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!

133 Comments

Dave B. April 22, 2019
Lard.
50% of your fat should be lard. Beautiful fresh lard from your local purveyor.
 
Suse April 21, 2019
I used Challenge butter for years, but switched to TJ's brand when I started doing my weekly shopping there. It's consistently good for baking. My husband likes the salted kind for spreading on breads, scones, and muffins.
 
Rose L. April 21, 2019
for years now my fav butter for baking is organic valley cultured butter. their european style is a higher butterfat and i used it for laminated doughs but for pie crust, cakes, and cookies i use the 81%. the flavor of the cultured butter is what i find superior to the other ones.
 
Monica B. April 20, 2019
Curious to know how many different packages of butter you used per product and expiration dates/time of year. My understanding is that butter flavor and quality changes depending on time of year, even for large dairies.
 
Claudia April 20, 2019
I use organic butter- what would you think is the Trader Joe’s equivalent be?
 
Nina April 20, 2019
Can you tell me how to adjust for European butter? I live in Germany and all of my cookbooks are American!
 
Cindy April 19, 2019
I'm a Land-o-Lakes fan. My mother used it and I've followed suit. It just tastes better to me. I will try the Trader Joe's brand and get back to you!
 
Deb W. April 19, 2019
Always recommend the organic ones...
 
Nancy M. April 19, 2019
I’ll try it. We are out in Amish country and have been wanting to try the local butter too... I feel pies coming on!
 
Zemira A. April 19, 2019
I find the volume on the videos is too low when people are speaking and much too loud on those with only music overlay. I'm constantly adjusting my volume and struggling to hear what people are saying while people talking about the recipes they're preparing.
 
Jen April 18, 2019
I usually bake with TJ's Unsalted butter and get consistently good results. I have been disappointed with Land O Lakes. I used to use Challenge Unsalted for baking and it was fine. For putting a little butter on bread or toast for eating, I use Salted butter of course. Unsalted butter by itself (not in a recipe) is not for eating straight, of course.
 
Marie N. April 18, 2019
Would those of you who insist on commenting about KerryGold butter please pay closer attention to the article as written?
KerryGold is a European butter. For that reason it was not included in a test which focused on American butters and ultimately, not discussed in the article.
 
rob April 18, 2019
Challenge, and Darigold are my two favorites to use for all baking and cooking, Tillamook comes in at #3.
 
Sandy April 18, 2019
Please understand that Butter has been consumed for thousands of years by human beings. So has Salt, yes regular old table salt NaCl. The butterfat is essential to absorb nutrients like vitamin D and Calcium, which is why God put it in milk. The Salt, yes regular table salt, is a Rock that we eat which is necessary for life. Humans used to consume a huge amount MORE than anyone does today. Salt was used as a form of money because it was very precious, and ESSENTIAL for health. If you have a kidney problem or hypertension be sure and consult your doctor re: amount of salt which is healthy to consume. Another healthy fat is PURE Olive Oil. Unfortunately a lot of the Oils labeled Olive Oil (imported) isn't olive oil at all, but Canola oil flavored to taste like olive oil. Canola oil is NOT a healthy fat and should NOT be part of anyone's diet. California Olive Oil IS REAL, it is illegal to mislabel Olive Oil produced in the US. If you eat plenty of healthy fats, your diet will adjust to what your body actually needs, as fats decrease intake of calories and increase the secretion of Leptin, the hormone the body produces signalling satiety. This is why you see thin French people who spread Goose fat, or Olive Oil on their bread. The fats shut down the appetite. So, eat plenty of butter on your bread, and you'll eat a lot less food.
 
josper April 18, 2019
Butter makes every meal more satisfying which is why nice restaurants use so much of it. You can achieve the same effect with olive oil in a lot of foods, but there are plenty of instances where too much oil makes it heavy, greasy, and less palatable. Butter is magic in that regard, it's more of a suspension of healty fats than a slick oil.
 
Tina April 18, 2019
I love Minerva Dairy Amish roll butter
 
Michael R. April 18, 2019
One more point. Salted butter is better for you. The addition of salt stimulates the palate and allows you to better taste the butter. Because of that specific addition, you will use less when you eat it. Restaurants as a whole don't use unsalted butter on tables (for the most part) because they know diners will use more per person trying to make up for that discrepancy to their palates. Plus it's only trace amounts you may intake on a slice of toast, steamed vegetables, etc.
 
josper April 18, 2019
You should be using unsalted for cooking/baking because it allows you to control the salt content, but never to eat directly on toast... Bleah, nor should anyone want to!
 
Michael R. April 18, 2019
Not really. If you have uncertainties controlling salt that stems from either your palate/taste buds or your grasp of food prep methods Using salted butter is a fool proof method for making fresh herb butters and the like for one example. No need to add any salt. It's micro blended already. Salt crystals do not melt in chilled butter, so adding them to unsalted butter is an inconsistent method. It's not uniform throughout. As for butter on toast or any other combination there is no right and wrong. Only personal preference. Opinions that are not dependent on facts are never right or wrong. What anyone does in their own home, in their own kitchen, is the right way to do it because it's their home. Same rule in restaurant kitchens.
 
Burton April 22, 2019
Ok so, to be clear, making fresh herb butters is a totally different application from *baking*, which is what this article is about. The uncertainties of controlling the salt in a baking context come from the fact that 1) different salted butters have different salt contents, and 2) you can't easily taste and adjust midway through the way you can in non-baking applications, meaning that it's very difficult to adjust for those differences. Technically speaking, you're right that there's no right or wrong way in the kitchen... but if you use salted butter instead of unsalted butter in a baking context, you will get far less consistent results, and really no benefit whatsoever.
 
Djuana April 18, 2019
I like Trader Joe's butter the best honestly but my go-to is usually Land O' Lakes only because it's everywhere and I don't go to Trader Joe's that often. Challenge butter is also very, very good.
 
L April 18, 2019
Appropriate article, for somebody who's cat name is ... Butter. Thank you, Emma!
 
Michael R. April 18, 2019
Very key points left out here. 35+ years ago, butter had a much higher cream content than it does today domestically, across the board. Chefs complained in that time frame that there was too much cream and water left from clarifying. The point they made was their yield for clarified butter that they sauteed with in restaurants and used for hollandaise sauces was too expensive. The dairy farmers addressed this and it changed. Butter is cheaper to produce with less cream. Now most every brand has very little cream and more oil compared to then. This directly affects baking and pastries in this way: Recipes from years gone by that are perfectly fine as is but suffer with the current versions of butter on the market because of the difference. With that change to the formula those older recipes falter and become discarded by those that don't understand the nature of the beast. Newer recipes suffer because of the switch to higher cream butter. Not understanding the effects changing a formula has on the final product just causes more waste and frustration.
 
berkeleybarb April 18, 2019
Just for the record, the difference between 82% and 86% fat butter is much, much less important than the difference between 2% and 4% fat in milk. Going from 2% to 4% milk represents a 100% increase in fat content - a doubling - while going from 82% fat to 86% fat is only a 5% increase. I guess you might notice it, but it shouldn't be dramatic.
 
Smaug April 18, 2019
However, the difference between 86% butter and 82% will be approximately a 33% increase in the amount of water (depending on the milk solids content, which is variable), somewhat more significant.