most expensive item on my receipt—but I usually hightail it over to Trader Joe's, where it's $3.99. (Editor Lindsay-Jean does the same.)

Curious to see what I was missing, I headed to Fairway Market to check out the incredibly large butter selection. Here's how the butter stacked up, most to least expensive per pound:

By law, all butter in the U.S. is made up of at least 80% butterfat. Some high-end, high-price European style butters can have up to 87% butterfat.(According to a study by SFGate in 2000, for example, Président, mentioned above, is 82.57% butterfat; Plugra is 82.35%), but bottom line: All are 80% are above. So if all products meet the minimum requirement, why spend an additional $3 for a couple percentage points of butterfat?

At The City Bakery in New York City, they use two different types of butter depending on the food: Croissants, danish, and other viennoiseries are made with 83% butterfat butter, whereas muffins, scones, and most cookies are made with butter with a slightly lower fat percentage. But what about for home bakers? 

According to chef and C.E.O. Maury Rubin, it's worth it to for all bakers (not just professionals) to use higher butterfat butter—as long as you're not baking in mass quantity for the neighborhood. High butterfat butter generally has a more pronounced flavor, plus a lower moisture content; using butter that's 17% water—as opposed to 13%—will give you unpredictable textural results. 

It's especially important in baked goods like croissants and pie crusts, where the butter determines texture and taste. (David Lebovitz claims, for example, that using European-style butter in this Brown Butter Tart Crust makes it less likely to crack.)   

But should you rush out to buy the highest butterfat butter for your next batch of scones? Not so fast. Rubin points out that just as it might be silly to buy an $8 chocolate bar and melt it into cookies, it's not in your best interest to use Gucci butter where it's not going to shine—don't waste your star Q.B. in an early-season scrimmage. 

And not everyone—not even the bakers I trust most—use even fancy-ish butter all the time.

  • Erin McDowell, pie expert extraordinaire, keeps the common brands of unsalted butter on hand: "I go through SO MUCH BUTTER and it's really expensive. In Ireland, butter (good butter, at that) was so inexpensive we couldn't believe it and I practically made a galette everyday. It's 90% of why we want to expat ourselves and live in Ireland forever."

  • Merrill Stubbs uses Plugrá on corn and toast, but bakes with unsalted Organic Valley. For a special baked good or a dinner party, she'll use cultured butter for more depth of flavor.

  • Amanda Hesser? She uses salted Land O'Lakes (only 80.93% butterfat) and "Plugrá when I want to splurge. My allegiance to L.O.L. is a bit like my devotion to Crest toothpaste—I don't know why, exactly, but I grew up with it and I trust it. It's never let me down."

And while butter with a low-butterfat, high-moisture ratio might create unpredictable baked goods, using fancy butter where it's not intended can have similarly disappointing results. 

  • Alice Medrich warns against the perils of putting fancy butter where it does not belong: "I use regular butter from the grocery store for most baked things (as that is what readers will use). If you use French or Irish butter you may need to alter recipes, since recipes are normally NOT tested with low moisture or fancy butter." In Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts, she points out that baking with high-fat, low-moisture European-style butter "may adversely affect your results: for example, cookies may spread too much on a baking sheet and seem greasy." She recommends saving the special butter for your morning toast.

But what should I do with the really cheap stuff I've been stockpiling in the freezer?

Make cupcakes, says Rubin. In desserts where sugar (and frosting) dominate, butter becomes less important. For this cake fan, that's as satisying an answer as I need.

What brand of butter do you buy? Would you consider switching if the price increased? Tell us in the comments!

66 Comments

jnparnell March 7, 2016
Where are the Challenge fans? LOVE Challenge! Super high quality - never let me down. It's over a century old and all products are hormone-free and no artificial ingredients or additives. Love their regular, European and Cream Cheese products!
 
Jennifer P. March 1, 2016
I love Kate's, and oddly enough can get it for the same price as LOL by my house in update, NY. It costs a fortune in NYC. And when Kate's isn't available, I'm with Amanda—LOL all the way (that's what my auntie has used for decades, and her cookies are always the BEST).
 
Sharyn G. November 6, 2015
I love unsalted butter from grassfed cows for all things. If it's local, even better!
 
Tara November 6, 2015
Living in New England, I either use Kate's of Maine butter from a family farm about half an hour away from me. http://www.kateshomemadebutter.com/<br />When I'm in a pinch, I shake some organic cream with some sea salt in a ball jar. Boom. Fresh butter, and buttermilk. Save the buttermilk, rinse the butter off a few times. Done. Why spend a ton of money on something so easy?
 
D. L. November 6, 2015
Living on the West Coast I use Tillamook from Oregon. It works well in all my baking and is a local company.
 
Ruthan November 6, 2015
Another LoL devotee here. I like salted Kerrygold as a spread, but am meh on unsalted. I have been totally unimpressed with Plugra, President, and most other "fancy" butters. <br /><br />Probably my favorite (at least sometimes) is Cornucopia Cheese & Special Foods European Style. I have no idea where one gets it, other than my favorite local bakery, and it's kind of a seasonal product, because it's best when the cows have been on grass. It's tasty year round though.
 
sadenis November 6, 2015
I try to use butter made from pasture-raised and humanely treated cows if I can. And butter from Europe is always like that since, until recently, they hadn't even considered feeding their cows corn. By buying from companies that are doing good, we let the other companies know they need to improve. I will have to try some of those European brands mentioned. Mmm. I have made my own with local cream and it was so good.
 
Shannon G. November 6, 2015
I appreciate the difference between butters on moisture content and baking, but I veer away from industrial butters like LOL. The milk used is from poorly treated and poorly fed animals stuffed with rGBH and other nasties. I second the motion on Kate's of Maine, widely available in grocery stores in New England (although I've seen it in New Mexico so it gets around). Minerva, harder to find and in two pound blocks, is also great.
 
Linda C. November 6, 2015
You've never made frosting with Kerrygold or Plugra? Oh my! It's to die for! I buy the imported when it's on sale and stock up. Just smelling Kerrygold makes me want to eat a whole stick!
 
Melinda W. October 11, 2015
For most baking, I use regular salted butter from Costco and it has always served me well. If I can't get to Costco, I use whatever is on sale or a supermarket house brand. It is usually just as good as the name brands, but less expensive. For pie crusts or for spreading on toast, I like Kerrygold.
 
Marni P. October 11, 2015
I'm a small business owner and because I don't produce in sufficient volume, for now, I buy ingredients at retail prices. President and Elle et Vire are $10CAD + per pound here, but I can't see using a cheaper brand for pie crusts and brioche. It creates a problem with bread where I sell my baked goods, because bread here is not really culturally important (I live and work in the Dominican Republic) and already, people wouldn't expect to pay what it costs ME to bake a brioche, never mind the retail mark up. It's definitely a conundrum...
 
Annie September 28, 2015
Oh, yes, missed that , thanks. happy to see that brand mentioned though all the others are excellent, also
 
Annie September 27, 2015
Sadly, I did not see mentioned one brand, that is Kate’s butter from Maine. Maybe it is only found in the Northeast. But it gets rave reviews from my friends when they taste it, The unsalted is excellent for pastries, and considering I have made my own puff pastry for croissants, I feel confident in it. Supporting “local” farmers is very satisfying, too.
 
HalfPint September 28, 2015
It was mentioned below.
 
Printz September 27, 2015
I go for LOL salted 95% of the time, and I'll indulge in one of the imported butters if I'm having guests. I totally boycott the whole organic game and the Amish- oh geeze- where does one start with them? This Costco's seems to have quite a devoted following though- might have to give them a try when I do my holiday baklava.
 
Angel September 27, 2015
When I went online to LOL butter site the amount of asterisk ingredients were ridiculous. I will never use LOL butter.
 
Anna D. September 27, 2015
I was curious after I read this, so I checked the website. The only ingredients listed were sweet cream and salt. Not sure what you mean.
 
Angel September 27, 2015
LandOLakes.com<br />I looked under products for light butter with canola oil.
 
Anna D. September 27, 2015
I see. The author here was writing only about regular butter.
 
GAIL P. September 27, 2015
I use Amish Butter,from the Amish store we have here. I KNOW it's GOOD.
 
amysarah September 27, 2015
I forgot all about that! A local store sells 2 lb logs of Minerva Amish Butter - so good, and the price isn't bad either (compared to European butters.) I need to pick some up. https://www.minervadairy.com/images/RollButter.pdf
 
Mary A. September 27, 2015
Kerry lists all its ingredient(s): Pasteurized cream. Even Costco butter doesn't do that. it lists something they don't explain. I can't remember it exactly to write here --but we've all read it many times.<br />On the package you also find: Milk made from grass-fed cows, not treated with growth hormones. And another place: No significance shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST nontreated cows. I take that to mean they can't really brag about the fact they don't used hormone-treated milk.
 
Althea T. September 27, 2015
I am loathe to admit it, while I prefer LOL butter I will buy whatever is on sale. They seem to get the job done for baking. I do love Kerrygold and Plugra however, I'd rather eat it than bake with it. Just so yummy on toast, popcorn and corn on the cob.
 
Alexandra K. September 27, 2015
Land O' lakes, much like Tyson chicken has had horrible abuse of their animals brought to light, so no I will not use their crappy butter.
 
Jen September 27, 2015
I think Breakstones is a little overpriced at Fairway. I've seen it more in the 5 dollar range at other NY grocery stores. Can you comment though on the animal management of the grocery store classic brands like L.O.L. and Breakstones?