I don’t think anything compares to the taste of real butter in cooking. Butter-based spreads have come into existence to try to provide healthier alternatives but they are not always ideal for cooking. Here is a quick low-down on the basic versions of butter available, plus a few facts and hints:
Salted butter – Salt is a preservative so that the addition of salt to butter gives it a longer ‘shelf-life’. Salted butter will last about a month in the fridge, six months in the freezer.
Unsalted (or ‘sweet’) butter is the freshest butter available, with an accordingly fresher taste – largely because the natural sweetness of the product isn’t masked by salt. However, without that extra preservative it will not last as long.
Given the above, good traditional bakers usually opt for unsalted butter in recipes – the flavour is better, there is the option to decide just how much salt should be added, and too much salt tends to produce a tougher dough. At a pinch (no pun intended), ready salted butter can be substituted in baking recipes, but remember to reduce, or cut out entirely, any extra salt noted separately in the ingredients list. (If you have to use salted butter in a recipe because that’s all you have, the rule of thumb would be to cut salt by 1/4 tsp for every 4 ounces, or half a cup of butter that is in the recipe).
Light / reduced calorie butter is made with half the fat of regular butter and in order to approximate the consistency of the full fat version, water, skimmed milk and gelatin are added. As a consequence, it will give different results when used for baking and frying and is therefore not recommended.
In some countries whipped butter is also available. Its’ whipped texture makes it lighter and more spreadable but the process of whipping means that it is actually 30 – 45% air. For this reason it also is not generally recommended for baking.
When frying and sauteing, it is better to use unsalted butter. If you wish, the addition of just a teaspoon of oil will allow you to heat the oil to a slightly higher temperature before it begins to burn but both salted and unsalted butter have low smoke points (the point at which the butter burns).
Clarified butter is used widely in fine cuisine as the basis for sauces and, as most of the milk solids and water is removed during preparation, allows for cooking at higher temperatures without burning (useful for frying and sauteing) .
To clarify: gently melt a quantity of butter in a pan and, using a metal spoon, skim off the solids that begin to foam up on the surface. Be careful not to allow the butter to burn. When you feel you’ve removed as much as you can, pour the melted butter through a sieve which has been lined with cheesecloth or muslin, into a bowl beneath. (These solids can be thrown away but are also considered a delicacy in Northern Indian cuisine, being eaten with unleavened bread). The clarified butter in the bowl will last in the fridge for up to a month.
Ghee is very similar to clarified butter, the differences being that all the water content has been evaporated off, all the milk solids removed and the remaining butter has been allowed to brown slightly, giving the ghee a nutty flavour. Pure ghee will keep at room temperature for months and, as with clarified butter, can be heated to high temperatures. The process of preparation has removed casein, lactose protein (often a problem to those with allergies) and oxidised cholesterol, whilst still retaining valuable vitamins. Its’ more intense, nutty flavour also means that you will probably use less of it in cooking. Ghee is available in Indian and Middle Eastern grocery stores, as well as in some supermarkets.
Butter absorbs the flavours around it so is best stored in an airtight container or wrapped carefully in foil.
Store in the coolest part of the fridge (which is generally not the door)
To soften butter quickly for baking, cut into small cubes and leave at room temperature.
Frozen unsalted butter can be grated into pastry mix for a nice, light and flaky crust