8 Types of Butter and How to Use Them

Cultured, compound, clarified—what’s the difference? Learn about the many types of butter and how to use them in your cooking and baking projects.
A hand prebuttering bread to make toast.
Photo by Chelsea Kyle, Food Styling by Simon Andrews

A stick of butter is the starting point for so many recipes, from baked goods to burbling casseroles. With the many types of butter out there—cultured butter! Compound butter! Clarified butter!—you might be wondering, what is butter, really? Wonder no longer. We’re diving into how butter is made, the many types of butter you’ll find at the grocery store, and how to use them in cooking and baking.

So, uh, what is butter, exactly?

“Butter has been in existence since around 8,000 BC, an accident of agitated sheep’s milk stored in animal skin and tied to a moving horse,” writes Epi contributor Carina Finn Koeppicus. That original bareback agitation evolved into churning, the mixing method used to produce butter today.

Butter is a dairy product composed of three elements: butterfat, water, and milk solids. It’s made by churning milk or cream—typically from cows, though sometimes from other animals like goats, sheep, or buffalo—until the butterfat separates from the buttermilk. The result is a smooth, creamy spread ranging in color from white to deep yellow. The color of butter depends on multiple factors, such as time of year and the diet of the cows producing the milk. “Butter made with winter cream [from grass-fed cows] will generally have a paler color and a higher fat content,” says Koeppicus. Some brands add yellow food coloring to their butter to mimic the appearance of extra beta-carotene.

Depending on the temperature, butter can exist in various textural states—liquid, semisolid, or solid. The desired consistency depends on the intended use of the butter. At room temperature, the emulsion of fats and water is semisolid, resulting in the spreadable, softened butter often called for in cake or cookie recipes. Butter can be melted into a liquid (ideal for dense cakes like coffee cake), but it can also be refrigerated or even frozen into a solid block (necessary for flaky croissants, scones, or biscuits).

So many types of butter, so little time.

Photo by Elizabeth Coetzee, Food Styling by Rebecca Jurkevich
What does butter taste like?

Butter has a rich mouthfeel and a fairly neutral flavor. Depending on the brand, you might detect a slight sweetness or tang, and some subtle savoriness. Some types of butter, like cultured butter, have a stronger lactic, grassy flavor. When browned, the water evaporates and the milk solids caramelize, leading the butter to develop a deeply savory flavor and nutty aroma. Unlike some other dairy products, regular butter is very low in lactose—one tablespoon contains a near-negligible amount.

How to cook with butter:

Butter has a smoke point of around 350°, making it more likely to burn when exposed to high heat. Most cooks prefer to use oil with a high smoke point, such as vegetable oil (400°–450°) or olive oil (390°–470°), for frying or sautéing, then add butter at the end of the cooking process for a rich finish. Still, butter is the starting point for countless sweet and savory dishes.

Butter is remarkably easy to make at home. In fact, if you’ve ever overbeaten cream until it curdled in the bowl of the stand mixer, you’ve already gotten halfway there (albeit accidentally). Follow this step-by-step guide to making butter at home—all you’ll need is cream, a stand mixer, and an optional pinch of salt (more on that below).

Unsalted butter vs. salted butter: What’s the difference?

The difference is in the name. Unsalted butter does not contain salt, whereas salted butter includes salt, which “acts as a preservative as well as a flavoring agent,” according to Koeppicus. As for how much salt is added, it varies from brand to brand. “The precise amount of salt in any given stick or block of commercially available butter is unregulated, and therefore can never be guaranteed,” Koeppicus explains. This is the primary reason so many baking recipes (including our own) call for the unsalted variety, so that you can better control the seasoning.

Other types of butter:

Make the choice between salted vs. unsalted butter and you're pretty much done, right? Not exactly. There are plenty more types of butter to explore—and not all them come from cow’s milk. Let’s break down the many types of butter you’ll find in the dairy aisle:

Clarified butter

Clarified butter is made by melting butter to evaporate the water, then straining it through cheesecloth to remove the milk solids, leaving only the butterfat. Since the milk solids have been pulled out, clarified butter has a higher smoke point than regular butter—upwards of 450° as compared to around 350°. You’ll commonly find clarified butter in French recipes. Ghee, a type of clarified butter that’s browned before straining, is popularly used in South Asian cooking. You can buy ghee from the grocery store—these are our favorite brands—or make your own at home.

Compound butter

Compound butter is butter that’s been combined with another ingredient to make flavored butter. It’s available for purchase in specialty stores, but making compound butter at home is very easy: Simply combine butter with your choice of sweet or savory ingredients—such as garlic, herbs, or fruits—then roll it into a log and chill. The flavor options are endless: go savory with herb butter, or take things in a sweeter direction with strawberry compound butter for biscuits or waffles. Melt pats of compound butter on steamed fish, crusty bread, or pork chops. Keep in mind that compound butter has a shorter shelf life than a standard stick: it can be made up to 5 days in advance and stored in the fridge, or it’ll last in the freezer for a month or more.

Cultured butter

Sometimes referred to as “European-style butter,” cultured butter is treated with live cultures and allowed to ferment before it’s churned. This results in butter with a stronger, more lactic flavor. Cultured butter generally has a higher butterfat content (typically 82–85%) than standard American butter (80–82%). If you’ve ever seen butter labeled as “sweet cream butter,” that doesn’t mean it’s sweet. Sweet cream butter, which comes in salted or unsalted sticks, is made with fresh, not cultured cream. If you’re making pie crust or any pastry with a laminated dough (like, say, kouign-amann), using cultured butter will result in a noticeably flakier crust, but keep in mind that it may impart an ever-so-slightly tangier flavor to your baked goods.

Goat’s milk butter

Butter doesn’t just come from cow’s milk. Available in specialty stores across the country, goat’s milk butter adds a subtle tang to whatever you're cooking or baking. Goat’s milk butter is typically pale white in color; it also has a slightly lower melting point than standard butter, which makes it ideal for spreading. Other varieties include butter made from sheep’s milk or buffalo milk.

Grated frozen butter isn't strictly a variety of butter, but it's magic in a baker’s arsenal.

Photo by Chelsea Kyle, Food styling by Simon Andrews, Prop styling by Beatrice Chastka
European butter

You may have heard your serious baker friend espouse the virtues of butter from Europe. But is there a real difference between European and American butter? Well, yes. “The USDA defines butter as having at least 80% fat, while the EU defines butter as having between 82 and 90% butterfat and a maximum of 16% water,” writes Koeppicus. Still, some American brands, like Plugrà, produce butter with a higher percentage of butterfat. So before you splurge for the fancy French stuff at the grocery store, read more about the differences between American and European butter.

Dairy-free butter

More and more companies are introducing dairy-free or plant-based butter alternatives. These spreads are technically not butter at all, as they contain no butterfat. Still, many modern dairy-free alternatives look and taste similar to butter, with a smooth, spreadable consistency, and perform just as well in baked goods. Earth Balance’s vegan buttery spread is made with a proprietary blend of oils, including palm, soybean, flaxseed, and canola oils. Others include coconut, olive, and/or sunflower oils. Margarine is a popular substitute for butter, typically made from vegetable oils. Want to explore the wide world of plant-based dairy? Find a few of our favorite plant-based butter brands here.