What's the Difference Between American Butter and European Butter?
Like most home cooks, we've kindled a pretty happy relationship with butter over the years. It's greased the bottom of countless pans, helped pie crust develop that irresistible flakiness, and melted luxuriously onto potatoes and pasta—and we continue to reach for it religiously as a result. Just because butter is so widely appreciated doesn't mean it's a one-size-fits-all scenario, though. You've likely noticed the salted and unsalted (otherwise known as sweet cream) varieties in the grocery-store dairy case, but if you're used to reaching for the same box or tub, you might have missed the European versions. These richer, yellower butters are not as well known on this side of the Atlantic, but they're still widely available here.
A few things to note: European butters are made through a different production process than American butter, and they also have unique strengths in the kitchen. To help you choose between American and European butters for cooking, baking, and spreading on toast, we've compared them side-by-side, from basic composition to taste and performance.
How They're Made
American butter is the mild variety you find in your grocery store's dairy-case. It's made to match USDA standards of 80 percent butterfat. (In every country, in order for butter to be classified as butter, it's required to contain a certain level of fat, according to the relevant governing body.) Salted butter simply has salt added, and the amount varies by brand, which means the taste can vary, too. Many unsalted butters still contain a touch of salt, too, just for preservative reasons, though it's not noticeable in the flavor.
Typically churned longer than American butter, European butter has between 82 and 85 percent butterfat (European Union regulations call for between 80 and 90 percent in salted and between 82 and 90 in unsalted). It also has a richer taste, softer texture, and is brighter yellow in color than its American counterpart. And it's often allowed to ferment or boosted with active cultures, giving European butter a tangy taste, similar to yogurt or sour cream.
When to Use Each Type of Butter
In just about all recipes that call for butter, American butter will work well. It's the type of butter that our test kitchen uses to develop most of the recipes on this website. Typically, our food editors reach for the unsalted kind—it provides better control over flavor and consistency, particularly with baking. Recipes containing butter should specify whether they were tested with unsalted or salted. And it's best to follow instructions in either case as the two types vary in water content, which can affect the final result of a dish. Cabot and Land O'Lakes are the go-to butters for our test kitchen team.
For any application where the flavor of butter is just as important as the function, European butter really shines. That means any time you're using a pat of butter to finish off a dish—say, swirled into a creamy risotto or dolloped onto a baked potato—or whenever you're spreading it directly onto something that you'll eat, like a muffin or toast. In these cases, our test kitchen recommends the Irish butter Kerrygold, which is widely available in the U.S. Martha also likes a stateside version from Vermont Creamery (yes, some American creameries make Euro-style butters), which is available in some grocery stores and specialty shops.