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Butter 101: From Sweet Cream to Cultured

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Butter has been part of mealtime for millennia, but it hasn't always had a good reputation. Mitshu/Getty Images

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For a small stick of cream, butter has stirred up centuries of debate. This dairy product has been controversial for millennia. Ancient Romans supposedly believed butter was food for barbarians. And the Greeks thought those who ate butter were uncivilized. It was the Dutch who seemed to understand the value of dairy — and butter— and by the mid-16th and mid-17th centuries, they were considered geniuses for eating and producing dairy products.

Eventually butter got its due across Europe and Asia, but by the mid-20th century the sentiment changed again when researchers proposed a connection between saturated fat consumption and heart disease, according to the Harvard Public Health magazine. Since more than 60 percent of fat in butter is saturated, the ingredient's future looked bleak.

Then (yet again) researchers said butter was not the enemy. Though they noted it's not especially healthy, a 2016 study in the journal PLoS One determined that not eating it won't really affect your health, either. As many of today's dieticians tell clients, it's all about moderation.

"I support all foods and consuming whole foods before processed, so dairy and butter fit into that," registered dietician and chef Abbie Gellman says in an email. "Portion sizes and how it is used play a role, however, and a little butter goes a long way. So while I would not tell someone to slather several tablespoons onto bread or pancakes, I do believe there's a place for butter."

With the butter debate dwindling, consumers have yet another butter dilemma: What style of butter (or butter alternative) is best? There's sweet-cream, cultured, European, plant-based and margarine — and that's just to name a few. Each style has its own nutritional make up, cooking advantages and tasting notes — and we're breaking down five of them so you can pick the right butter for you.

1. Sweet-cream Butter

Sweet-cream butter is the standard and most commonly used form of butter. The sweet-cream butter category has two distinct styles: unsalted butter — the preferred choice for most cooks so they fully control flavor — and salted butter, which is the same composition as unsalted just with, not surprisingly, salt.

Sweet-cream butter contains one ingredient: cream. It's made through churning milk (often cow's milk), and has a rich, subtly sweet flavor and smooth, creamy texture.

Of course, like most rich and creamy ingredients, sweet-cream butter is chock-full of fat. It's around 80 percent butterfat, with 12 grams of fat and 100 calories per tablespoon. While it can be used on everything from veggies to pasta, sweet-cream butter is particularly ideal for sautéing and pan frying because it prevents sticking. It's equally popular for use in dessert recipes.

2. Cultured Butter

Cultured butter is like sweet-cream butter 2.0. It's made in a similar churning fashion, but bacterial cultures are added and fermented to bring new flavor and complexity to the cream. This means it tastes more acidic and, well, better to some.

Its high fat content — think 12 grams of fat and 110 calories per tablespoon, and around 86 percent butterfat according to Vermont Creamery — makes it ideal for high-heat cooking. Gellman, a big fan of this style's distinctive taste, uses cultured butter for making pie crusts and cookies. "Cultured butter has a bit of a tang, fuller flavor and more acidity," she says. "It is treated with cultures, similar to yogurt, and allowed to ferment prior to being churned into butter."

3. European Butter

European butter is best known for high butterfat content and a rich, and sometimes lightly sour, taste. This style of butter is churned to stay between 82 to 86 percent butterfat. It has less water than the typical American sweet-cream butter, which makes it ideal for baking flaky pastries and fluffy cakes.

Gellman also uses European butter when preparing everything from pie crusts to scallops, although she swears by a healthy and tasty alternative. "If I'm cooking stovetop and want to use butter, I typically use standard or European butter with 50 percent butter and 50 percent olive oil, depending on the dish," she says. "Seared scallops do well with this. It helps the scallops get a nice sear and some flavor, especially if I baste them with a little butter while cooking." Nutritionally speaking, European-style butter is similar to cultured butter, with 110 calories and 12 grams of fat per tablespoon.

butter
Butter's high fat content gave rise to margarine, though margarine also has its health drawbacks, too.
lutavia/Getty Images

3. Margarine

As health concerns around butter spiked, so did interest in margarine. Consumers believed this butter alternative — made by turning liquid vegetable oil into a solid, according to Medical News Today — was healthier and could lower risks of heart disease, according to Harvard. But the margarines of old were full of dangerous trans fats; that's why many consumers quit using margarine and returned to using simple, one-ingredient butter.

Now, margarine brands are changing course. "Several margarines have gotten rid of these bad fats and replaced them with good vegetable oils such as flaxseed oil or olive oil," registered dietician Abby Nevins says via email. If you prefer margarine over butter, the Mayo Clinic recommends using tub margarines, because the more solid the margarine, the more trans-fat it contains. In terms of nutrition, one tablespoon of margarine has around 11 grams of fat and 100 calories.

5. Plant-based "Butter"

In the age of plant-based everything, it's not surprising vegan butters are sprouting up all over the world. Vegan butter is meant to taste like real butter, and has around 100 calories and 11 grams of fat per tablespoon. Its saturated fat content is around 15 percent (compared to butter's 35 percent) and it has 0 percent cholesterol to butter's 10 percent, according to Prevention.

But is plant-based butter — which is usually made from at least eight or more ingredients — better than real butter? Gellman's not convinced. "I prefer and recommend actual butter from a nutrition perspective," she says. "There's only one ingredient in butter — cream — versus a list of ingredients in vegan butter. Vegan butter can also be a highly processed food, so consumers should take care to read labels and avoid hydrogenated oils and trans fats." Gellman says she typically recommends vegan clients use plant-based oil, like avocado oil, instead of vegan butter.

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