Sweet Cream Butter

Most American butters (as well as most Canadian and British butters) are “sweet cream” butters, which means that they’re made from cream that hasn’t been allowed to sour at all. This was a big selling point in the days when dairy wagons frequently showed up late to collect cream from farms, by which point the product had fermented a bit. Butter made from soured cream was acidic and cheesy and mostly unpopular with American consumers. For that reason some dairies would “correct” the cream with an alkaline (like lye) which neutralized the acid but brought even more off flavors to the party. “Sweet cream” butter was bland, but far fresher tasting.

Sweet cream butters come in both salted and unsalted varieties. Since unsalted butter is so bland, even by American standards, natural cultured butter flavors are usually added to it. What are these “natural flavors”? Things like diacetyl, acetic acid, acetoin, ethyl formate, ethyl acetate, 2-butanone and other compounds that are created when natural lactic acid bacteria are allowed to go to work on milk or cream. Currently, unsalted butter accounts for only about 15% of the butter sold in America. 85% is salted.

In terms of its composition, American butters by law must be at least 80% butterfat and no more than 16% water. That last 4% is a mix of lactose, proteins and such. Salted butters contain 1-2% salt, which not only adds flavor, it acts as a preservative.

Feel like making a little of your own butter? Go here.

14 thoughts on “Sweet Cream Butter”

  1. So then most of the European butter is “fermented” a bit and non-salted ?
    I live in [Eastern] Europe and I’ve read a few recipes that called for unsalted butter and I was never able to find it, only to “find out” recently that all the butter we have is unsalted, and it’s an American tradition to have salted butter; or did I mis-interpret my “findings” ? 🙂

    1. Hi Bec!

      I confess I’m not completely sure about Eastern Europe, but “cultured” (slightly fermented or soured) butters are the rule in much of Western Europe. I expect it would be the same for you as well (thought I don’t know which country you live in). As for salt, I think you’re correct in your findings that Europeans tend not to salt their butters, or at least not as heavily as we do.

      Hope I helped!

      – Joe

      1. I completely agree about salted butter – at least in Latvia it’s minority in grocery shelves. In households where butter was made, it was salted for preservation purpose, but when refrigerators become common, there was no need for it anymore.
        Unfortunately cultured butter is minority here too – I haven’t found one in shops for a while (some day I will try to search in market which has variety of dairy products, hope that someone produces it at all). Only cultured butter product I found in local market was with 78% butterfat (in European Union butter has to be at least 82% butterfat) and it messed up my puff pastry by being too soft even in fridge temperature. So I can only envy Western Europe for their choice of butters 🙂

        1. Interesting, Antuanete! I can certainly see where a wet butter would ruin puff pastry. Thanks for the information!

          – Joe

  2. When I was a kid in the 50s my father sought out the cultured and heavily salted butter he had grown up with in Maine. I think they salted it so heavily because there was then little available in the way of serious refrigeration. Or maybe, because of the lack of refrigeration the cream was already soured and the salt was intended to mask some of that.

    This butter was a highly saturated golden yellow and was formed in 1 pound blocks — some of them having decorative impressions from the carved wooden molds they were pressed into. You could see the light shine off some of the salt that crystalized on the surface. The flavor was as close to cheese as you could get and still call it butter. So, naturally, growing up on it, my father found all other butter bland and unacceptable in comparison.

    We had to scour the small farms of rural Maine that still made their own butter to get it. And we’d cart as much as we could score back to New York to tease out through as much of the year as possible before an annual vacation meant a fresh supply.

    1. Fascinating, Rainey! I’d love to try something like that. That is serious old school butter making — wooden forms and all!


      – Joe

  3. I don’t think i’ve seen cultured butter here in Sweden, but was amused when they started selling “sticks” like I was used to as normally its 500g blocks, as seen here http://www.kostradgivarna.se/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/smr_124422494.jpg
    As I’ve since gotten used to the blocks, I see no point in buying the overpriced sticks. I do have a preference for super salty butter but I’m gonna try and nip it in the bud, I’ve noticed the fat content is better on the unsalted ones

      1. There is something about a culture on the package, but I wouldn’t say it tastes any different than Land o Lakes did. Maybe a little better but not like I think I would expect?

        1. Yep, that culture is what’s added to give it a slightly fuller flavor. It’s a subtle difference, but unsalted sweet cream butter really doesn’t taste like much at all! 😉

          – Joe

          1. Joe, Do you think its the lack of the culture that causes American butter to be more salted? Its a way of making the butter have more flavor?

          2. Hey Frankly! I’m not completely sure. Salt was traditionally added to butter as a preservative. My guess is that people probably expected at least a little salt even after the advent of refrigerated dairy trucks and sweet cream butter. Unsalted butter probably came later, or at least that’s my guess. I’ll see what I can dig up on that!

            – Joe

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