The $2 Upgrade That Will Improve All of Your Holiday Cookies

published Nov 24, 2023
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Credit: Lauren Volo

I am not a butter snob. Well, okay, I AM a butter snob in that I love butter and can’t even entertain the thought of anything else on my toast. So okay, yeah, I guess I’m a butter snob in that way.

But I have happily cooked with and baked with typical American supermarket stick butter for decades — and I don’t plan to stop anytime soon. However, over recent years I have come to realize that, when I want to make a quick, simple upgrade to my cookies, cakes, and frostings, there is one very easy and affordable way to elevate the game:  European butter. Or, to be more accurate, European-style butter.

What Is European-Style Butter?

In America, butter must have a fat content of 80% to officially qualify as butter (versus some other dairy spread). In Europe, however, the minimum required fat content is 82%, and the butter is churned longer to achieve that percentage. Now that 2% difference might not sound like all that much, but in reality there is a lot that happens in that small swing.

European-style butter describes a style of butter-making across Europe and elsewhere, although the butters certainly differ from country to country, region to region. Most European butter is also cultured, meaning lightly fermented (often with buttermilk), which adds a touch of acidity, making it more interesting with more depth of flavor.

European butter is richer and just plain butterier than most garden-variety American butter. It’s creamier, softer, melts more easily, and usually has a most distinct yellow color. You can feel the higher level of butterfat, as well as taste it. But not only are European butters more and more readily available now, but a number of American companies are also making this type of butter right here in the States.

Want to test my claims and see for yourself? Bake two batches of the same cookie recipe side by side, each with one of the two types of butter, and you’ll see and taste the difference.

Which brings me to the point. If this higher butterfat butter costs, on average, about $2 per pound more than plain supermarket butter, why would we NOT bust out the good stuff during the holidays?

Baking with European-Style Butter

One caveat about cooking with European-style butter: Because it softens quickly, if you leave it out too long, it might get kind of melty. Nothing bad will happen, but if it’s very soft the dough will be quite soft as well, and your cookies will spread a bit more on the baking sheet, and get thinner than you might be used to. So I prefer to soften European butter until it is just blendable, but not softer than that. Your cookies might brown and bake a little faster as well, so check them a minute or two earlier.

No matter what butter I use, I prefer to bake with the unsalted variety, because the salt content varies widely between salted butters, so it’s hard to gauge just how much extra salt to add. (Believe me — I like a serious bump of salt in my baked goods and sweets, especially those with chocolate, but I like the control of starting with unsalted butter.)

There are a lot of European-style butter choices on the market, and I don’t yet know which is my favorite. (It sure is fun trying to figure it out!) Some that I love, and that are readily available at many supermarkets: Vermont Creamery (which make two versions of cultured butter — one at 82% one at a whopping 86% — in Vermont), Danish Creamery (clocking in at 85% butterfat, Denmark-inspired, and out of California), Kerrygold (Irish), Plugra (French), and Beurre I’Signy (French). Land O’Lakes and some other more traditional American butter companies make a European-style butter as well.

Try European butter in some of my cookie recipes this holiday season, and let me know what you think!