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The Home Cook’s Guide to Butter

ButterSorin Gheorghita (via Unsplash)

Butter is a dairy product and a staple cooking fat in most households. Essentially, butter is the fat extracted from whole cow’s milk or cream. 

Butter is soft and spreadable, has a creamy and nutty taste, and a pleasant dairy scent. It adds a rich flavor and slight aroma to soups, stews, sauces, baked goods, and pastries.

Cooking With Butter

Here comes my best advice for how to cook with butter.

Pan-Frying With Butter

Cook with butter over low to medium-high heat, with a preference for lower temperatures. Butter’s low smoke point of 350°F (175°C) makes it unfit for high-heat cooking.

The only type of butter suitable for high-heat cooking is clarified butter. This is because the whey and casein, which tend to burn at high temperatures, have been separated from it. Clarified butter has a smoke point of 450°F (230°C).

Add a knob of butter to your frying pan and bring it up to heat. A “knob” is one of those intentionally incomplete definitions. For most home cooks, it means a serving of butter of approximately 1-2 tablespoons.

Wait for the butter to stop foaming in your pan before you cook with it. This is a sign that the water contained in the whey has evaporated, allowing the rest of the butter to bring itself to a heat higher than 212°F (100°C), the boiling point of water.

Pan-fry foods in unsalted butter, unless you want your food to have a crispy and salty crust (this trick is great for French fries). In general, unsalted butter gives you greater control over the taste of your food, so that it doesn’t come out overly salty by accident.

Baking With Butter

Since some recipes call for no salt at all and others ask you to add only a little, the best butter for baking is unsalted butter. It gives you greater control over the amount of sodium in your baked goods.

Remember that butter has a low smoke point, even when baking. If you heat butter to an internal temperature above 350°F (175°C) in the oven, it will burn, developing an unpleasant taste.

Some bakers prefer to use powdered butter.

How Butter Is Made

Butter is made by churning whole cow’s milk or cream.

“Churning” is the process of shaking up the milk or cream until the fat separates from the buttermilk. This was done using a “churn” (or “churner”), a hand tool as simple as a wooden or steel barrel with a plunger in it.

The person using the churn would add milk or cream to it, then start lifting the plunger and pushing it down until the butter was separated from the milk (called the “buttermilk”). The buttermilk was the non-fat (or low-fat) byproduct left from the churn.

Today, only a small number of farmers continue to use this process, typically in traditionalist communities like the Amish in North America and the Mennonites in Latin America.

Commercially-made butter is made by extracting small amounts of cream from whey, a milk protein a byproduct of cheese-making, in large centrifuges.

These centrifuges can take up as much as an entire room and, even though they significantly differ from the hand tool of the same name, are also called “churners.”

Here’s a how-its-made video to help you put all of this together visually:

Regular Butter (Salted and Unsalted)

Unsalted butter is plain butter without added salt. It’s the purest type of butter and it’s carried by almost every grocery store.

Salted butter is plain butter with added salt. Most brands that make butter sell salted and unsalted packets of butter.

To determine if a packet of butter has been salted or not, look for an indication on the label or read its Nutrition Facts Label. In the U.S., the FDA requires food producers to disclose the amount of sodium contained in their products.

When it comes to your cooking, use unsalted butter for baking and pastry. Since salted butter contains sodium, it can make your baked goods overly salty.

Salted butter can be a great cooking fat for french fries (and other pan-fried foods) over medium high. It pairs exceptionally well with starchy vegetables like potatoes and can help you balance out the sweetness of onions.

According to the U.S. National Dairy Council, most salted butter packets contain 1.6-1.7% sodium. If sodium in your diet is a concern to you, buy unsalted butter.

Unsalted butter has a creamy texture and a sweet taste. Since salt acts as a natural preservative, it has a shorter shelf life compared to salted butter.

Salted butter can be stored for up to 2 months in the fridge and up to 9 months in the freezer, whereas unsalted butter should be refrigerated for 2 weeks and frozen for up to 6 months.

Unsalted ButterSalted Butter
TasteSweet and mellowSalty and mellow
Shelf life in fridge2-3 weeks2-3 months
Shelf life in freezer6 months9 months

Clarified Butter

Butter is the solid fat churned from the milk. Clarified butter is the liquid fat rendered from the solids and water in a piece of butter.

Clarified butter is made by melting butter and removing the solids, which results in a clear yellow liquid. 

This liquid consists mostly of fat, which makes it suitable for cooking at medium-high heat. Clarified butter has a smoke point of 450°F (230°C) compared to 350°F (175°C) for butter.

Thanks to its high smoke point and slightly creamy taste, clarified butter is a great fat for pan frying and deep frying. 

But don’t set your cooktop to the highest heat when you cook with clarified butter. As one home cook on Reddit found out, it can still exceed its smoke point and fill your house with smoke. 

You don’t need to use high heat for most of your home cooking.

To make your own clarified butter at home, melt a stick of butter in your frying pan over low heat.

As the butter heats up, melts, and cooks, three layers will form in your pan:

  1. Bubbles on the top
  2. Clear and yellow liquid in the middle
  3. White residue on the bottom

The bubbles are the whey from the milk or cream the butter was made from. Let the butter cook until the bubbles have cooked off and are no longer forming. This means the water has evaporated from the whey, which is exactly what you’re looking to achieve.

The clear and yellow liquid in the middle is the liquid fat from the butter, also known as clarified butter or butterfat. The white residue on the bottom is casein, the protein found in dairy.

Pour the liquid fat in an airtight jar, leaving the casein residue in the pan. You can throw the residue away or cook up a creamy soup, sauce, or stew with it as part of the base.

Store clarified butter in the pantry for several months or refrigerate it for up to 1 year.

Grass-Fed Butter

Happy cows, healthy butter. 

According to a study published in the June 2006 edition of the Journal of Dairy Science, what cows eat can affect the nutritional value of the milk they produce. Since butter is made from milk, this also determines the quality of the butter.

Most cows in the U.S. are fed corn- and grain-based feeds, writes Healthline. But grass-fed butter, a healthier alternative, is becoming increasingly popular.

Studies show that grass-fed butter can have as much as 26% more omega-3 fatty acids compared to regular butter. It’s also richer in Vitamin K2, which plays an important role in heart health.

Cultured Butter

Cultured butter is made from pasteurized milk or cream with added lactic acid bacteria, the same bacteria used for making sourcream and yogurt. It’s slightly fermented and has a tangier taste than regular butter.

One common misconception is that cultured butter has less fat content than regular butter. There’s no real difference in the fat contents of cultured and regular butter. 

However, cultured butter contains living lactic acid bacteria. One study found that cultured butter, when kept refrigerated and eaten raw, can have probiotic properties.

European-Style Butter

European-style butter is a cultured butter that’s been churned longer to achieve at least 82% butterfat. Compared to regular butter, it has a richer and creamier buttery flavor.

Compound Butter

Compound butter is butter mixed with aromatic and flavorful ingredients such as herbs, garlic, lemon, or mustard.

You can buy compound butter from the grocery store (it’s also known as “herb butter” or “garlic butter”), or you can make your own at home. Use whichever type of butter you like the most: salted, unsalted, or cultured; it doesn’t really make a difference.

To make your own compound butter, bring a stick of butter to room temperature, then use a fork to mix it with chopped herbs, finely-minced garlic, or any other ingredient or condiment to your taste. 

Eat the butter straight away (for example, as a spread on toast) or store it in the fridge. The longer you let compound butter rest, the more it will soak up the flavors of the herbs and ingredients.

Since high heat can cook off the aromatics of the herbs or burn the ingredients of compound butter, it’s best to use it as a finishing ingredient in sauces, on grilled steaks, or sautéed mushrooms.

Powdered Butter

Powdered butter has a significantly longer shelf life compared to regular powder, which makes it a popular product in the survivalist community.

Unopened, a can of butter powder can last for 5 years when stored in a cool and dry place away from sources of heat and direct sunlight. 

Though actual shelf life depends on the storage conditions, some farms claim that their buttered powder can retain its best quality for as much as a decade.

It can also be incredibly useful in baking as it mixes well with flour and other dry ingredients.

Lactose-Free Butter

Regular butter contains lactose that, albeit in very small amounts, can cause a negative reaction for consumers with lactose intolerance.

Some brands produce lactose-free butter from cultured cream. Lactose-free butter is not carried by all supermarkets, so you may need to buy it online.

Dairy-Free Butter

In recent years, dairy-free butter brands have been gaining ground with consumers allergic to dairy, with lactose intolerance, as well as those on a vegan diet.

Dairy-free butter is a cow’s milk butter substitute made from a blend of vegetable oils (in a way that resembles the texture, flavor, and smell of the original).

It can be eaten raw as a spread on breads and pastries, as well as cooked and baked with. Typically, dairy-free butter has a firmer consistency, but similar characteristics, to animal butter.

When shopping for dairy-free butter, look for spreads or sticks free from GMO ingredients and without palm oil.

Which Butter Is the Healthiest?

Butter is rich in nutrients and healthy substances. However, due to its high fat and cholesterol content, it should be consumed in moderation.

According to the USDA’s FoodData Central database, unsalted regular butter has the following nutritional values per 100 grams (g):

  • Water: 17.4 g
  • Fat: 81.5 g
    • Cholesterol: 234 mg
  • Protein: 0.9 g
  • Minerals:
    • Calcium: 14 mg
    • Iron: 0.03 mg
    • Magnesium: 1.6 mg
    • Phosphorus: 19 mg
    • Potassium: 19 mg
    • Sodium: 10 mg
    • Zinc: 0.07 mg
    • Copper: 0.001 mg
  • Vitamins:
    • Vitamin A: 49% (of daily value)
    • Vitamin D: 15% (of daily value)
    • Cobalamin: 3% (of daily value)

Similar to other animal fats used in the kitchen (like lard, tallow, and duck fat), butter contains cholesterol. If cholesterol is a concern in your diet, substitute butter for non-animal cooking fat like vegetable shortening, olive oil, or canola oil.

Salted butter is high in sodium. If sodium is a concern in your diet, substitute salted butter for unsalted (regular) butter.

Studies show that the two healthiest types of butter are grass-fed butter and cultured butter. 

Some dairy brands sell grass-fed cultured butter, considered by a general consensus to be the healthiest type of butter out there.

How Can I Tell If Butter Is Hot Enough?

How do you know when the butter in your frying pan is hot enough for cooking?

Add a knob of butter to your frying pan and set the heat to medium or, at most, medium-high. Butter burns at temperatures above 350°F (175°C), which is why cooking with it over high heat is a complete no-no.

Give your frying pan—and the knob of butter in it—enough time to heat up. This should take about 2-3 minutes on most stovetops. During that time, the butter will go through several stages. Here’s how to tell when it’s ready for cooking.

At first, the knob of butter will melt. But it’s not ready to cook in yet when it’s fully melted. First, bubbles will start to appear. This is the sign that the water in the butter is starting to evaporate. A typical stick of butter has about 15% water.

The butter is ready when it has become clearer and new bubbles have stopped forming. There will still be some bubbles on the surface, but the important thing is that new ones have stopped appearing.

This tells you that enough water has evaporated to allow the butter to heat to an internal temperature higher than 212°F (100°C), the boiling point of water.

Infographic: How to tell if the butter in your pan is hot enough to cook with

Why Is Butter Pasteurized?

In the U.S., all butter products sold to consumers are pasteurized as per FDA regulations.

Raw milk can contain bacterial dangers to your health. This includes Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, Campylobacter, and other bacteria known to cause food-borne illness.

Pasteurization is the process of heating milk (and cream) in specialized equipment to a temperature of at least 145°F (63°C) and for at least 30 minutes. 

Pasteurization kills the harmful bacteria in milk, making it safe for human consumption. It shouldn’t be confused with sterilization, which kills all bacteria in milk, both good and harmful.

Can You Leave Butter Out?

You can leave butter out for longer than you think.

According to Kelly Reynolds of The University of Arizona, who spoke to a reporter at BuzzFeed on the topic, pasteurized butter can be kept at room temperature for up to 10 days at a time

All butters sold in the United States are, by regulation, pasteurized. 

“Room temperature” is typically defined as any temperature in the range of 68-72°F (20-22°C). This definition can vary based on the geographical location and local climate.

Can You Freeze Butter?

You can put a stick of butter in your freezer to store it for as long as several months. Here’s how.

When frozen properly and continuously, a stick of butter will keep its best quality for up to 2-3 months in the freezer. Only freeze butter before the best-by date on the label.

Keep the butter in its original packaging and put it in an airtight bag or a container with the lid closed. If you skip this step, the butter might pick up scents from the rest of the food in your freezer as the air circulates inside it.

Write down the date when you froze the stick of butter on a label, sticking it to the freezer bag or container. That way, you’ll know when it’s time to cook with it or eat it before it goes bad.

Can Butter Go Bad?

A number of studies have been conducted to help producers and consumers determine the shelf life of butter.

In general, the shelf life of butter depends on its sodium (salt) contents:

  • Unsalted butter will last for 10 days at room temperature, 2-3 weeks when refrigerated, and 2-3 months when frozen;
  • Since salt acts as a natural preservative, salted butter will last for 10 days at room temperature, 2-3 months when refrigerated, and up to 9 months when frozen.

To maximize the shelf life of butter, refrigerate it immediately after use in an airtight bag or sealed lid container.

Why Some People Add Butter to Coffee

In recent years, some people have started adding a knob of butter to their morning coffee.

According to Healthline, adding butter to coffee is believed to provide “a steady, long-lasting energy without a blood sugar crash.”

The theory behind this practice is that, since butter slows digestion, the caffeine contained in the coffee also gets absorbed slower by your body—which leads to a more gradual release of energy throughout the day.

Where to Next

The next time you’re making pasta sauce or building a base for a soup, check out my no-frills guide to sautéing garlic in butter.

You can cook steak in oil or butter. Your choice of cooking oil or fat should ultimately depend on whether you’re searing the steak or cooking it through.


Jim is the former editor of Home Cook World. He is a career food writer who's been cooking and baking at home ever since he could see over the counter and put a chair by the stove.

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