Butter is made from the fat that comes from milk from cows, sheep, goats, horses, and other mammals. Most commercially produced butter in the United States is made from cow’s milk.

Butter making occurs in several stages. Cream that separates from milk is pasteurized (heated at a high temperature) to kill any organisms that might be harmful to human health. Then the cream is placed in a ripening tank for 12 to 15 hours. There, it goes through another series of heat treatments that give butter a crystalline structure when it cools, helping it to solidify.

The next step is to churn the butter. This process breaks down the fat globules in the cream. The result is that the fat is coagulated into butter grains.

The mixture is then separated, the remaining butter paste is worked until it is smooth, and, depending on the producer, it may be salted. Further variations in processing influence its characteristics, including aroma, taste, color, appearance, and quality.

There are numerous butter variations. Those you find in gourmet markets include a French butter known as beurre (butter) de Charentes. Beurre de Charentes has an ivory color and tastes very rich.

Another European-style butter growing in popularity in the United States is ripened butter, traditionally made in Denmark and the Netherlands, which is softer than regular butter. It also has a slightly tangy taste because lactic acid is added to the cream from which it is made.

More common variations include the following:
  • Whipped butter
    Whipped butter’s name is self-explanatory. It has air beaten into it. The result is that it is slightly lower in fat and calories than regular butter. It is very soft and spreadable.
  • Light butter
    Light butter usually has about half the calories of regular butter. It also generally has less fat and less salt because water is usually added to it.
  • Unsalted butter
    This is butter to which no salt has been added.
  • Clarified butter
    An ingredient in some recipes, clarified butter is butter that has the milk solids removed from it. The advantage is that it has a higher smoke point than regular butter, which increases its cooking versatility. It also keeps longer than butter and is thought to have a more pure flavor. Clarified butter is similar to a type of butter called ghee that is used in India.

Butter sliced
Butter sliced

Butter should be refrigerated and stored in opaque packaging that prevents light from entering. In addition, the packaging should seal in moisture to prevent the butter from becoming dehydrated, a process that intensifies its color and detracts from its flavor.

Preparation Tips

Should you use salted butter or unsalted? Although salted butter is the most common type in supermarkets, many serious cooks prefer to use unsalted butter in cooking and baking. Unsalted butter is thought to have a sweeter flavor. In addition, many cooks prefer to control the salt they add to a dish or baked food.

Both light butter and whipped butter work well for toppings, but neither can be substituted for regular butter in recipes for baked goods because of the air or water they contain.

Serving Suggestions

Butter is one of the most versatile cooking ingredients and the foundation of numerous gourmet foods, sauces in particular. Its taste can be enhanced by mixing it with herbs and spices and then refrigerating it again.

One popular flavored butter is garlic butter, which can be made by creaming the desired amount of butter and mashed garlic cloves to taste. Oregano, marjoram, basil, or parsley also can be added. Numerous recipes for flavored butter are available in cookbooks.

Butter’s health drawbacks are well known, however, and thus it should be used selectively. If that special dish simply cannot be made without butter, don’t try to substitute something else. Instead, save the dish for special occasions.