Cultured, Sweet-Cream, or Clarified? Our Ultimate Guide to Butter Styles

If you’ve ever tasted specialty butter (say, a traditional butter from Brittany), or found that butter abroad tasted different than at home—you’ll know that not all are made equally. Though they all begin with the same ingredient—cream—different processing methods and regional farming practices all play into the final product.

In the US, China, and Australia, butter must be made from cream with a minimum of 80% fat, whereas in the European Union the fat content in butter is a richer 80 – 90%, resulting in different levels of creaminess. Then, there are the different styles: cultured, sweet cream, clarified butter, and ghee (not to mentioned salted and unsalted variants) which not only have different tastes and textures, but different uses—some are excellent for cooking while others are best enjoyed au naturel, that is, simply slathered on fresh bread.

Here's what to know about the most common styles of butter:

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Sweet cream butter

This is the standard butter as those in the US, UK, Australia, and many other countries outside of the European mainland know it. Sweet cream butter is mild and creamy in flavor and is produced by churning pasteurized cream (ie. cream made from milk that has been sterilized by heat treatment) until the buttermilk separates from the butterfat. As the butterfat is churned, or ‘agitated’, the fat cells to clump together until one solid mass of butter is formed. That’s it!

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Cultured butter

Known as a European-style butter (though it’s gaining ground elsewhere), cultured butter has a tangier, more savory taste than the sweet cream variety. The process starts with adding live cultures (hence the name), in this case lactic acid, to the cream to start the fermentation process. The bacteria will then turn the lactose (milk sugar) in the cream to lactic acid, sinking the pH-level of the cream and giving the butter its signature slightly tangy taste. For this reaction to occur, the cream is left for 24 to 48 hours.

If you were to use unpasteurized cream to begin with the cream would already contain enough of the bacteria to ferment while left out at room temperature—however the results may vary. The advantage of using pasteurized cream is that the bacteria can be measured precisely. This allows producers to create a standardized final product.

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Make your own cultured butter

Making your own cultured butter at home could not be simpler. The most important thing is to pay attention to the quality of the cream and yogurt (with live cultures) used. We recommend using cream in its most natural form, which will have a high fat content and a better flavor. If you're lucky to live near one, you'll most likely can find fresh cream from a local dairy or at farmers’ markets, but its also available in most organic or specialty grocery stores.

Homemade cultured butter

Homemade cultured butter

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Mildly-soured butter

Another hit in Europe is mildly-soured butter. In this case, lactic acid is added after the cream has already been churned. This results in a butter than is slightly less tart than regular cultured butter, as the cream is not left to ferment with the added lactic acid.

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Salted and unsalted butter

All the above butter styles can usually be found in salted or unsalted variants, depending on regional preference. Salted butter can keep refrigerated for up to two months, whereas unsalted should be consumed within two to three weeks (or even less left at room temperature). Both can be used in cooking, however using unsalted butter allows you to better control the level of saltiness in a dish (especially as different producers may salt their butter differently).

That said, if a recipe specifies unsalted butter and all you have on hand is salted—all is not lost. Simply season with salt to taste instead of following the recipe’s salt measurement. If you’re making desserts, thankfully it’s never been more popular to use salt to enhance sweets, like we’ve done with these Double Chocolate Salted Caramel Cookies.

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Clarified butter

To clarify butter, butter is melted and simmered until water evaporates and the milk solids separate from the butterfat. This bright yellow fat is poured off and turns solid at room temperature. The advantage is that clarified butter has a much longer shelf life than regular butter and can even be kept at room temperature.

It also has a higher smoke point than normal butters (ie. it does not burn as easily), and can be used interchangeably with other oils to fry, roast, or sauté—with an added buttery taste! Try using clarified butter next time you roast potatoes or use it to baste baked poultry, like in our recipe for Roasted Goose Leg with Stuffed Apples and Polenta.

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How to clarify butter

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Ghee

Don't mistake clarified butter and ghee for the same thing. Traditionally used in regional Middle Eastern and South Asian cooking as the main cooking fat, ghee is made via the same process as clarified butter, but with one extra step. The melted, separated butter is cooked further so that the milk solids brown slightly, giving ghee a distinct nutty flavor.

Like clarified butter, ghee also has a long shelf life and high smoke point. Sauté rice in ghee before cooking it to lend its nutty flavor to pilafs or biryanis, or use it as the base cooking fat for curries and braised meats. Might we suggest a Cinnamon Chicken Curry?

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Have we solved the butter mystery? Have you ever tried making butter yourself? Let us know in the comments!