Taste Test

The Best Butter for Baking Is Also the Cheapest

A win-win for pie crusts, pound cakes, sugar cookies, and more.

April 12, 2019
Photo by Emma Laperruque

Our test kitchen goes through pounds and pounds (and pounds) of butter every week. Maybe it’s for sautéeing kale, mashing potatoes, or scrambling eggs. But, most often, it’s for baking.

I don’t need to tell you that unsalted is the default for desserts, from shortbread cookies to pound cakes. The more nitty-gritty—and less talked about—distinction is American-style versus European-style.

In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee defines the latter as “a cultured butter with a fat content higher than the standard 80 percent.” Depending on the brand, expect anywhere from 82 to 86 percent. Which may not sound like a lot, but just think of whole versus nonfat milk—a few percentage points makes a world of difference when it comes to flavor.

Of course, baking a muffin is not drinking a glass of milk. Fat is flavor, yes, but it’s also one of the components in a fine-tuned formula. It’s easy to think that swapping in higher-fat, European-style butter in any baking recipe would lead to more flavorful pie crusts, brown butter blondies, chocolate chip cookies, you name it. (And, as European-style butters have become more popular in the U.S., a lot of online resources have indicated as much.) But that sort of swap can unravel a recipe.

As award-winning baker Stella Parks noted a few years ago:

Similarly, King Arthur conducted a few American-style versus European-style baking experiments—and found that recipes with American-style butter did not appreciate a European-style substitute. Shortbread turned out greasier. And scones: flatter, “sad, and slumped.”

All of which to say, if you’re baking a recipe developed for American-style butter, American-style butter is your best bet. But which American-style butter is the best to buy? We did a taste test of five popular brands to find out.


The Rules

  • All butters were unsalted and uncultured, with cream and natural flavors as the only allowed ingredients.
  • Prices are based on AmazonFresh, FreshDirect, and stores in the New York City area.
  • Because pie crust is all about the butter, we selected this as the baked good for the experiment. I followed the same Pie Crispies recipe for each butter, then presented the cookies in a blind taste test at the office.
  • Staffers were asked to provide feedback on flavor, texture, and any feelings the butters evoked.

Here's how they ranked from least to most popular...


The Results

Photo by Emma Laperruque

5. Land O’ Lakes ($4.89/pound)

Southern Living named this brand the butter of choice in its test kitchen, but the bulk of our taste testers respectfully disagreed. Most found it “not very buttery,” or “not so butter-forward” with a sad face drawn in for emphasis. Multiple people called it “bland.” Though, for what it’s worth, one lone wolf said: “This is #1.” Do with that what you will.

4. 365 ($3.49/pound)

The Whole Foods store brand ranked quite close to Land O’ Lakes. Several people described its flavor as “savory,” with one taste tester comparing it to “a butter and lard pie,” which, by the way, “is a compliment!” A couple people found the pie crust result to be “oily”—we can all agree this is not the goal of butter.

3. Breakstone’s ($7.98/pound)

“Buttery but blah” sums up the wishy-washy feedback to Breakstone’s. Some complimented its “nice,” “yum,” and “light yet rich” flavor. Others said it was “less flavorful” and “reminds me of lard, but not in a way I’m mad at? I think.”

2. Cabot ($6.79/pound)

Cabot came in strong: “Butteriest,” “very strong butter flavor,” “excellent flavor,” “can def taste the butter,” and “ooh nice flavor” were among its many compliments. Meanwhile, one taste tester declared that it “tastes like fish.” Perhaps this single low ranking is what helped the winner take home the gold...

1. Trader Joe’s ($2.99/pound)

“Whoa,” said one person. And the rest of the group agreed, describing Trader Joe’s store brand as: “extra buttery,” “sweet buttery flavor,” and “nice butter flavor,” with more than one declaring it “very rich.” We were also pretty pleased that the winner just so happened to be the cheapest of the bunch.


A Very Good Use for Butter

What’s your favorite American-style butter for baking? Tell us in the comments!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Comment
Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

300 Comments

Misti May 23, 2020
Gotta be Kate's unsalted butter for me!
 
fudgefactor May 21, 2020
When this article was first published I wrote a comment on how good Trader Joes unsalted butter was. I had used it happily for years. Well, a year or so/more ago they changed it and added more liquid. Now it explodes in the microwave no matter how slowly I try to melt it and spatters all over the stove when I cook with it. I stupidly stuck with it for months. No more. I've switched to Costco's unsalted butter: no explosions, no splattering, just like TJ's used to be. Sad.
 
Deborah J. April 27, 2020
I concur...I have stuck with the Trader Joe's brand for many years! Can't beat the flavor unless you make butter by hand.
 
Jia February 24, 2020
So what do you do of you live in Europe and can't make a decent chocolate chip cookie?
 
Lauren B. February 24, 2020
Hmm, maybe you can get somebody in the US to mail you some? 🙂
 
Smaug February 24, 2020
Small amounts of moisture in a cookie dough (such as with American butter) will promote a more open, cakelike texture- if that's what you're after, you could try adding a bit of moisture (subbed for a bit of the butter) when you cream the butter/ sugar. They'll also be a bit less inclined to spread. That this preposterous excuse for a "study" keeps reappearing is an ongoing testament to the power of irresponsible journalism.
 
CalifGirl00 January 2, 2020
I like Kerrigold butter for my toast. But for baking I like the Kirkland brand from Costco.
 
AlwaysLookin October 3, 2019
You can say what you wish, but 20+ years of using Irish Butter that has more fat tells me something different ... there IS a difference. Maybe you can justify saving a few dimes, but not in the end.
 
Peter J. October 3, 2019
Does Kerrygold meet your definition of Irish butter?
 
Connie H. September 29, 2019
I’ve always used Land of the Lake unsalted butter
 
stresso September 26, 2019
Hi organic or regular Trader Joe’s butter? Thanks
 
MacGuffin March 22, 2020
The conventional is shown.
 
Robert C. September 22, 2019
One of the best European style butters I have used is Anchor, from New Zealand. Grass fed cows seem to provide the perfect consistency for laminated doughs.
 
Williams21 September 21, 2019
I always purchased land O lakes but after reading your article about the different butters purchased Trader Joe’s butter and loved the taste and price.
 
Chas September 21, 2019
What about the reverse, using American butter in a European recipe? Will it affect the outcome of the recipe?
 
bob September 21, 2019
I still prefer Land O Lakes as it is the only butter where you can fold up the wrapper so that the Indian maiden's knees look like breasts. Was a big hit in the second grade!
 
Ellen P. September 22, 2019
Seriously? :)
 
Billy52 September 22, 2019
Seriously!
 
Peter J. September 21, 2019
Although not for baking, I've found that Trader Joe's cultured butter is the best out there for the price, better even than the imported European butters in the high priced markets.
 
d W. October 3, 2019
I have heard that Trader Joes is part of the Aldi business...is this correct? If so, no wonder the butter is great. I have neither an Aldi nor a Trader Joe's in my area and would love to have one w/o make a shopping expedition​ rather than just a trip.
 
mudd April 27, 2020
I know this late but Trader Joe’s is not part of Aldi. Same family but there was some type of family war years ago. Companies completely seperate.
 
Terry B. September 20, 2019
I use unsalted Challenge butter. Have for a few years now. If I had a Trader's Joe's anywhere near me, I might try it. I wouldn't have a clue where one is though. Some of the other brands mentioned I have never heard of. Surrounded by cornfields here, don't have a lot of big name grocery stores.
 
Christopher O. March 14, 2020
Funny you should mention that, Trader Joe's Butter *is* Challenge Butter. It comes off the same production line and has the same dairy plant code (06-94) on the box.
 
teri September 20, 2019
And the best butter comes from Jersey cows. I've been baking for 50 years and a dairy farmer for much of that. It's not the darned store, it's the cows....grassfed, happy little Jersey cows....play some classical music, make sure your hands are warm and smooth, speak gentle to them.......best milk, best butter, best baked goods.....
 
Lindie September 21, 2019
Love your comment, teri. Wish I had a Jersey cow.....
 
teri September 21, 2019
We only had two in a herd of 60. One Brown Swiss, a Short Horn but he was our heifer bull (they are a smaller breed resulting in easier-to-deliver calves for first timers, known as springers) and the rest of the herd was the ubiquitous Holstein. I never minded milking the Jerseys by hand....I knew they wouldn't kick me.
 
Julie October 3, 2019
My great-grandparents ran a dairy in Marin County California. My grandmother and her seven siblings were all born on the farm. She told me stories about all of the hard work it took and how hard her father worked to provide an honest and honorable life. No excuses - no handouts. She kept that same lesson in her cooking. Butter, real butter, was always treated with respect. My LOVE of butter and use of butter is a family tradition I hold dear. That little yellow rectangle, wrapped in waxed paper, took a lot of effort by many (human & animal) to get in your refrigerator.
 
MacGuffin March 22, 2020
Jersey milk and cream are sublime but I prefer crème fraîche made from Holstein cream. Just a matter of personal taste--I like it less buttery and more lactic.
 
Deborah J. April 27, 2020
I, too, prefer creme fraiche as well, in fact, I don't even use sour cream anymore. The creme fraiche is less tart & tangy & so much richer & thicker. I use creme fraiche (from Trader Joe's) for everything that I had formerly used sour cream for.
 
MacGuffin April 27, 2020
I should have been clearer. What I meant was that I preferred Holstein crème fraîche to Jersey crème fraîche, not that I preferred crème fraîche to sour cream. Sometimes I prefer one, sometimes the other. Always crème fraîche for use in hot foods, though--it doesn't split.
 
teri April 27, 2020
Lower butterfat content so yes....I guess it really is a matter of taste.
 
kathy September 20, 2019
Unsalted Keri gold for baking
 
teri September 20, 2019
It's Kerry, not Keri. As in County Kerry Ireland where much of my family is from.
 
kathy September 20, 2019
Very sorry! It’s late and I’ve worked a long day. Not sure why I even replied except I love to bake and thought I’d join in. That’s said, visiting Ireland is on my bucket list. Might have to visit Kerry!
 
marilu September 20, 2019
Same!
 
tastysweet September 21, 2019
Love Killarney. My brother lives there. It’s so beautiful.
 
teri September 21, 2019
Oh absolutely make sure a trip to the Dingle Peninsula is on your agenda. Arguably the most beautiful part of Ireland. My maternal grandmother was one of two children (in a family of 12) who was NOT born there but went back to visit her sisters who stayed. My dad's, dad's family are from Cork which I love but my heart is in Kerry.....
 
teri September 20, 2019
Sorry but, the BEST pie crusts are lard based...not butter.
 
don September 21, 2019
The article is about Butter not.... sorry I can't even type in the word
 
AlwaysLookin October 3, 2019
Suit yourself ... that's why there's chocolate and vanilla.
 
d W. October 3, 2019
Right on with that...outstanding. We used LARD when I was a kid and I got blue ribbons at the fair. When I lived in Europe I started to use butter in many things because I could...no one was looking over my shoulder or judgmentally (mom) tasting my food. lol. There are places for both...lard in biscuits and pie crusts and butter in cookies. Shortening in some cakes and olive oil in some, too are the general rules all of which can be broken at any time. Chemistry is a science and baking is a science but I have always been a better baker.
 
Gwyn September 20, 2019
Hands down the best butter in America is Kriemhild Dairy! With an 85% butterfat content, its mouthfeel is amazing! Here at Happy Camper Cakes, it’s the only butter we use and it takes Swiss Buttercream to the next level!
 
Atara September 20, 2019
So, if the baking recipe is a European one, say one from the famous British Baking show, would American butter be the wrong choice?
 
d W. October 3, 2019
I have used the European Kerry or the Belgian one from time to time and they seem to work. I only have BJ's and I use their butter.
 
MichelleM September 20, 2019
Great Value salted butter, Walmart.
We had to cut costs for one of the ladies' teas we catered, gave it a try for the price, and have never used anything else since! Beautiful, flavorful scones, lemon curd, desserts, or all alone for spreading. I have also used Kirkland salted butter from Costco, which isn't bad, but I still prefer Great Value.
There, my secret is out.