Lesson 10: About Butter

In this lesson about butter, you will learn that it is not only a staple in most homes but an essential part of baking. While we have a number of dairy-free substitutions to work with nowadays, nothing works as perfectly. Whether you’re a veteran home baker or a newbie, there is probably something for everyone to learn in this lesson. Included are some dairy-free tips.

What is Butter?

When you separate the fat from whole milk, you begin the process of making butter. Nowadays, butter is made from cream that contains 30 – 45% fat. After the fat is separated, it is usually pasteurized (heated to a high temperature) to kill bacteria and extend freshness. Then, the fat is churned into butter. The liquid is removed (old fashion buttermilk) and the remaining butter is blended to what we use in our kitchens.

Is Butter Healthy For Me?

Somewhere along the line, butter was given the label of causing high cholesterol, weight problems, and diabetes. What you may not know is the actual nutritional facts of butter compared to margarine and olive oil. Take a look at the below chart.1

One serving (10 g or 2 tsp/10 mL) Fat (g) Calories
Butter 8 72
Margarine 8 72
Olive Oil 10 88


The Different Types of Butter

Salted and Unsalted: You’re probably best familiar with salted and unsalted butter. It’s simple enough. One contains salt (a maximum of 2%2) and the other contains none. Either of the two may be made from milk or cream. Because salt acts as a preservative, salted butter will last longer than unsalted.

Sweet Cream Butter: Often times butter packages labeled “Sweet Cream Butter” confuse people because not all packages are labeled as such. When butter is made from cream that is not sour, it is sweet cream butter. You will find sweet cream butter offered in salted and unsalted.

Cultured Sweet Cream Butter: Cultured cream butter is butter that has been fermented/soured similar to buttermilk, sour cream, etc. This butter tastes sour. Use cultured cream butter in bread and anything to which you would like to add a little sour bite.

European Butter: European butter contains a higher fat content comparted to regular sweet cream butter. While sweet cream butter must contain at least 80% fat, European butter must contain 82% fat and is available as high as 85% fat. Because European butter contains more fat and less water, it is the most coveted butter. However, European butter comes with a much higher price tag.

Grass-fed Butter: If you wish to avoid butter that comes from cows that eat grain, grass-fed butter is the choice for you. It is touted to contain more vitamins than traditional butter.

Alternative Butter: You can find a variety of butter made from a variety of animal milk including sheep, goat, buffalo, and yak.

Clarified Butter/Ghee: You can remove the water and milk solids from butter. What is left is called clarified butter. If you cook melted butter until the milk solids brown (prior to removing them), creating a brownish tint to the fat, this is called ghee. Ghee contains a mild nutty flavor. See the recipe for Clarified Butter. Some people who are intolerant to dairy can tolerate clarified butter. I don’t ever recommend that dairy intolerant individuals try ghee as it appears that those brown dairy solids are in the clarified butter. You should consult a medical professional if you wish to try clarified butter if you have a dairy intolerance. Clarified butter and ghee have longer shelf lives than non-clarified3.

Grades of Butter: Butter is classified in grades. The best grade is AA followed by A and then B. The grades are given for flavor, color, texture, and aroma. Grade AA and A, both made from fresh cream, contain a minimum of 80% fat. Grade A has a stronger flavor than AA. Grade B is usually made from sour cream and tastes tangy.

How Long Will Butter Last?

Butter stays fresh in the refrigerator for 2 – 3 months. Just be sure to keep it wrapped tightly. At room temperature, no greater than 80⁰F, butter will last up to 2 – 3 days. In warm weather months, do not allow butter to rest at room temperature for more than 24 hours. You can freeze butter, double or triple wrapped, for up to 1 year.

Which Butter Should I Use When?

The choice of unsalted or salted butter depends upon its use. Different brands of salted butter contain different amounts of salt. So, in baking, it is easier to control the amount of salt you add to a recipe by using unsalted butter.

For vegetables and other savory dishes salted butter works fine. For toast, salted is the only way to go. Otherwise, it tastes bland.

European butter is the best of all butters. The more fat in the butter, the less water. So, consider this when using European butter in your recipes. Higher fat makes cakes and cookies tender. If you want your pies and pastries to be flakier and crisper, higher fat butter will provide this as well. You’ll find European butter at Costco in 1-pound blocks, which is equal to four sticks of butter. So, measuring this butter is a little more time consuming than slicing regular butter. You have to cut the block in fourths and then judge whether or not they are equal. This doesn’t make for good baking. You really should use exact amounts of butter. There is a workaround though. You can measure the butter by weight using a kitchen scale. See the below conversions:

1 tablespoon = .5 ounce

2 tablespoons = 1 ounce – 1/4 stick

3 tablespoons = 1.5 ounces

4 tablespoons = 2 ounces – 1/2 stick

8 tablespoons = 4 ounces = 1/4 pound = 1 stick

16 tablespoons = 8 ounces = 1/2 pound = 2 sticks


What is the Smoke Point of Butter?

Every fat begins to smoke at a specific temperature. The temperature at which it begins to smoke is called “Smoke Point”. When unsaturated fats (not saturated fats like bacon grease) reach their smoke point, the fat turns into a toxic substance that can wreak havoc on your body. Butter churned from milk has a smoke point of 350⁰F (medium on a stovetop). Clarified butter has a smoke point of 485⁰F.3 So many Americans are turning to expensive avocado oil because of its high smoke point of 520⁰F, excluding its health benefits. You may save money by using homemade clarified butter instead. However, if you are dairy-free, avocado oil it the way to go.

The Role of Butter in Baking

Butter has two roles in baking. The fat content from butter creates moist, flavorful baked goods. The water content from butter provides moisture. You see, the water in the butter along with any other liquid in the recipe contribute to the air holes in batters and dough, which create spongy or airy textures. Liquid also turns to steam, which helps baked goods rise.

How Do I Substitute for Butter?

Butter churned from whole milk contains 80% fat and 20% water. Therefore, you want to substitute the same amount of fat and water. If you want to substitute Spectrum Organic Shortening or bacon grease for butter (both contain 100% fat), you would need to use 80% shortening or bacon grease and 20% water. Together, they should measure the same amount of butter called for in a recipe. As an example, if a recipe calls for 8 tablespoons (1/2 cup or 4 ounces) butter, you would use 5.12 tablespoons (about 5 tablespoons + 1/3 teaspoon) shortening or bacon grease plus 1.6 tablespoons (a tiny bit over 1-1/2 tablespoons) water.

Keep in mind that shortening tends to make the crust on baked goods a little crisp. Coconut oil may do the same. However, if you add a little full-fat coconut milk along with coconut oil, it may help. Full-fat coconut milk contains about 20% fat and 80% coconut water. So, if you add some coconut milk, you don’t have to add any water.

See the examples in the below chart to figure out what percentage of coconut oil and water or coconut oil and full-fat coconut milk to add to your recipes. Then, use this ratio to replace butter in a recipe.

 ButterCoconut OilFull-Fat Coconut MilkWaterEarth Balance Vegan Buttery Sticks
1.100% (8 Tablespoons)
2.80% (6.4 Tablespoons)20% (1.6 Tablespoons)
3.75% (6 Tablespoons)25% (2 Tablespoons)

The Temperature of Butter in Baking

Usually, recipes call for room temperature butter. When they don’t, it is because you’re making a dough that you want to be flaky or crispy such as pie or pastry dough. When you need room temperature butter, don’t allow the butter to become too soft. Don’t be tempted to microwave the butter until some of it melts just to bring it to room temperature. Butter should be soft enough to indent with your fingers and leave an impression, but you should not be able to squeeze butter between two fingers and have those fingers touch.

Perfect room temperature butter is 65⁰F. It is still cool to the touch. When butter is at this temperature, air is easily beaten into the butter when you cream it together with sugar. You want it cold but pliable.

Butter Cross-Contamination

If you are intolerant to gluten and have people in your household that eat gluten bread, avoid toast, butter, or muffin crumbs in your butter! Provide them with their own butter.

Dairy-Free Butter Substitutes

See the Substitutes page, under the section on Gluten-Free Dairy-Free Vegan Butter and Margarine Substitutes.

Note that if you choose to use coconut oil, refined coconut oil won’t have a strong coconut flavor where unrefined does.



Dairy Assignment

  1. Minimally, look for the grade of the butter that you purchase or have on hand. Play around with the butter to see how long it takes to reach room temperature and your fingers just make an indentation. Note the temperature of the room. If you have an instant-read thermometer take the temperature of the butter as well.
  2. If you have access to European butter and can afford to purchase some, do so. Also, have some regular sweet butter on hand. Make half of a gluten free recipe of whatever you desire using sweet cream butter and another half of the same recipe using European butter. (You can make something as simple as muffins, cookies, pancakes, etc. To find a recipe, visit the Recipe Index page.) Notice the difference in flavor and texture. Note whether one stays fresh longer.

Dairy-Free Assignment

If you’re dairy-free, use two different butter substitutes using half a recipe each. Take notice of all of the above in step 2 of the above dairy assignment.

If you’re considering going dairy-free, make one half a recipe with butter and the other a dairy-free substitute. Note the differences.


Remember, you can always access previous lessons on the Syllabus page.



  1. Dairy Farmers of Canada, Butter Facts & Fallacies, Accessed March 7, 2019.
  2. Culinary Institute of America, The Professional Chef, Ninth Edition, page 184.
  3. Culinary Institute of America, The Professional Chef, Ninth Edition, page 232.