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Is Fancy Butter Actually Better for Baking?

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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.

Can You Swap Salted and Unsalted Butter in Baking?
Can You Swap Salted and Unsalted Butter in Baking?

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! Photos 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.

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.

Tags: Bake, Ingredients