Taste Test

The Best Butter for Baking Comes from...Trader Joe's

Trust us—we did a lot of research.

May  5, 2022
Photo by Bobbi Lin

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 butter is the default for baked goods, from chocolate chip cookies to pound cakes to pie crusts. Using unsalted butter allows you to control the amount of salt in your baked goods (especially since the salt content in salted butter varies, so it’s hard to know exactly how much you’re adding). 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 European butter to contain anywhere from 82 to 86 percent. In the United States, American-made butter must contain at least 80 percent fat. It may not sound like a huge difference, but just think of whole versus nonfat milk—a few percentage points makes a world of difference when it comes to flavor. Irish and European-style butter are beloved for being richer and creamier because they contain more milk and have a lower water content; this also means that they’re easier to bring to room temperature, which is ideal when you’re in a pinch and need softened butter stat.

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. Safe to say that there are dozens of butter brands to pick from at the grocery store, but which one is the best for your recipe? 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:

Friendly reminder: switching to European style butter in an American recipe isn’t an upgrade, it’s a fundamental alteration of the formula.

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 is o say, if you’re baking a recipe developed for American-style butter, American-style butter is your best bet. Not all recipes will specify which type of butter to use, but if you’re cooking a baking recipe from a U.S.-based recipe developer, it’s safe to assume that they used American-style and not European-style butter.

But which American-style butter is the best to buy for baking? We did a taste test of five popular brands of butter to find out which is the best.


The Rules

  • All of the butters we tested were unsalted and uncultured, with cream and natural flavors as the only allowed ingredients. Cultured butter has a tangier taste—it’s delicious, but not the basic butter flavor we were after.
  • Prices are based on AmazonFresh, FreshDirect, and stores in the New York City area. Therefore, these prices may fluctuate based on where you live.
  • Because pie crust is all about the butter, we selected this recipe 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 the most popular brands of butter ranked from never again to the most delicious…


The Results

Photo by Emma Laperruque

5. Land O’ Lakes ($4.89/pound)

Southern Living named Land O’ Lakes 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 365 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. Therefore, we’d probably pass on buying 365 butter in the future.

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 as one of the best butters for baking: “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. And we were even more pleased that it came from one of our favorite grocery stores.

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

This article was updated in May 2022 by our editors.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Cheryl
    Cheryl
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    Lablea
  • Ann Del Tredici
    Ann Del Tredici
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., and writing about the history of pie in North Carolina. Now she lives in New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's award-winning column, Big Little Recipes (also the cookbook in November 2021!). And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

357 Comments

Cheryl May 20, 2022
Id like to hear from anyone who can comment with scientific authority about the water content difference between salted and unsalted?Years ago I remember a tide of food articles recommending unsalted only because there was simply too much water in salted. Has this changed?
 
Smaug May 20, 2022
I can't speak with any authority, but I remember that and I'm pretty sure it has changed- you could probably get percentages from manufacturers' websites.
 
Sam May 20, 2022
This is from Cook's Illustrated:
"We advise against cooking with salted butter for a couple of reasons. The amount of salt in salted butter varies from brand to brand—it can range from 1.25 percent to 1.75 percent of the total weight, making it impossible to offer conversion amounts that will work with all brands. Also, salted butter almost always contains more water than unsalted butter. The water in butter ranges from 10 to 18 percent. In baking, butter with a low water content is preferred, since excess water can interfere with the development of gluten. In fact, when we used the same brand of both salted and unsalted butter to make brownies and drop biscuits, tasters noticed that samples made with salted butter were a little mushy and pasty; they preferred the texture of baked goods made with unsalted butter."
 
Smaug May 20, 2022
Interesting, but I have my doubts about water interfering with the formation of gluten. In my experience it promotes it.
 
Cheryl May 20, 2022
Thanks Sam. Did you notice if the date on this Cooks Illustrated info is recent?
 
Sam May 20, 2022
They have annoyingly removed the dates on many of their articles & this was one of them.
 
Smaug May 20, 2022
Cook's Illustrated Cookbook (2011), in a comparison of salted and unsalted butter, says '...we advise against cooking with salted butter for two reasons. First, the total amount of salt in salted butter varies from brand to brand, making it impossible to offer conversion amounts that will work across the board. Second, because salt masks some of the flavor nuances found in butter, salted butter tastes different from unsalted butter and thus can negatively alter the flavor of a recipe".
No mention is made of moisture content- they're hardly a scientific authority, but they do generally have good access to lab test results. For what it's worth, I don't find either of their reasons awfully convincing.
I think I got the information on salted butter containing less moisture from Maida Heatter's, books from the 60's-70's.
 
Cheryl May 21, 2022
Thank you Smaug and Sam. I find it funny and ironic that we are warned at every turn about precision and accuracy when baking but can’t easily find consensus on water content in butter.
“Surrender Dorothy “
 
Paula May 21, 2022
If water content of butter varies from 10 to 18 percent (is that within the same brand?), then one can't say the difference in their results was from the water content of the salted vs that of the unsalted. Could have just been the variance of different batches, and on another day they might have gotten the opposite results.
 
Paula May 21, 2022
Once upon a time, unsalted butter was deemed fresher, since it didn't have the salt that allowed it to be stored long term. That was the lure for using it in baking -- a fresher, more flavorful product. But considering in the US most of us are accustomed to salted butter, the unsalted is the product more likely to be sitting long-term on the shelf, or it would have been at least up until the past 20 years or so, when all the fancypants chefs started noting it specifically in recipes. Now, like with specifying sea salt, everyone wants to get on board and display what a gourmet they are. There are so many variances in baking-- fat percent in any dairy product, protein percent in flour, oven temperatures, pan sizes-- you have to roll with it and learn to adjust.
 
Paula May 21, 2022
Oops-- that comment wasn't supposed to go here. And now I can't delete it.
 
Smaug May 21, 2022
American butter is pretty consistent at 15-18%; there's a minimum of 80% butterfat, with about 2% for milk solids. Lower figures are for European styles. Butter and salt content are two things that the manufacturer can control, and are quite consistent within a brand. But dairy products are generally locally produced and milk is usually from diverse sources, there's no guarantee that TJ's butter in New York is going to be the same as that bought in California, or even in New York on a different day. It should be consistent for salt and moisturre, though.
 
Smaug May 21, 2022
Up until fairly recently salted butter was always sold frozen, at least in my experience. Nowadays, when butter is on sale the unsalted usually disappears much faster, at least where I shop. I sometimes buy salted when I get there too late for the unsalted; can't say it's ever ruined anything for me.
 
Sam May 11, 2022
A problem I've had with Trader Joe's butter is one I've had with many, many private brand products over the years: inconsistency. I'm speaking of nonfood products as well. The retailer may change vendors & the new product may be worse. Or it may be better or just different. I know of a number of people who believe TJ's butter isn't as good as it once was.
 
MaryP January 2, 2022
Champion Butter is reliably good for baking and inexpensive. I like it much better than Land O Lakes .. my mother's go to brand.
 
Lablea October 27, 2021
I am from North Carolina, 68 and have taken over baking my grandmother’s, born in 1900, specialties. Don’t have a heart attack, but I prefer salted butter to cook her recipes. From Atlanta Lane Cake, Pound Cake to Fresh Coconut Cake the recipes were perfected with salted butter - I cannot go back. When I bake something new I look at the butter suggested and then take note of how much salt they add. If it is a lot of salt, I use my salted butter and cut back on extra salt…a little salt- I use unsalted. To me, if the salt is added in the butter, the product is ‘smoother.’ The only BIG mistake I have made with butter, ONE Christmas, years ago, I used a store brand to make my toffee - it was a nightmare. The fat and moisture content was off and my toffee was not pretty. An old saying, if it is not broke(n) don’t fix it.
 
Lablea October 27, 2021
I use Land of Lakes.
 
Smaug October 27, 2021
Land of Lakes has the best wrappers for greasing pans. Stick to your guns- I believe the main reason recipes started calling for unsalted butter (while adding salt) is that it used to have a lower moisture content- don't think that's true anymore. I'm amazed that this preposterous excuse for a comparison test was ever published, let alone that it keeps reappearing.
 
Sam October 27, 2021
It's my understanding that salted butter has an average, I repeat, an average of 1/2 teaspoon a pound. If a recipe calls for salted butter, that's my guide.
 
judy May 11, 2022
I am completely with you on salted butter. I much prefer it to unsalted butter. If one uses salt to enhance flavor of foods, it seems to me that premise works with butter as well. I tried for quite a few of my recipes to use unsalted butter and increase the salt in the recipes of my baked goods. No go. They ere much better every time with salt butted and reduce the actual amount of salt added to the recipe. So, for me YES for salted butter as well.
 
Tina G. May 20, 2022
Not to mention, it lasts much longer if, like me, you like to leave it out so as to be spreadable!
 
Paula May 21, 2022
Once upon a time, unsalted butter was deemed fresher, since it didn't have the salt that allowed it to be stored long term. That was the lure for using it in baking -- a fresher, more flavorful product. But considering in the US most of us are accustomed to salted butter, the unsalted is the product more likely to be sitting long-term on the shelf, or it would have been at least up until the past 20 years or so, when all the fancypants chefs started noting it specifically in recipes. Now, like with specifying sea salt, everyone wants to get on board and display what a gourmet they are. There are so many variances in baking-- fat percent in any dairy product, protein percent in flour, oven temperatures, pan sizes-- you have to roll with it and learn to adjust.
 
Ann D. September 18, 2021
I do think next time you do a butter comparison, please include Costco/Kirkland unsalted butters. They sell conventional and organic Kirkland unsalted butters for phenomenal prices--their prices can't be beat. I use them for everything--pie crust, cookies and cooking--and feel they are very good tasting and performing products.
 
Foodbasic March 27, 2022
Have you tried the organic unsalted butter? If so how does it compare to the regular Kirkland unsalted butter?
 
Alicia B. May 6, 2021
Hello, someone gave me a lot of Kirkland butter and I just opened it to make cookies and it doesn't look like real butter. Do you recommend me to use it?
 
Sam May 6, 2021
I've never used it, but I do know many Costco customers love it.
 
les C. May 6, 2021
When I used Kirkland unsalted to make clarified butter there was a fair amount of H2O that needed to be removed,simmered for about 30 minutes to get it right.I don`t bake much but when I used it the results seemed OK,the clarified worked fine for sauteing.Next purchase will try Kirkland Organic u/s for a comp.
 
les C. May 6, 2021
BTW Alicia if you were gifted that much you`ll need to use it up,go ahead and just try it and let us know how they turned out,what`s the worst that could happen? Can`t judge a book by looking at it`s cover! Go for it!
 
Alicia B. May 6, 2021
The thing is I don't want to loose eggs, sugar and flour. I didn't look just the cover, is the color, smell, it looks like "margarina".
 
les C. May 6, 2021
Always let your nose be your guide,if it smells off it probably is.Check the use by date and remember,when in doubt throw it out.
 
Granny S. August 1, 2021
Alicia B.: I use Kirkland Butter all the time and it has been satisfactory. I haven't used it for pie pastry, however. I actually like to use the Kerrigold (Irish Butter) for baking, even tho this article says not to. For everyday use, we use Land O'Lakes Soft Butter, Light. It has half the fat grams and calories but tastes fine (not processed-tasting at all). Don't know how healthy it is but it works for us!
 
Smaug October 27, 2021
Sounds liked they may have just gone light on the coloring- most butter is dyed with annato, otherwise it's pretty pale. The highest quality milks have considerable yellow to them, and people started dying butter (and cheese) to make it seem like superior ingredients were used; it doesn't serve any useful purpose.
 
Paula May 21, 2022
The color of the milk is dependent on the cow's diet. Different times of year can result in different colors of milk, and thus different colors of butter, due to the changes in the field grasses. Butter is dyed so the color is consistent from one batch to the next.
 
Smaug May 21, 2022
Color is also dependent on genetics; degree of color (yellow is good) is an important factor in cattle judging.
 
Cindy F. March 21, 2021
I used cheep Kroger brand butter during the holidays. It was horrible.
 
Cheryl B. February 22, 2021
I use Kerrygold to make pie crust and pound cake where butter is an important taste and texture. I have had wonderful results.
 
Anna B. November 29, 2020
Pies, cakes, pastries, bread, custards...I just find the taste and texture better in Europe, sorry. I buy European butter and the best one that I have tried comes from Greece but nobody sells it in the US.
 
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.
 
MacGuffin March 28, 2021
In all fairness, anything that contains cholesterol is going to contribute to clogged arteries if one eats enough of it. If, e.g., you need a neutral saturated fat for a recipe, you don't have a lot of choice.
 
Foodbasic March 27, 2022
How does the Costco unsalted butter compare to Trader Joe’s? Which tastes better?
 
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.
 
olakala December 16, 2020
Use margarine, it doesn't spread as much.
 
Margaret March 1, 2021
And clog my arteries with trans fats?? No thanks.
 
SNNYC April 27, 2022
You do as Parks said in the twitter thread linked: cut back a little on the butter and add some water.
 
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?
 
Margaret March 1, 2021
Yes, what brands do you call Irish?
 
MacGuffin March 28, 2021
I think the point of the article was that non-European-style American butters are best for American recipes for baked goods. I like to fry with high-fat butters (much higher in fat, in fact, than Kerrygold) but I don't bake with them unless a recipe calls for them.
 
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?
 
MacGuffin March 28, 2021
Of course.