Butter: The Churning Question

Butter: a vital part of almost all baking recipes. But with so many different types on the market, which will best serve a baker’s needs?


Also known and marketed as clarified butter, ghee is made by removing milk solids in the clarifying process, resulting in a semi-fluid butter often likened to the consistency of some cooking oils.

Ghee tends to stay fresher in room temperature environments, which makes it an appealing choice in large, industrial kitchen environments. Ghee is most commonly used in Indian and other eastern cuisines, however, there are many excellent ways to incorporate this butter alternative in baking.

This type of butter is rapidly gaining popularity in the professional baking scene thanks to burgeoning awareness of the paleo diet.

A significant number of paleo baked goods – such as blueberry muffins, chocolate couscous pudding and organic coconut flour bread – call for ghee in their recipes, much in the same way coconut oil is used as a butter or oil substitute. Both are melted as desired and substituted in similar quantities.

Salted versus unsalted

The dairy in both salted and unsalted butter leaves a smooth, creamy feeling in the mouth that no oil can match. So what’s the main difference between the two, apart from about 80mg of sodium per tablespoon?

The rule of thumb is to opt for unsalted butter, as it offers more control over the amount of salt added to the mixture. Removing the salt from the butter equation puts us in control of salting – and control is important when it comes to flavour.

This rule works particularly well for baked goods where the pure, sweet cream flavour of butter is key, or in cooking to let the natural flavour of the food come through. Then, you can add the exact amount of salt you want to taste.

Salted butter, on the other hand, is all-purpose and typically used as a spread – something to pair with Vegemite on your toast at breakfast. However, as with every rule there are exceptions. The trend of salted caramel is an obvious case in which salted butter is a preferred choice in baking. For example, many recipes for mini salted caramel layer cakes easily substitute salted butter into the caramel sauce.

It pays to remember the other benefits of using salted as opposed to unsalted butter in baking. As salted butter has a higher water content than its unsalted counterpart, it lends itself to forming stable air pockets when creamed.

Salted butter also has a longer shelf life than unsalted butter, so this may be a positive to keep in mind, depending on your kitchen set-up.

Cultured butter

Cultured butter is the product of soured cream, which has live cultures added to it. As a result, this butter tenderises the proteins in flour, adding a delicacy to dough.

Extra time taken to culture the butter allows it to develop further in flavour, adding a slight tanginess alongside a sweetness, which butter generally provides.

Cultured butters have a lesser fat content, so therefore contain more water, which can act as a binding agent in dough and pastries. As such, cultured butters are not always ideal for cookies or brownies, however, pastries and laminated doughs benefit from incorporating this type of butter – cultured butter remains solid for longer in the oven, lending itself to the development of more layers of flaky, crisp pastry. Pie crusts in particular benefit from the use of cultured butter.

“Cultured butter is very popular in Europe and was historically used in countries where refrigeration can be a problem,” Fonterra Foodservice Australia trade marketing assistant Kirsten Sturzaker says.

“It’s is typically higher in fat than salted and unsalted butter (82/83 per cent compared to 80 per cent) and ideal for pastry making as the higher fat levels add to the quality of the pastry and flavour.”

Homemade Cultured Butter Recipe


“Really good store-bought butter is expensive, so it’s nice to be able to make my own. My version is an organic, grass-fed cow, European-style (meaning it has a higher fat/less water content than traditional American butter). It’s also cultured, which means it has a bit of a tangy flavour,” Laurie says.

“I add a little whole milk yoghurt to the cream to achieve this. You can control the level of tanginess by varying how long you leave the mixture out at room temperature. It’s that simple.

“As always, use the best possible ingredients you can find. Cream that hasn’t been ultra-pasteurised will give you the best result.

I prefer my cultured butter with a bit of sea salt. Remember, your butter will last longer in the refrigerator with salt in it – it acts as a preservative.

“Since the water content in this butter differs from regular varieties, it might be a good idea to not bake with it. Instead, spread it on bread or fresh corn-on-the-cob and enjoy its unique, robust flavour. I recently bought a flat of strawberries and made some jam.

“It was absolutely heavenly swiping my piece of bread with butter and then spreading the strawberry jam on top. Pure bliss. Enjoy your butter making experience!”

• About 2 cups good quality heavy cream, preferably organic and not ultra-pasteurised
• 2 tbsp whole milk organic yoghurt • ½ tsp good sea salt, plus more to taste

• In a large bowl, whisk the ingredients together and cover with a towel. Let sit at room temperature until your desired level of tanginess is present, for about two hours or longer. When it tastes the way you prefer,pour the mixture into a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or into a jar with a lid).

• Turn the mixer on low. Wait and watch for a few minutes until the mixture first becomes somewhat fluffy and homogenous, and then starts to separate. The buttermilk will separate from the cream.

• Carefully pour that buttermilk into a container and save it. It will be amazing used in your favourite pancake recipe. Next, pour ½ cup of ice-cold water into the butter and continue to mix.

• Pour out the water and discard as it becomes cloudy. Continue to do this until no buttermilk remains in the butter.

• The whole process takes about 10-15 minutes.

• Taste the butter and smooth out with a rubber spatula, add more sea salt, if desired. The more salt in it, the longer it will keep in your refrigerator.

Sweet cream butter

There is a bit of ambiguity surrounding this all-encompassing category of butter. In many ways, it is a butter that contrasts the “cultured” butter category, in that it is made from fresh, unfermented cream, creating a butter that is creamy in texture and naturally rich in butterfat. This, in turn, makes it an ideal addition to pastries.

Sweet cream butter provides a lightly-salted middle ground between salted and unsalted butter. Any baking recipe can easily incorporate sweet cream butter; it is among the staple butters of bakers.

Often “sweet cream butter” is an overarching term used to describe commonly used butters in baking; it can be sold as a salted version, or without any salt added.

Whey butter

Whey butter is formed from whey cream, which is let over after making cheese. This cream is churned into butter, the result being a flavoursome butter, bringing to mind remnants of nutty, earthy flavours with a silky texture.

This type of butter can be included in almost any baking recipe, whether it is savoury or sweet. However, many bakers will advise the flavour does not always pair well with other distinctive flavours, such as banana, peanut butter or chocolate.

Its added oily texture produces soft-crust breads and fine-textured cakes. However, if it is mixed through too thoroughly the result can be toughened dough, not helped by its heavy protein component.

The plus side of using a butter that is high in protein is it lends itself to various health-conscious recipes. Gluten-free, low carbohydrate breads, allergy-specific snack bars, even cream-filled cupcakes are aided by the inclusion of whey butter, boosting energy quotients and meeting dietary requirements of gym-goers and those conscious of their diets.

Technical butter (butter sheets)

Technical butters like those produced by Corman in Belgium (the inventor of the butter sheet) see the fat component in cream manipulated or deconstructed then re-assembled so as to give the butter an elasticity not found in regular churned butter,” says Steven Kirk of Kirk Food Associates.

“Having butter that is more pliable gives the patissier a more even distribution of fat through the layers and, therefore, results in a consistently layered product.”

Technical butters help to remove seasonal inconsistencies such as moisture and fat levels – variables that can alter the quality of the product.

For layered doughs, a technical butter is essential, Steven says. The most popular technical butter to apply when cooking has the average butterfat content of 82 per cent, however, a greater concentrate, or a ‘dry’ butter with 99 per cent butterfat is ideal for products like croissants.

“Butter sheets are specifically produced for puff, croissant and Danish pastry production. The high plasticity of this butter provides an even lamination of layers. It also has a higher melting point than natural butter, preventing it from softening too fast,” Kirsten Sturzaker adds.

French butter

The premium, most impressive and expensive butters found in the US and Australia constitute the average butter in France. As a nation known for its bakery products – luxury croissants and crusty breads enjoyed with creamy soft cheeses – the French have perfected the art of butter used for all occasions, decadent and malleable, yielding infamous results.

Dorie Greenspan, food writer for The New York Times, made the trek to France to learn about the secrets of the country’s butter formulation. Her findings summed up simply: ”The French butter won; it was the acidity that made the difference. The yeast doughs rose better with French butter, the pastry was flakier and everything tasted more complex.”

The standard of French butter includes an 86 per cent butterfat content minimum, making for less water and, therefore, more suitable for delicate pastry dough.

French butters hold their shape in warmer temperatures, work as a dynamic spread over toast while epitomising what it means to be a superior baking ingredient, with workability surpassing the average.

“French butter is a combination of crème fraiche’s slight sourness and fresh cream’s sweet wholesomeness, [with a] remarkable spreadability and sensuous slow melt,” Dorie adds.



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