How a $10 Supermarket Splurge Can Make You a Better Baker
The trick is knowing when it’s worth spending your hard-earned cash.
As inflation persists, it’s hard to imagine spending more than you need to on pretty much anything. If you’re able to allocate a few extra dollars to your grocery budget, however, one modest supermarket upgrade can make your baked goods taste like a million bucks.
The magic ingredient is butter. One of the largest-by-volume components of desserts like chocolate chip cookies and pound cakes, quality butter can make your creations sing. “Using different types of butter really makes an impact,” says Paola Velez, the founder of Bakers Against Racism. The trick is knowing when it’s worth shelling out your hard-earned money for better butter, and when the least expensive option will work beautifully.
Pricing parameters are key. Under no circumstances do you need to bake with super luxurious, single-origin butter that clocks in at $50 per pound. Instead, consider the cultured or European-style butters that typically cost $3-5 more per pound than the least expensive supermarket brands. If butter were an airplane, these mid-level options would be comfort plus seats—a step up from the coach cabin, but nowhere near as costly as first class.
This tier costs slightly more because of their ingredients and how they’re made. European-style butters contain at least 82% butterfat and are often fermented, so their consistency and flavors are richer. American producers are only required to have 80% butterfat and rarely ferment their butters, so Land O’Lakes or Breakstone’s contain more water than European-style versions from brands like Kerrygold, Plugra, or Vermont Creamery.
That’s not to say European-style butter is elementally superior to those stalwart supermarket brands. It just means they serve different purposes in the kitchen.
Andrew Janjigian, a writer, recipe developer, and baking instructor, likens the spectrum of butters to salt. Maldon, arguably the world’s most esteemed sea salt, costs around $16 per pound, whereas a comparable amount of Morton is less than $3. Given the range of quality and price, Janjigian uses various salts and butters for different purposes. “I’m not going to put Maldon in a pot of soup because the thing that makes it expensive is the texture and size of the flakes,” he says. “I’d say the same thing about butter. Save it for when it makes a difference.”
To determine whether it’s a Kerrygold or Breakstone’s kind of day, consider the role butter will play in your finished recipe. Will it be masked by lots of other ingredients? Or does it provide most of the moisture and taste?
“If I’m making something where I know butter is a big part of the flavor, for example brioche, then I’m going to go out of my way to look for a really nice butter,” says Genevieve Yam, a former pastry chef and the culinary editor of Serious Eats. “If butter isn’t the star of what I’m baking, I’m a little bit more lenient on the kind of butter I use.”
A $3 to $5 upgrade will make a noticeable difference in butter-heavy desserts like shortbread, chocolate chip cookies, and pound cakes. Something like chocolate cake, on the other hand, gets most of its flavor from the cocoa powder and chocolate in the batter. Unless you’re swimming in extra cash, there’s no need to splurge on butter for chocolate-centric recipes.
Economics of scale also come into play. If you’re baking one or two dozen chocolate chip cookies, then spending $6 on a half-pound of butter might not sound so bad. The calculus changes if you’re planning to bake hundreds of cookies and cakes. “Are you a home baker that just wants to have quality butter to spread on your toast and pancakes? Or are you going to be cranking out baked goods for the holidays?” asks Velez. If you answered yes to the latter, “then I would say find the best deal” rather than pay top dollar, she says.
Teresa Finney, a recipe writer, baker, and owner of Atlanta micro-bakery At Heart Panadería, uses Banner Butter, a small-production operation for cultured butter from grass-fed cows. “Since I’m doing things on a pretty small scale with my bakery still, paying for the local, higher quality butter is worth it to me,” she says. It’s an ideological choice, too. “Using local ingredients is part of my bakery’s ethos—it’s specifically what brings customers to me because they know they’re not only supporting a local baker/bakery, they’re supporting other local businesses that I source from.”
Yam often bakes with Kerrygold, and Janjigian likes Whole Foods butter. Velez typically tests recipes with Costco butter, and notes that Costco often has sales on brands like Kerrygold, Tillamook, and Plugra. “And, sometimes, here in the mid-Atlantic, we have amazing gems from the Amish community,” she says.
If the idea of seeking out hand-churned butter or paying for the European-style stuff leaves you cold, then, by all means, bake with whatever ingredients you feel most comfortable buying. “I always say, if you can find quality butter, it’s amazing. But there are still very tasty baked goods you can have utilizing regular old, store-bought butter,” says Velez.
It’s an excellent point. Terms like “expensive” and “affordable” are subjective, after all, and there are enough pressures in life without worrying whether you’ve blown your budget on butter.