Butter

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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Emma is a writer and recipe developer 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 and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.

273 Comments

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
 
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.
 
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.
 
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.
 
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.
 
Clarissa C. September 20, 2019
I had to use Land O Lakes butter as an alternate once for Kerry Gold (what I usually use) and it was majorly inferior! My cake tasted bland and it dried rather quickly. My husband also noticed the difference in a blind taste test. I love Kerry Gold. It is super flavorful and my cakes and baked goods are always super delicious and moist when they need to be. I can’t even believe it’s not on this list 👍🏼👍🏼
 
Sam September 20, 2019
Kerrygold was not on the list because the article was about which American-style butter is the best to buy.
 
Smaug September 20, 2019
Wily readers will have noticed that practically nothing is on the list, and that the testing was what can only be described as lame. I'm astounded that this obviously desultory test has drawn so much comment.
 
Scott B. September 20, 2019
Taste test articles are all well and good. Buying products made with factory farm produced milk is not. It would be refreshing if that issue was part of the conversation.
 
S September 20, 2019
I’ve tried them all. I believe for American recipe measurements any of the aforementioned brands work as a placebo kind of effect. If you favor a particular butter and believe in it, that is the butter you believe gives you the best result in your finished product.
 
deborah J. September 20, 2019
I live in ks and thats all i buy is butter for this and butter for that. My choice is Kroger brand. It is the cheappest butter here and i like it for everything. If i had more money or a trader joes here then maybe i would switch. Until then its kroger all the way.
 
Jacqueline S. September 20, 2019
Don't judge me as this isn't a baking butter related question, but a butter question and I figured this group would have some thoughts. But, here goes... I have been buying goat milk butter and really like the flavor. I am a butter person. I have noticed that with cooking goat milk butter requires different handling, doesn't seem to go to "brown butter." Does anyone know why? Would this not work well for roux, white sauce, etc?
 
Smaug September 20, 2019
Curious about the browning- the protein, carbohydrate, fat etc. levels are very similar to cow's milk. I wouldn't worry about your roux etc- you only need to coat the flour with fat to prevent it clumping and goat butter can certainly do that.