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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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.


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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[email protected] December 16, 2020
Use margarine, it doesn't spread as much.
Margaret March 1, 2021
And clog my arteries with trans fats?? No thanks.
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.
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
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.
MacGuffin March 28, 2021
I think there's some occasional reciprocity there but you're right--the companies are separate.
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.
ennio February 28, 2021
Thank you for that; Good to read an actually useful comment!