Dessert

Is Fancy Butter Actually Better for Baking?

February  1, 2017

When I was learning French I learned about faux amis (“false friends”). A faux ami is a French word that looks and or sounds so much like an English word, that we assume it has the same meaning. New French speakers can get into hilarious, embarrassing—or just confusing—trouble with faux amis.

Ingredients that look alike can be faux amis as well. French- or European-style butter is considered the highest quality; it contains a bit more fat, thus less water than what we Americans call “regular” butter and often made from cultured cream, which may make it taste divine. Home bakers, intent on using the best ingredients, may assume swapping “better” butter for regular butter will produce better baking results. That’s not necessarily true.

Suddenly your best cookie, already excellent with regular butter, either doesn’t hold its shape and tastes and feels greasy. Or it turns out dense and solid and doesn’t have the right crumb. A piecrust may be crispier, but less flakey. The extra fat in the European-style butter is the obvious culprit, but the decrease in water also means there is less steam to produce the expected crumb or flake. Even the texture of a super rich and forgiving brownie can be adversely affected by more fat and less water! And a butter cake has a carefully balanced ratio of fat to liquid to solids—fiddling with the ratio can make a denser cake. This is all to say that American- and European-style butters are different animals, and not as interchangeable in baking as we expect them to be.

Keep your European-style butter away from these! Photo by Bobbi Lin, Posie Harwood

Meanwhile, in random testing over many years, I’ve found the flavor of great European-style butter often gets lost in baking. I tested my brioche and shortbread recipes—both loaded with butter— using European-style butter. Neither was improved in taste or texture. This led my baking partner to suggest the addition of yogurt to the brioche, and that’s how we got the flavor of cultured butter into the finished bread.

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The verdict: European-style butter isn’t always better. If you want to really enjoy its flavor, try eating it as is, perhaps on a piece of toast.

Tell us: Do you use European-style butter? Have you had success with it in baked goods?

Alice Medrich is a Berkeley, California-based pastry chef, chocolatier, and cookbook author. You can read more about what she's up to here.

21 Comments

Soozll February 6, 2017
I don't care for European butter; it tastes sort of like cheese to me. It too tangy to me and that flavor isn't what I want coming through in some baked goods..like shortbread. I don't care for yogurt either, so....
 
Aimee T. February 2, 2017
European butter is fantastic in frosting and laminated dough. So I save it for where the butter really matters, and use regular store butter in cakes, cookies, etc.
 
Chef S. February 1, 2017
European butter is mainly preferred for laminating doughs. The extra fat in the butter stops the butter from baking so easily in the dough during the many rolls and turns needed to properly laminate dough. I find that US butter works perfectly for pretty much every other dessert/pastry that I produce. I splurge when it is time to make croissants or puff pastry but keep it US for everything else.
 
foofaraw February 1, 2017
If I use European butter, but with less weight and add more water in the batter/dough to compensate for less water, would I have same texture on the end result but with added flavor from the cultured cream?
 
Rachel P. February 1, 2017
I find this really interesting, because for the whole year I lived in Los Angeles (rather in the UK or in France) I spent more and purchased Irish, and sometimes French butter because I can't stand American butter, and to me it tastes fatty and greasy. I know that is just me, but what interests me is because I can't stand it, I've always used European-style butter in my baking, regardless if I'm using an American recipe I know was written with American butter in America, Britain or France. And I've never had any problems, or pondered why my bakes turned out differently or did not work (because they never have!)<br /><br />Has anyone else here simply not had a problem using European butter in American baking?
 
Jane R. February 2, 2017
I haven't.
 
ChefJune February 1, 2017
I differentiate between "eating butter" and "baking butter." I use both but I don't bake with the European (not just style but imported such as Kerrygold and Beurre d'Isigny).
 
Fredrik B. February 1, 2017
I've always wondered: If you live in europe, and just buy regular butter, is it automatically european-style butter?
 
Kt4 February 1, 2017
Very good question! I'd like to know that answer too
 
Martin B. February 1, 2017
No. There's a whole range of butters, salted and unsalted. I agree with AM. The only real benefit of using the higher fat 'European-style' (it's all European over here) butter, is in laminated doughs. There making slabs with the unsalted 82-84% fat butter really pays off, producing flakier, better defined croissants etc. than the soggy affairs made with lesser fat or salted butter (or, even worse, margarine).
 
VeganWithaYoYo February 1, 2017
Nancy, I think Sydney meant that she used butter instead of Crisco in a recipe that calls for Crisco, and the cookies came out worse because of it. Confused me for a minute too!
 
Kt4 February 1, 2017
Very good question! I'd like to know that answer too
 
Kt4 February 1, 2017
Whoops! Went under the wrong comment
 
Nancy D. February 1, 2017
Sydney Eff, how is Crisco, however it's flavored, possibly a "cleaner option"? Forgive me if I missed humor in your post.
 
Smaug February 1, 2017
This whole thing is a little confusing, but modern Crisco does have less than half of the saturated fats of butter.
 
Donna H. February 1, 2017
Yes, it does, but it's hydrogenated, which is changing the chemical structure. It's actually a very bad fat for you. Butter is natural and better for you, in reasonable quantities, olive oil even better, coconut oil, moderately better. Avoid Crisco and margarine and canola oil based products. All hydrogenated and sometimes hexane is used. Chemicals all.
 
Kt4 February 1, 2017
Sydney said she "swapped out Crisco for butter"... that means she replaced Crisco with butter... she usually uses Crisco but wanted to eat healthier so used butter instead, and was very disappointed with the result. :)
 
Smaug February 1, 2017
Crisco contains some hydrogenated palm oil, but is lower in saturated fats and cholesterol, has more polyunsaturates and monounsaturates. It's not health food, but all in all it's better for you than butter. Not to be an alarmist, but everything is made of chemicals.
 
ChefJune February 1, 2017
<everything is made of chemicals> ??? I think not, smaug. Butter is - well, BUTTER! no chemicals.
 
Smaug February 1, 2017
EVERYTHING IS MADE OF CHEMICALS. You are made of chemicals. Your front lawn is made of chemicals. The better classes of butter are usually fairly free of additives, anato coloring (a naturally occurring chemical). The unsalted Challenge, all I have in my fridge at the moment, lists "natural flavors"- probably not including arsenic, but they didn't say so. As for the diet of the cattle that it comes from, the list is a bit longer and more fearsome.
 
Sydney E. February 1, 2017
I recently swapped out Butter Flavor Crisco for Kerrygold butter in chocolate chip cookies (that's Crisco's Ultimate Chocolate Chip cookies, don't knock 'em 'til you try 'em!) and I regretted it. A lot. They were sweeter and not as chewy. So much for trying out a cleaner option!