In 2014, writer Mark Bittman declared in the New York Times that butter is back, and really, it seems like butter is here to stay. Chances are good that your grocery store dairy aisle is flooded with dozens of different types of butter—from salted to unsalted, cultured and organic to Grade A.A. and beyond. Some of the differences between butters are easy to figure out without the help of a guide, but really, there are so many options that it’s easy to get overwhelmed with choice and start asking yourself the tough questions. Like what kind of butter tastes best? And what kind of butter is healthiest, if such a thing exists? There’s been a lot of talk about grass-fed butter recently, but is it just a fad, or is grass-fed butter better? Will bitter butter really make your batter bitter, like Betty Botter used to say, or is that a myth?
The difference between salted and unsalted butter is easy enough to differentiate: one stick has salt and the other doesn't. Or at least, unsalted butter has significantly less salt. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which keeps track of things like nutritional facts, butter without salt has 12 milligrams of sodium per stick. Salted butter, on the other hand, has 727 milligrams of sodium in a single stick, almost 60 times as much as unsalted butter. So if you're baking, or watching your sodium, chances are good you'll want to use unsalted butter. Salted butter is better for spreading on toast or pancakes, but it's also most of the butter sold in the United States. If you just picked up a stick of butter at the store, it'll probably be salted.
So are there differences between salted butters? Of course there are. A lot has been made of grass-fed butter recently, same with organic butter. Really, the only difference between these types of butter and a regular old stick of butter is the milk used to make the butter. Grass-fed butter, as the name might suggest, is made with milk from grass-fed cows. Organic butter is made with organic milk. Health nuts swear by the grass-fed stuff, even blending it into cups of hot coffee, because it is supposedly filled with more Omega 3s than traditional butter—but the science is still out on that one. (As someone who has tried blending unsalted butter in her coffee, I can attest to the fact that it is delicious, even if it's not necessarily "healthy.")
You can get even more in the weeds when talking about cultured and uncultured butters, a difference that's sometimes referred to as the difference between European-style and American butters. And if you've ever had a baguette with butter in France, you've probably tasted the difference. European-style butter are made with crème fraîche rather than sweet cream, which gives it a higher fat content. According to The Kitchn, American, uncultured butters have about 81 percent fat content, while European-style butters have between 83 and 86 percent fat content, and that's why it tastes richer and creamier—sometimes even more like cream cheese than butter. That's what makes it great when simply slathered on a slice of bread, or used in baking laminated croissants when you can taste the butter in the baked good. But cultured butter is also more expensive, so if you're going to be baking a large batch of cookies or a simple pie crust, uncultured butter will do just fine.
Say all of these choices are still throwing you for a loop and you decide to pick up a regular old stick of American butter, not in a log or a brick like the European-style or organic stuff. Well, there's even more choices there, because the U.S.D.A. has created a butter grading system, determined by classifying the flavor first, then the color, body, and salt content.
U.S. Grade AA butter has “a fine and highly pleasing butter flavor” and “may possess a slight feed and a definite cooked flavor.” Grade A butter “possess a pleasing and desirable butter flavor,” rather than a highly pleasing one, and may possess flavors from, “acid, aged, bitter, coarse, flat, smothered, and storage.” There’s also Grade B and General, which “shall be free of foreign materials and visible mold.” Basically, you’re using General butter when you don’t care much how it tastes on a slice of toast (or want to make a dope butter sculpture—because "butter heads" use 100 percent salted butter).