Your Complete Guide to Butter

It's no secret that butter makes everything better. Get the lowdown on all the types of butter in our guide!

Slathered on bread, baked into our favorite pastries or dripping from an ear of corn, butter is a popular fat that we can’t get enough of. But with so many options on the market, how do you know which one to buy? Brush up on your knowledge to start churning out better recipes in your kitchen.

What is European butter?

The biggest difference between European and American versions is the amount of butterfat. American style is required to have 80 percent butterfat, while European style is churned longer to reach 82 percent, and those two tiny percentage points make a big difference! Not only is European butter creamier and easier to spread, it’s richer and more flavorful, too. It’s ideal for pastries and pie crusts, where the butter flavor really shines. (Read our secrets to making the best pie crust of your life.)

Depending on the part of Europe the milk originates, the butter can vary widely in texture, color and flavor. Climate, processing and breeds of cows can all affect the butter.

What is Irish butter?

Like other European butters, Irish butter has 82 percent butterfat. Many consider Kerrygold butter, a popular Irish brand, to be a buttery pot o’ gold, and for good reason. (Here’s why people swear by it.)

Irish butter’s deep yellow color and rich taste set it apart from other varieties. The secret? Those lush green fields of Ireland! The grass is chock-full of beta carotene, which is present in the milk the grass-fed cows produce. It gives the butter its rich color and flavorful taste.

What is grass-fed butter?

Grass-fed butter is made with milk from cows that graze on green pastures, in Ireland or anywhere in the world. This grass-only diet creates a richer, deeper butter flavor. Not only is the butter more flavorful, but it may be healthier than butter from grain-fed cows, whose diet may include hormones and antibiotics. Grass-fed butter is full of healthy fats and fat-soluble vitamins, more omega-3 fatty acids and fewer toxins.

Here are seven signs you’re not eating enough healthy fats.

Is there a real difference between Grade AA and Grade A?

Established by the USDA, butter grades are assigned based on flavor, body, color and salt. Grades AA and A are typically found in grocery stores, while Grade B butter is more often found in industrial settings. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Grade AA butter is the highest grade and “possesses a fine and highly pleasing butter flavor.” It’s smooth, creamy, easy to spread and made of high-quality cream.
  • Grade A butter features “a pleasing and desirable butter flavor.” That means it may have a stronger flavor and is slightly coarser than Grade AA.
  • Grade B butter “possesses a fairly pleasing butter flavor,” isn’t as fresh and may be crumbly or sticky.

What is clarified butter?

Butter is composed of three elements: butterfat, water and milk solids. When you clarify butter, you remove the milk solids and water, leaving the butterfat. The clarified butter has a higher smoke point, which makes it great for cooking and sauteing. Plus, the process is super easy to do.

Ghee is a popular type of clarified butter that’s cooked a little longer. Here’s how to make it.

Is hand-rolled butter better than sticks?

Have you seen hand-rolled butter in your local store or farmers market? Wrapped in parchment paper, these one- or two-pound logs are scooped out of the churn and hand rolled while the butter is still soft, as opposed to being molded into sticks, cut and wrapped by a machine. Hand-rolled butter typically indicates it’s small batch, slow churned butter, and is sometimes labeled as Amish butter. But be careful, some hand-rolled butters are marketed as Amish, but aren’t actually made on Amish farms.

Here’s our taste-testers’ favorite type of butter.

What is cultured butter?

If you think of yogurt when you see cultured butter in the store, you’re on the right track. Live bacterial cultures are added to the cream and left to ferment before being churned into butter. The slightly fermented cream gives the final product a tangy flavor.

What is sweet cream butter?

The most common butters are sweet cream butters, made with fresh cream instead of a cultured or sour cream version. While sweet cream butter can come in salted or unsalted versions, it can sometimes be used as a synonym for salted butter, so look carefully if you’re searching for a specific kind.

Should I use salted or unsalted butter?

The key difference between salt and unsalted butter is obviously the amount of salt, which can vary from brand to brand. Unsalted butter allows you to control the amount of salt in your recipe, while salted butter has a longer shelf life. (Here are our tips for storing butter.)

If you’re curious about whether you should choose salted or unsalted, our culinary director shares a few tips.

What is light butter?

If you’re planning on using light butter in your recipes, you may want to rethink it. Light butter is traditional butter that was churned with more air and water. With 25 percent less butterfat than traditional butter, it’s better as a spread than in your baking.

Can’t get enough butter? Learn how to make butter at home! Curious about other fats, like shortening and margarine? We break it down here.

Alexa Hackfort
Alexa is a writer who believes there’s always room for ice cream. Based in Milwaukee, she enjoys exploring the city, tackling new recipes and planning her next trip.