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The Best Unsalted Butter
For everyday cooking and baking, which unsalted butter is best? We tested seven supermarket products to find a new favorite.
Published Nov. 1, 2018. Appears in Cook's Illustrated November/December 2011, America's Test Kitchen TV Season 19: Updated Italian
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What You Need To Know
In the test kitchen, we go through 30 to 40 pounds of unsalted butter a week as we bake cakes and cookies, make frostings and pancake batter, and cook pan sauces, roast chicken, and sautéed vegetables. We use unsalted butter almost exclusively because the sodium level of the salted stuff can vary and we prefer to control the seasoning of our food.
But which unsalted butter is best? A few years ago, we decided it was Plugrá, a high-fat product with a luscious texture. At almost $12 a pound, though, it's expensive. Although Plugrá is sometimes worth the splurge, we wanted a butter that was affordable and convenient for everyday use.
We assembled seven national top sellers, priced from $4.49 to $7.58 per pound. Two were cultured, which means that flavorful bacterial cultures were added during production, and one of these butters was imported from Europe. The rest were domestic “sweet cream” butters. All were purchased in the user-friendly format familiar in America: individually wrapped ¼-pound sticks, sold in packs of two or four. All but one product had measurement markings right on the sticks; the outlier had markings on the box. Tasters sampled the butters in three blind tastings: plain, in pound cake, and in sugar cookies.
Understanding a Complex Process
To better understand our lineup, we first looked at how butter is made. Although it can be churned by hand, our butters were all made using industrial equipment. According to Better Butter (2012), a technical manual by Robert Bradley of the University of Wisconsin's Center for Dairy Research, it looks something like this: A tanker truck of cream arrives at the factory. The cream is tested and pasteurized. It's then tempered, a complicated process of raising and lowering the temperature that alters the structure of the cream's fat globules so the cream can be churned more effectively. In the production of cultured butter, the bacterial cultures are added at this point.
Next, during churning, the cream crashes down on itself with enough force to burst the membranes that surround the fat globules and help keep them separate. The bits of fat begin to clump together, eventually forming a solid mass of butter. The liquid (now buttermilk) is drained, and then the butter is rinsed. At this point, additional ingredients may be added, including preservatives such as salt for salted butter and lactic acid for most unsalted butters. The butter is “worked,” or kneaded, to incorporate the salt or lactic acid and to remove moisture. Once it's cohesive and has the desired moisture level, it is portioned and packaged.
It's a Good Time for Butter
We were pleased with the quality of the butters...
Everything We Tested
Made in California and well-known on the West Coast, this butter is now available in all 50 states. Its “clean,” “strong dairy flavor” made it a “crowd-pleaser” when sampled plain. Describing pound cake made with this product, one taster said, “I can't imagine a better version.” The sticks are wrapped in aluminum foil, which may protect them from picking up off-flavors during shipping and storage. The natural flavoring is lactic acid, which acts as a preservative.
We loved the “good, fresh, slightly sweet flavor” of this Maine-made butter. Desserts made with it tasted “just about perfect.” Lactic acid, which is used as a preservative, is derived from cultured milk and listed on the label as “natural flavors.” However, no actual cultures are added to the butter; it's a sweet cream butter. It's wrapped in parchment-coated aluminum foil that may protect the butter's flavor, and though the foil doesn't have measurement markings on it, the edge of the box does, serving as a ruler.
This recognizable product, which is made in California and Pennsylvania, wasn't boldly flavored, and that was fine with us. We enjoyed its “familiar,” straightforward flavor in all three tastings. It produced “great, classic” pound cake and “rich, delicious” cookies. Although the coated-parchment wrapper sounds like a gimmick and the company wouldn't disclose details about it, the butter had no off-flavors.
The sole European import we tasted, this Irish butter was a noticeably deeper yellow color than the other butters in our lineup. It's likely that the cows ate a lot of fresh grass rich in the yellow pigment beta-carotene (a Kerrygold representative told us that the cows “graze outdoors for up to 300 days”). The combination of the cows' feed and the cultures resulted in an especially flavorful butter. Tasters called out “complex,” “grassy” notes and a “tangy,” “cheesy” quality.
Like Kerrygold, this butter is both dark yellow (which indicates that the cows ate a lot of grass) and cultured. It was rich in “grassy,” “vegetal,” and “floral flavors” and tasted strongly of rich, tangy cream. The ButterLock coated-parchment wrapper, which is unique to Organic Valley, likely helped protect the butter's flavor.
For the most part, this sweet cream butter was “unremarkable but acceptable.” Desserts made with it struck the balance of butter flavor and vanilla-y sweetness that we wanted. But some tasters noticed funky off-flavors and a “plasticky” aftertaste, likely due to inferior parchment wrappers that let in odors. As one taster said, it “tastes like the box it was packaged in—or the fridge.”
Although some tasters thought this butter was perfectly fine, it consistently scored at the bottom of the lineup. It's likely that a bad parchment wrapper, which let in odors, is to blame. When we tasted it plain, the butter had a mild but slightly “weird,” “sour” flavor. That off-flavor was evident in baked goods, too. One taster summed up the cookies: “Tastes like butter that's soaked up fridge flavors.”
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.