From Cultured to Clarified, We Break Down 12 Types of Butter

A butter field guide.

March 13, 2023
Photo by Julia Gartland

A favorite Julia Child quote: "If you're afraid of butter, use cream."

In her heyday—Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961—a lot of people were afraid of butter. When margarine was invented in the late 1800s, it was made with, of all things, beef fat. But by Child's time, margarine was made with vegetable oils. And that was its claim to fame: Animal fats are "bad" (because they contain cholesterol). Vegetable fats are "good" (because they don't). Easy-peasy. End of story.

Or, not. Today, we know it's (a lot) more complicated. Margarine's once-adored plant-based oils, it turns out, are hydrogenated and often chockfull of trans fats. And butter is being patted on the back for being vitamin-rich. (Oh, how the pendulum swings!) This is all to iterate what Julia tried to tell us years ago: We don't need to be afraid.

Except now, we're afraid of picking the wrong type. Saying butter in a recipe is a lot like saying flour (as in, totally unclear). They both have defaults—respectively, unsalted and all-purpose—but the supermarkets and farmer's markets are overflowing with this type and that type and what if you substituted one for another? Would the world implode if you use salted instead? What's difference between American and European? Or between clarified butter and ghee?

Fear not! We're about to clear up all that and more.

Every Type of Butter, Explained

1. Unsalted

Today's default butter, made from pasteurized cream from cows. Ideally, the only ingredient will be "sweet cream," but "natural flavoring" often tags along. Rely on this buddy for all baking and some sautéing. It begins to brown at 250°F and burn soon after. (For some context: Peanut oil's smoke point is 450°F.)

2. Sweet Cream

A cuter way of saying unsalted.

3. Salted

The original default butter. Pre-refrigeration, salt was added not for flavor, but as a preservative. Today, it's optional. The amount of salt varies by brand—hence why baking recipes often encourage you to avoid it, for the sake of consistency—but figure a scant ¼ teaspoon per 4 ounces of butter (1 stick). I keep salted butter in a dish on my kitchen counter for breezy toast-slathering.

4. Cultured

Another original default butter. When butter was handmade on outdoor farms—not in temperature-controlled factories—in the time that it took the cream to rise and separate, lactic acid bacteria began to ferment the dairy, imparting a sour tang. Like salting, this step is now optional. But it's a beautiful, funky flavor boost. Since the standard in the States is uncultured, labels draw your attention to the detail. But in Europe, where it's more common, you'll have to check more carefully. (For instance, Kerrygold's package reads "pure Irish butter" and "milk from grass-fed cows" on the front. "Cultured" only appears in the ingredients.)

5. European-Style

That said, "European" doesn't refer to culturing—it refers to the fat content. In the U.S., butter must have a fat content of at least 80 percent. In Europe, the minimum is higher: at least 82, and up to 86, percent. This is oh-so-welcome in butter-forward recipes, like pound cake, puff pastry, or brioche. A few percentage points difference in fat content can noticeably affect the chemistry of a recipe. If you're adapting a recipe from an American- to European-style butter, do a trial run first (read: not at that holiday dinner you've planning for weeks).

6. Compound

Essentially, flavored butter. In old-school steak houses, this might mean a slowly melting, herby medallion atop a ribeye. But if you DIY, the sky's the limit. Use plastic wrap to shape into small logs and freeze; slice whenever your steak (or pasta or rice or broccoli) wants a pick-me-up.

7. Whipped

The name says it all: whipped, while nitrogen gas or air is added. What it doesn't say is that this turns into up to 60 percent of the final volume. Translation: 1 cup unsalted butter weighs 8 ounces; 1 cup whipped butter, depending on the brand, will likely weigh less than 6 ounces. Which means you're paying for air. If you prefer the texture for toast, whip away. But don't cook or bake with this.

8. Drawn

Some people say this is synonymous with clarified. Others say it's synonymous with melted. Either way, you'll usually find it hanging out in tiny, plastic cups at seafood shacks, for lobster claw dunking and the like.

9. Clarified

Butter, sans water and milk solids—wait, except, isn't butter pretty much just fat, water, and milk solids? Ding, ding! Which means clarified butter is pure fat. This extends its shelf life and increases its smoke point to over 400°F. It's a must for classic French hollandaise. Or just a handy trick for extra-buttery popcorn (start the kernels in clarified butter, then add more clarified butter at the end). Caveat: It becomes grainy when chilled, so this is a cooker, not a spreader. And because its other components are gone with the wind, it is not baking-friendly, either. I like Marion Cunningham's method from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook: Melt butter in a big glass measuring cup in a warm oven. Strain the clear liquid on top through a cheesecloth.

10. Ghee

Not quite the same as clarified, though many assume it is. Ghee is a type of clarified butter—so, same longer shelf life and higher smoke point. It originated in India and is integral to the country's cuisine. To make ghee, you start out the same as clarified butter—by melting—but take it farther, so the milk solids start to brown, then strain. This creates a rich, nutty flavor.

11. Brown

The French know this as beurre noisette, or hazelnut butter. Not because it contains any hazelnuts, but because it smells like them. The process here is similar to ghee—melt butter until the milk solids fall to the bottom of the pan, then begin to toast—but instead of straining, you keep them around for all their flavor. Just be mindful of timing, since butter goes from brown to burnt in an eye-blink. Keep a cool, heatproof vessel nearby to pour the butter into to halt the cooking.

12. Butter

I would be remiss to not mention my favorite kind of butter—my cat, Butter! Sweet, sometimes salty, depending on the day. You can't turn her into pound cake or spread her on toast, but she sure is cute!

Butter, the cat: not available in supermarkets. Photo by Emma Laperruque

Note: If you feel like we could talk about this forever—and we could!—check out Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova. It covers all this and so much more.

Our Best Buttery Recipes

What type(s) of butter do you always have on hand—what's your favorite way to show them off? Discuss in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Tiffany Rooprai
    Tiffany Rooprai
  • Smaug
  • Mary Brammall
    Mary Brammall
  • Sadie Kendall
    Sadie Kendall
  • chimera
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Tiffany R. March 17, 2023
I am a butter maniac, and I invoke my father’s words “Allergic to Margarine” quite often. At any one time I have about 10 kilos of French butter in my deep freeze for making pastry; at least two pounds of unsalted Tillamook and another two of salted in the fridge or on the counter; and miscellaneous blocks of Plugra, Kerry Gold, or cultured butter in the fridge. I also buy the Amish butter roll and any other butter that catches my eye or is on sale. I bake way too often for someone who doesn’t like to eat baked goods. But I work in Construction and my efforts never goes to waste.

I should note that I am from America’s Dairyland and that likely has something to do with my infatuation.
Smaug March 14, 2023
I really can't see overindulgence in butter as an act of courage.
Mary B. March 13, 2023
Kerry Gold...rarely use anything else since marrying a Manx man. He likes his slathered! Standard US butter is "greasy and anemic- looking". The cat is a big fan, too.
What a change from cooking for my first husband who was lactose intolerant and could only tolerate margarine without any mention of dairy.
I appreciate the descriptions of all the varied types of butter. Many of my UK or Manx recipes have moved back to the US with me and call for all sorts of different varieties...just like all the different types of sugar available and used across the Pond. Now I know what they are calling for. Thank you so much!
Sadie K. March 13, 2023
Organic Valley used to make a very good cultured butter. Good flavor, but, about a year ago, they stopped making it. I have asked them why, but did not get an answer. I can make a great cultured butter from Kendall Farms Creme Fraiche using my KitchenAid whip, but, I do not have the time.
chimera January 28, 2018
I knew I loved butter and then my friend em-i-lis introduced me to Delitia buffalo milk butter. Holy moly. Whole ‘nother level - i spread it on some homemade bread and almost passed out. It’s a tiny bit funky and so creamy - if you love butter and haven’t tried it, you should!!
miriamnz January 23, 2018
Your butter is very pale! In New Zealand our butter is a lovely yellow. (81-82% butterfat.)
Smaug March 14, 2023
The yellow is likely from annatto, a common additive.
patz March 18, 2023
No you are incorrect. We never use any additives just pure NZ cream.
Starting with a mixture of sun,soil and water, to give us NZ grass. This is what cows eat most of the year thanks to our temperate climate. The grass contains the essential nutrition for the cows helping them to produce quality milk. The grass contains beta-carotene which gives it that golden colour. By comparison butter from cows mainly fed on grains as in the USA have a pale and whitish appearance. I have been to the US and noticed the colour but it tasted fine to me.
BerryBaby January 23, 2018
Always have salted and unsalted in fridge and freezer. For baking I use salted butter. This goes back to the old Betty Crocker and Better Homes & Gardens cookbook‘s of the 70s. The recipes call for butter and butter back then was salted. I’ve never had an issue with things being too salty. I suppose it’s just a matter of what you want to use and what you enjoy. Usually the unsalted butter is used on the table with warm bread.
judy March 25, 2023
Yep. I prefer salted butter for baking as well. The salt slightly boosts the flavor of the butter, at least in my mind. And makes the baked product taste better. I reduce overall salt addition to the recipe by about 25% to compensate.
merkri January 23, 2018
As a note, the "natural flavoring" is often just lactic acid, which acts a preservative, and is a major component of why cultured butter is cultured (for example, https://www.reddit.com/r/AskCulinary/comments/26q208/natural_flavoring_in_unsalted_butter/).
amysarah January 23, 2018
Ghee may just be a type of clarified butter, but I use it frequently/ interchangeably for any dish where I'd use clarified, not just Indian cooking. No-work clarified. FYI, Costco sells a very large jar for a very good price - it keeps very well.
PHIL January 23, 2018
need to get some, always pass it in whole foods
amysarah January 23, 2018
If you want to try a 'normal' (i.e., not a giant Costco) sized jar, I'd suggest getting it at an Indian grocery shop, if you can. My local ones carry several brands - and if WF is true to form, I'm guessing it will be way more expensive there.
PHIL January 23, 2018
Smjor Icelandic butter is great. Also, Delitia butter from Parma , how could it not be good. People always ask whereIi get the butter when I serve either one of these brands
Karin B. January 24, 2018
Well, where do you get those brands?
PHIL January 24, 2018
Smjor is carried by whole foods. I get the parma butter at a local specialty market but Amazon carries it too.
LT January 24, 2018
Smjör just means butter in Icelandic :) Amazed our butter is exported to the US! I wonder what brand it is?
PHIL January 24, 2018
Smjor is the brand, there is even a website. I first bought it in Iceland. I was in Iceland in October and have been hooked on the butter since then. Beautiful place. I had a great time there.