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 stories about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. She now lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, which is all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.

208 Comments

Sam August 3, 2019
When America's Test Kitchen did a taste test they noted that packaging made a big difference in flavor. Foil & specially treated parchment paper works best. Simple parchment paper picked up off-flavors from manufacturing all the way to the consumer's kitchen. This makes me curious to know how much actual difference there would be in brands if they were all packaged EXACTLY the same.
 
Cynthia S. August 3, 2019
I agree that the Trader Joes brand has a very good flavor, but it is certainly NOT the cheapest in the D.C. Region. In Northern Virgina stores it costs $5.99, not $2.99. It's priced well above the othe butters mentioned in the article.
 
fudgefactor August 3, 2019
TJ's unsalted butter is the only butter I've been buying for many years now. It's great, BUT, over the last few months, every time I melt it in the microwave it explodes, even when only a portion has melted. It never used to do that before. My guess is that they have increased the moisture content.
 
Rochelle April 27, 2019
I use salted butter for all my baking. I usually use Trader Joe's. I use the european butter for toast or frying up eggs. But always salted. I don't like the flavor of unsalted.
 
Erin July 3, 2019
I always bake with salted butter too- brings out the flavor. I use kerrygold for chocolate chip cookies and always dark brown sugar and the flavor is very rich ☺️
 
Gloria P. April 27, 2019
WHERE are dairies for Trader Joe's butters. In US?
Like most of TJ's products, country of origin is not listed!!
 
Lauren B. April 27, 2019
If you are in the store you can ask for this info at their “perch.” But I always wonder if they or anybody else are telling me the truth. I think the rule is that if it is a product of USA it doesn’t have to have country of origin on label. And you can email them for this info as well. There are a bunch of things in the store that do have countries of origin such as chocolate bars and coffees, maybe jam...But cocoa is not grown in US, except for a tiny bit in Hawaii but there is not country of origin listed on any bag of chocolate chips I have ever gotten anywhere so what’re you gonna do?
 
Scott P. April 26, 2019
I have been baking for years now with Harris Teeter brand and it has great flavor.
 
Moto G. April 26, 2019
My favorite butter is Kalona SuperNatural which is sold locally (Mpls) at the smaller co-op's but also at Whole Foods. I thought it was from Hawaii with the name Kalona but this article made me check the packaging more closely only to discover that it's from Iowa. I thought the deep yellow color and wonderful flavor came from happy, Hawaiian cows grazing in the sunshine all day with beautiful views of the ocean. Oh well. It's still my favorite. The butterfat content is listed at '85% or more' so it may not be suitable for American baking recipes according to this article. It also says; "non-homogenized, grass-fed, 100% organic, Celtic sea salt and made in small batches using a vintage churn." Yikes.
 
Joan June 19, 2019
With a vintage housewife churning the cream in between fixing dinner and ironing?
 
Janet M. August 3, 2019
The lower moisture content should make it better for baking. I usually purchase European or European style butter for baking for exactly that reason. Being from Iowa, I know exactly where Kalona is--right down in the Amana Colonies near Iowa City where lots of good things are made. And those Iowa cows are happy cows, too.
 
Katherine H. April 26, 2019
My favorite use for butter is brown butter!!! I keep in on hand at all times! It elevates the flavor of everything! Baked goods, veggies....sweets and savories!!! And is most amazing on popcorn!
 
Smaug April 26, 2019
With brown butter, moisture content is irrelevant and milk solids are everything; changes the dynamic considerably.
 
Janet M. April 26, 2019
I think any "European" style butter works best--all of the brands have significantly less water than the commercial table brands in the US. Unfortunately the closest Trader Joe's is about 80 miles from my house, so I'm forced to rely on what I can buy locally--I suggest unsalted butter for baking, and pick something that says Europe on the label--Danish Creamery and Land of Lakes both have premium butters in this category, and others that are good include Finlandia, Plugra, Lurpak, and Kerrygold. A
 
Jaye B. April 25, 2019
On one of her TV shows I heard Ina Garten say - almost in a whisper as she turned sideways - that everything tastes better since she started using salted butter for baking. I expected to see a clip of the sea parting off the Hampton shores! :)
 
Marsha S. April 27, 2019
Too funny!!!! I know I'm definitely going to start using salted butter for baking going forward! If it's good enough for Ina.....it's good enough for me!!!!!!!
I suppose it would be sacraligious if she mentioned this to her viewers! Crazy what you can find out in "almost a whisper ! LOL!
 
Jaye B. April 27, 2019
I was mildly stunned. I wish she had expounded a bit on this little aside for many obvious reasons, but she knew she was breaking one of the commandments of baking. And there are so many different butters with different salt content. I've used salted butter many times and have never had it negatively affect the outcome and in old family recipes often the type of butter is not specified. I think we can probably relax about this component, the way Martha Stewart does when vanilla overflows the teaspoon measure. :)
 
nancymae April 25, 2019
I am not at all surprised. I find most of Trader Joe's dairy products are exceptional. Bravo, Trader Joe's.
 
d W. April 25, 2019
Trader Joe's butter is a German type butter. I lived Germany for 7 years while in the US Army. I lived on the economy near Stuttgart the first time and outside Frankfurt the second time. The butter I bought on the economy was very similar to the butter at Trader Joes. It is like Aldi's. Irish butter is different, too. I first had that in Ireland when I went there while in the Army. I was not raised in the city... I am country borne and bred...6 cows per person in my home of record country.
 
Libby April 25, 2019
Cabot uses flavoring to achieve the butter flavor. It’s pretty gross that a butter has to use chemicals to taste like itself. I know nothing about the others and whether they have artificial flavoring. But I can’t eat Cabot at all; the flavor is distinctive and “off,” or rancid, and I agree about “fish”. If you are sensitive to this kind of flavoring you may even realize that the butter itself is inferior and the flavorings cover up off tastes.
 
Lauren B. April 25, 2019
Costco unsalted for me. Everything tastes pretty good that I use it in and I never really thought about how it tastes since I just thought it tastes like butter! Life is getting too complicated and I don’t have time to obsess over this.
 
Janice C. April 26, 2019
I absolutely LOVE your comment!!
 
Lauren B. April 26, 2019
Ha ha 😁
 
KC April 25, 2019
I have always used Costco’s Kirkland unsalted butter. For one you can get it in large quantities and it’s pretty inexpensive. Although after reading this article I think I will be giving Trader Joe’s unsalted a try. I’m still on the hunt for the perfect, consistent flacky pie crust and I know butter is a big contributor.
 
les C. April 25, 2019
This article is a waste of time for those on the west coast as only 365 and lolakes can be found here,what a joke.
 
KC April 25, 2019
I live on the west coast and we have Trader Joe’s all over California and I can always find Land O’ Lakes in any grocery store.
 
Smaug April 25, 2019
This article is a joke anywhere- there's no particular reason to suppose that TJ's in NYC is the same as TJ's in Oakland either, or that it's the same all year long, or that storage conditions are the same from place to place and time to time, or in fact that there's any control of the sampling, and the sample is ridiculously limited- I currently have 4 brands of butter around- a mere smattering, and only one of them (by name, anyway) is on here. As far as the methodology- just plain no.
 
les C. April 26, 2019
Read the comment KC it states only LOL and 365 can be found on west coast.
 
Marilynn S. April 26, 2019
I live on the West Coast, Santa Monica, Trader Joe’s is every where. Land of Lakes is sold in markets and Whole Foods is along the West Coast.
 
Maryann T. April 25, 2019
I used to use Land O Lakes but when the price doubled I started using Trader Joe’s and 365 to save money. Glad to hear it was a good choice. Ralph’s/Kroger Private Selection European Butter is a good and less expensive alternative for cooking and eating.
 
Smaug April 25, 2019
I don't know what was with that- prices rose enormously across the board a few years ago for no reason I ever heard of. Fortunately, butter freezes well and there are frequent sales- I can usually get brands like Challenge, Land O'Lakes, Danish Creamery for around TJ's price. In general, I've found that TJ''s regular prices are pretty similar to the supermarkets' Super Duper Sale prices.
 
Paulette F. April 25, 2019
Land o Lakes is my first choice, but I will tell you that I have found that Walmart brand works quite well too!
 
Carol August 2, 2019
I agree the Walmart works well too. I use any of the store brands that are on sale. However, when I make shortbread cookies I use Kerry Gold because the extra fat content helps to keep the dough from crumbling. When eating bread with butter I only use Organic Valley salted butter in the green package or Trader Joe's European butter.
 
Carol F. April 25, 2019
I stocked up on Trader Joe's unsalted butter over the holidays. It has a high water content and I found it very difficult to work with. I assumed the water contributed to their ability to offer it at a lower price. It did not live up to my expectations and I won't bake with it again.
 
Carol F. April 25, 2019
I stocked up on Trader Joe's unsalted butter over the holidays. It has a high water content and I found it very difficult to work with. I assumed the water contributed to their ability to offer it at a lower price. It did not live up to my expectations and I won't bake with it again.