Butter is great. This is probably not news to you. It makes things taste good. But to me, there are two kinds of butter. There are your workhorse butters, the ones you can buy in sticks for, optimally, less than $5 per pound, and store in your freezer for future bursts of shortbread inspiration or emergency birthday cakes or scrambled eggs. These butters are wonderful. (We even gave them their own ranking.) But they are not what I reach for, given the option, when I have a particularly nice crusty bread or a biscuit just dying for a smear of butter. Then, I go for the fancy butter.
I tend to only use fancy butter when butter is the star of the show. They add something more than just luscious fattiness to a dish. A good fancy butter, in my opinion, reminds you that it came from somewhere specific. You're aware that it came from an animal that ate grass and stood in the sunlight. Like wine, it has a terroir. But which is the best fancy butter? Which is the block of butterfat that's worth dropping your extra hard-earned cash on?
To make a determination, I did a taste test. Has it been done before? Sure. Had I done it before? I had not.
First, our intrepid Culinary Editor Rebecca Firkser and I sourced 14 fancy butters that were available to us, via both regular and specialty grocery stores. We aimed for things that you could obtain without bribing anyone to fly over from France with a cooler. We included two butters from our grocery store test, President and Kerrygold, that are the higher-end offerings at most supermarkets. All were salted, as is my personal preference when purchasing something that is mostly to be smeared on bread.
Then we sat down with the inimitable John Winterman, Managing Partner at Bâtard and noted butter enthusiast, who agreed to serve as our maitre de beurre. I tasted each butter on sourdough bread and on a radish. At the end I was very happy, and also sort of high on butter fat. Here are the butters, ranked from worst to best.
14. Trickling Springs Creamery
I was rooting for this butter. It's made in Amish country and has a very yellow color, which, if obtained naturally, is usually a good sign for a butter. It came in a much larger hunk than the other butters, a full pound, while most of the butters clocked in at 8 ounces. But, alas, it was the least favorite of the tasting. It wasn't salty enough, and it was unremarkable in flavor and texture. "It's extraordinarily average," John Winterman proclaimed, and I had to agree. It's butter, how mad can you be about it? But it's not what I'm looking for when I'm investing money in high-quality dairy.
13. Ronnybrook Salted European-Style Butter
This butter, which came in a pot, was also light on salt and pretty unremarkable. I appreciated that it was cultured, meaning that the cream had been allowed to ferment slightly before being churned into butter. It gave the butter a slight funky note. But it wasn't very memorable and it wouldn't be much of a step up from the sticks of butter I have hanging out in the fridge.
12. President Imported Salted Butter
President is a higher-end French butter that's widely available at supermarkets, which is a nice thing to be. It's a solid industrial butter with a nice mellow aftertaste, and I wouldn't be ashamed to bring it to a party. It ranked pretty highly in our previous grocery store butter ranking, and I can see why. In less illustrious company, it would definitely be a more serious contender. As it was, it wasn't anyone's favorite, but it wasn't anyone's least favorite.
11. Ploughgate Dairy Cultured Salted Butter
I came into the tasting as a fan of Ploughgate's maple butter, which has a nice salty-sweet-funky balance. So I was excited to try the straight-up cultured salted butter they make, but it ended up not being my favorite. The truth is that the further into high-end cultured butter you get, the more the gap between cheese and butter closes. This butter reminded me of that—it tasted very cultured, with almost a yogurty tartness to it, and a strong funky note. I liked it with radishes, but it was a little bit too assertive for bread. It's butter that challenged you, which is interesting, but not exactly what I was looking for in a fancy butter.
10. Les Pres Sale Butter
This butter was sort of fudgey in texture, though it had a good distribution of salt and a smooth aftertaste. It wasn't the best, it wasn't the worst. Our maitre de beurre noted that it would probably go especially well with scrambled eggs or over popcorn.
9. Beurre D'Isigny
This kind of butter is why the phrase "smooth like butter" exists. It has a nice cultured taste, a slight tanginess that doesn't overwhelm the butter's essential fatty, butteriness, but balances it. The salt was distributed nicely throughout. It would be just the thing on toast, or balanced with something sweeter like jam. Unsurprisingly it performed best with the bread, rather than the radish, but it has a nice, clean mouthfeel with both.
8. Beppino Occelli
This is a show-off butter. It comes in waxed paper secured with grommets, and it brags that every pat of it is sold with a hand-embossed design on top, and lo, it was true. And it didn't just look good, it tasted really good—light and mellow and creamy, a little sweet. It would be insanely good on a blueberry muffin. If you put it out in a table at a dinner table, instead of hoarding it all for yourself, it would be the kind of thing people are impressed by. It reminded our Senior Food and Drinks Editor Kat Kinsman of a milkshake—smooth buttery goodness.
7. Paysan Breton
Another butter that's a bit of a show-off, Paysan Breton has lovely fluted sides inside its foil paper package. Also, obviously, it tastes very good. It's very salty at first bite and then mellows out into something that's a little bit sweet and a little bit tangy. It tastes like it came from a farm, not a machine. "I feel like I can taste that this creature ate grass," Kinsman noted, and that's right. It feels like it came to you from a place, a glorious place with nice grass and sunny skies and good hot toast.
This butter is one that French butter fiends freak out about and chefs love. (Apparently there's a whole shop in Tokyo that exclusively sells Echire.) You can understand why when you taste it. It's not a dinner-party showstopper like the Beppinno Ocelli, but it's an understatedly elegant butter. It's got a great balance and is just salty enough. It's the kind of butter that would play well with others but can hold its own in the spotlight too.
5. Collier's Welsh Butter
Many butter packages have images of sunshine, pastures, and cows on them, but Collier's went the opposite direction and wraps its butter in black foil featuring a man who appears to be a coal miner. Obviously, this immediately endeared it to me, and so I was even more excited by how incredibly delicious this butter is. It's an appealingly bright yellow, and the taste is what I'm always hoping for when I smear butter on toast. It's bright and clean and a little sweet. It's even-handed with the salt, and has a great buttery aftertaste. It's an excellent butter. Congratulations to the country of Wales.
My mother is Irish, so I grew up visiting relatives in Ireland and eating an incredible amount of Kerrygold smeared on toasts, scones, and soda bread. Kerrygold is where my love of butter really came from. Which is why it was so nice to see how well Kerrygold held up to the other, fancier contenders. "Talking about how good Kerrygold is is like talking about how good Casablanca is," John Winterman said. He's right. It's a classic for a reason. It has a beautiful sunshiney butter taste, and it's much better than it needs to be. It's also widely available in American dairy aisles, often for under $4. If none of the other butters on this list are in your price range or in your supermarket, know that you can pick up Kerrygold and still have some of the tastiest butter ever made.
3. Double Devon Cream Butter
Among the many mysteries of the UK is how they have figured out dairy so much better than we have. I mean, did you know that there is both double and single cream? Also clotted cream? The creams alone! Anyway, Double Devon Cream Butter was not one of the entries that I expected to be a heavyweight but indeed, it was very good. It is steadfast and true, bright and just salty enough. It's just a hair above Kerrygold in terms of its buttery pleasingness. And given his choice of every single butter we tried to take home, John Winterman took that one.
2. Vermont Cultured Salted Butter
This butter is not discreet. It's not subtle. It is a rush of tangy, salty buttery goodness. It demands to be noticed. If that's not what you're looking for on your toast, fair enough—this list has plenty of other options that are great and subtle. But the Vermont Cultured Salted really stood out to me. I kept going back and comparing it to my other favorites and finding that it was a different kind of treat, a sort of over-the-top buttery butter. It's a peacock kind of butter. It's a Beyonce kind of butter. It's a star, is what I'm saying.
1. Bordier Butter
If I'm being honest, I'm a little bit annoyed that Bordier butter came out on top. This is the butter with the biggest cult following, the one that is hardest to find outside of France, and the one that most lists like this cite as the number one, best of all time. We'll see about that, I thought when, in pure kismet, I found that they stocked Bordier butter in the upscale market underneath our office building. Stacked up against all these offerings from all over the world, is Bordier really all that special?
Friends, I regret to inform you that it is... spectacular. It's a butter with such complexity of flavor that it's insane that all these butters have exactly the same two ingredients: cream and salt. It's perfectly balanced, sweet and salty, a tiny bit tart, and incredibly harmonious. It is like the first actually warm day after a long grey winter, when you can walk in the park without a coat on. It is so good that I immediately went downstairs and bought another brick of it for personal use, even though we had upwards of a dozen butters up for grabs in the office. If you're someone who cares about fancy butter, who cared enough to scroll to the end of this long, long list, then at some point in your life, you should endeavour to taste it.
But if that irritates you and you cannot go to France or to downtown Manhattan, then listen, I understand. There are a lot of good butters out there. You can always pick up Kerrygold and a baguette and be perfectly content. At the end of the day, most butter is not going to serve you ill.