Brow Beat

Butters, Ranked


Photo by Sea Wave via Shutterstock

Few words have such warm and appealing connotations as butter. Just a mention of the word calls to mind comfort, sumptuousness, and fulfillment. Perhaps this is why so many smooth, pureed products choose to call themselves butter instead of the more technically accurate paste. (Paste calls to mind childhood craft projects and Ralph Wiggum.)

But what is butter? Realizing that you can find butters in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, on the condiment shelf, and in the beauty aisle, I wondered: What exactly makes a butter a butter, and which butter is the best one?

It’s impossible to precisely define butter when the word is applied to substances as diverse as cashew butter, pumpkin butter, and shea butter. But it seems fair to say that there are four general categories of butter. The first is actual butter, the golden, creamy semisolid made of fat particles from cow’s milk. The second is nut butter, a smooth paste of tree nuts or seeds, best known as a sandwich filling. Peanut butter is the most famous nut butter, but in recent years almond butter, cashew butter, and sunflower seed butter have earned a place beside it on America’s shelves. (Online, you can find all manner of obscure nut butters—walnut, pecan, macadamia nut—but for the purposes of this ranking I have limited my nut butter selection to those easily found in the aisles of a decent grocery store.) The third and fourth categories of butter are slightly amorphous. Sweet butters, like apple butter and maple butter, are more like jam than butter: Their thick, spreadable texture is a function of being high in sugar and relatively low in water. Cosmetic butters, for lack of a better term, are butters that are used primarily as skin and hair products, like shea butter and mango butter.

Since I’m sure readers will have their own opinions about what is and isn’t a butter, I’d like to preempt questions with a few disclaimers: Just because a product has “butter” in its name doesn’t mean it is, de facto, a butter. (Nutter Butters, for instance, are manifestly cookies. Butters from South Park is a cartoon character. And I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter tells you right in the name that it’s not butter.) Flavored butters—that is to say, cow’s butter mixed with other ingredients (like herbs or honey)—are not butters in and of themselves, but rather subcategories of actual butter. For the purposes of this list, a butter is not a butter if it can be broken down into other butters.

With this out of the way, let’s get on with our true butters. I have carefully weighed each one’s pros and cons to give you this definitive ranking.

12. Cookie Butter. Products like Trader Joe’s Speculoos Cookie Butter, made from liquified gingerbread cookies and sold in jars, make a mockery of the concept of butter. Have some self-respect and eat cookie dough instead.

11. Sunflower Seed Butter. A pale imitation of a nut butter. No one who isn’t allergic to nuts voluntarily eats sunflower seed butter.

10. Cashew Butter. I once went through a phase of eating a small tub of roasted cashews every day for breakfast, so my problem with cashew butter isn’t cashews per se. It’s just that when you liquify them, they get runny and taste slightly chalky. Cashew butter is one of those ideas that looks good on paper but doesn’t work out so well in real life.

9. Apple Butter. I like apple butter. But sometimes I think it’s just applesauce that’s trying too hard.

8. Shea Butter. The creamy paste of the nut of the vitellaria tree is an important commodity in West Africa, and it’s a workhorse in natural hair products. However, its scent cannot compete with that of other cosmetic butters that I will mention below.

7. Almond Butter. Almond butter tastes great. If you’re allergic to peanuts, it’s an excellent alternative to peanut butter. But it is—and I don’t use the word hella very often—hella expensive. (This is all not to mention that almonds are stealing about 10 percent of California’s water supply.)

6. Pumpkin Butter. Sweetened, spiced pumpkin flesh cooked down to a dark spread: For better and worse, this is the unadulterated, natural, Platonic embodiment of the concept of pumpkin spice. And you can make it at home!

5. Mango Butter. I’d never heard of mango butter, made from mango seeds, until a couple of colleagues recommended it to me, but I later discovered that it’s a key ingredient in my favorite hair-styling product. Mango butter’s fruity scent and silky texture make it the best beauty butter, hands down.

4. Cocoa Butter. As a moisturizer for hair and skin, cocoa butter has a strong smell and an all-too-heavy texture. However, cocoa butter is a crucial ingredient in chocolate, which far outweighs its drawbacks as a cosmetic butter.

3. Butter. Some may question my decision to rank butter-butter—the kind found in the dairy aisle—third on this list instead of giving it the top spot. Butter is a wonderful, irreplaceable food, and without it sauces, desserts, and toast wouldn’t taste the same. But butter needs support—one cannot eat butter by itself with a spoon, the way one might consume other butters. Therefore, somewhat paradoxically, butter cannot be said to be the best butter.

2. Maple Butter. Maple butter is expensive and hard to find, but these qualities are fitting of the closest thing to ambrosia we have here on Earth. Maple butter is maple syrup that has been concentrated down to an ultra-thick paste, and its maple flavor is consequently heart-stoppingly intense. Given a choice between maple butter and any other sweet food, I will choose maple butter every time.

1. Peanut Butter. Peanut butter is cheap, filling, full of protein, and delicious. It is equally wonderful on sandwiches, with apple slices, stirred into oatmeal, beaten into cookie dough, or eaten with a spoon. It comprises probably 40 percent of my daily calorie intake, and I feel pretty good. Peanut butter is the best butter.