What’s the Difference Between European and American Butter?

updated Sep 7, 2022
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Have you noticed the butter options in your dairy aisle expanding? A few short years ago you’d be hard-pressed to find anything but unsalted and salted butter. Perhaps it’s a result of our changing relationship with fat (we’re back to liking it, it seems), or maybe the demand for more flavor found its way to the ears of the dairy industry — either way, the contents of the butter section have expanded.

There are more options than ever, and most of those new arrivals seem to come with a continental accent. European butter is dominating the shelves. But what is it exactly, and how is it different from good ol’ unsalted or sweet cream butter? The differences between European and American butter comes down to richness in flavor and the percentage of butterfat.

European aka European-Style Butter

Butter can have a nationality. French butter, American butter, Moroccan butter — each one of these is going to be slightly different because of the the method used to produce it. So when we talk about European butter, we’re really talking about a style in which butter is produced throughout Europe.

European-style butter refers to a cultured butter that has been churned longer to achieve at least 82 percent butterfat. Traditionally the butter is allowed to ferment to achieve a light sour taste, but you’re more likely to find butter made with added cultures. Either way, you still end up with a tangy butter.

Overall, European-style butters are favored for their rich taste — a direct result of the higher butterfat content. More butterfat also means a softer texture, faster melt, and often, a saturated yellow hue. With less water, European-style butters are often the preferred butter for baking — especially when the flavor of butter is just as important as its function.

All-American Butter

The percentage of butterfat in butter is regulated by whomever is keeping tabs on those things. For the U.S., it’s the feds — specifically the USDA. In order for a churned dairy product to be considered butter, it must contain at least 80 percent butterfat. And that’s what you get when you purchase unsalted butter or sweet cream butter, which is simply salted butter. These butters are not cultured, so expect a more neutral flavor.

Making a call on when to use what butter depends on your scenario. Making flaky pie crust? Go European-style if you can; the higher fat content will mean more flakiness. In recipes where butter isn’t the lead (think: brownies, quick bread, greasing baking pans, etc.) unsalted or sweet cream butter still delivers, with economy and function.