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.
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.
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.
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.)
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.