Butter. It's that magical ingredient that makes baked goods so delicious, sauces so creamy and bread so addictive for those of us with a carb addiction.
When we go to the supermarket, there are lots of types on offer, with a substantial difference in price. Are the more expensive brands really better? Is "European style" just a marketing ploy? Do they taste better? Are the better for baking?
We're not butter snobs or international foodies. But the type and brand of butter you use can make a difference in your recipes.
What is butter? Butter is made up of milk fat, other milk solids (curd) and water. The percentages of each determine color and best uses.
American style butter: Most Americans have grown up with grocery store "American style" butter, which usually comes in four, quarter-pound sticks. It is a pale white-yellow color, and usually contains about 80 percent milk fat, 16 to 18 percent water, and 1 to 2 percent milk solids (curd). This is the commodity type butter, and most cookie and cake recipes will be fine with this type of butter. In fact, your nana's recipes probably will turn out best with this type, as this is what she most likely used.
European style butter: This butter has a higher fat content, around 82 percent and up to 84 percent. European butter's lower water content is critical for laminated doughs, like croissants, and other pastries. We also like to use Euro butter for shortbreads and sable's, where butter's flavor is the star of the show. European butters tend to be more yellow, which can be a drawback for icings and other recipes where a whiter color is preferrable.
Salted vs Unsalted: When baking, you should choose unsalted butter for your recipes. If, like us, you shop around for the best price, this is the safest way to guarantee that you are in control of the salt content of your baked goods. Use salted butter on your bread and toast, or in sauces where the level of salt is adjusted along the way.
Whipped or Churned Butter: Use these only for breads. They are not appropriate for baking.
The following are some of our favorites, which you should be able to find in your local US grocery store (no sponsored listings here). We list some features that may encourage you to try them next time they go on sale.
We think Challenge is a good choice in this category. It's readily available, has a good and reliable flavor, is hormone free, and won't break the bank even if you do a lot of baking. The fat content is around 80 percent. Challenge also offers Euro and Danish style butters, but they are not common in our area and we have not tried them.
We love Kerry Gold for its yellow color and delicious flavor. It's made from the milk of grass-fed cows, and is free of antibiotics and hormones. This Irish butter has 82 percent butterfat. It's a little spendy, but check out warehouse clubs for better pricing. (Plus they have great commercials that make you want to move to a farm in Ireland!)
We also like Plugra, a US brand of Euro style butter with 82 percent milk fat. It has good flavor and is antibiotic and hormone free. It is also available in most major supermarkets. The best feature here is its paler color. This makes it more appropriate for frostings and recipes that you are planning to color.
We've spent years trying to find kitchen tools and accessories that make our mixing better. You've probably done the same - and have a drawer full of gadgets to show for it!
Earlier this year, we downsized our gadgetry and ended up with just a few must-haves. Below is our list of "favorite things" we use with our stand mixer and for baking in general.
Item photos are links to Amazon (or our store) where you can purchase the item if you like. You may also find these items locally in home decorating, big-box stores or baking shops. If you purchase after using the link, Amazon will pay us a small referral fee.
1 - silicone measuring cups & mixing bowls
2 - ball whisk
3 - cookie scoops
If you don't own some of these, you have no idea what you're missing! We use several sizes to make different kinds of cookies. They also are great for portioning out meatballs, butter and sorbet. (We need bigger scoops for ice cream). This is the key to uniformly sized cookies.
4 - QUALITY METAL MEASURING CUPS AND SPOONS
We've had lots of measuring cups and spoons over the years, but decided to splurge on these heavy duty models nearly 20 years ago. It's worth it! While the plastic and thin metal items were donated, we can't live without these. Ours are from Williams Sonoma. Look for sturdy handles and standard styles. Avoid cute, fashion shapes and colors. You want to be sure they measure accurately and will last. They get a real workout!
5 - medium size fine-mesh sieve
6 - flat icing spatula
7 - glass 2-cup measuring cup
8 - thin, flat spatula
We have a great one in our store. We use it all the time, for jars, bowls and general scraping. They work well for cleaning batter and dough off your beaters.
9 - stand mixer
For heavy mixing, nothing is better! Not surprisingly, we use ours a lot. (We had 9 at one time, but we only use two or three on a regular basis).
For more casual baking, we suggest a tilt-head model. Tons of cute colors and it fits under most cabinets. If you're into cooking and baking and need more power, you may like a bowl-lift mixer. They come in LOTS of sizes and shapes and powers. If you plan to make lots of heavy doughs, pay the extra money for a more powerful motor (expressed in Watts).
Wholesale clubs offer great deals on KitchenAids this time of year.
10 - sideswipe beater
Of course, we have to include SideSwipe! If you have a mixer, we know you'll love this tool. You can purchase at our online store or on Amazon.com.
Looking for new cookie recipes and not sure which recipes to trust? We know how that goes. Sometimes the recipes you find on the internet sound good, the photos look amazing, but your end results are REALLY disappointing. We've found the same thing. So we thought we'd share a few of our favorites. While we haven't baked everything in them, the recipes we've tried have turned out well.
You can check these out at your local library or bookstore, or click on the images below to connect to Amazon.com to read more about the books and make a purchase.
traditional cookies done well
cookies with a twist
We earn a small referral fee if you purchase these books from Amazon using these links.
This chevron flower pattern is really easy to do. You can do similar straight-line patterns on rectangular or other shaped cookies. These "flowers" are best on a round cookie.
2 Pastry bags fitted with plain, medium size tip
2 contrasting colors of royal icing or glaze, medium thickness
2 toothpicks, scribes or similar tools
Outline your cookie in the background color. Fill inside the circle (flood) with same color. With the contrasting color, draw two concentric circles and a dot in the middle, so it looks like a target. Allow to settle for a minute or so, until it the lines work their way to the same level as the background.
Using your toothpick or scribe, starting from the inner dot at the center of the cookie, drag gently outward to the edge of the icing. You don't need to press all the way to the cookies, just drag the upper layer of the frosting. Repeat the on the opposite side, making a straight line outward. Then repeat these lines two more times, making a + sign, so that outwardly dragged lines are at 12, 3, 6 and 9 of a clock or at north, south, east and west on a compass.
Halfway between each of these lines, use your scribe or toothpick to drag inward lines. Starting from the outside of the icing, drag lines in toward the center and stop. Repeat this between each of the outward lines to make the blossom.
If you are using a rectangular cookie, use the same concept, dragging equally spaced lines one way, then the other to create a zigzag pattern.
We will add photos that show the process clearly in November.
Recipes and mixing tips
Simple recipes for home cooks using SideSwipe + your mixer. Tips for using + caring for your mixer. Our goal = Helping you get a perfect mix + great taste.