A glossary of types—and what they’re best for.

By Lindsay Hunt

Unsalted butter: Sometimes called “sweet cream butter,” this is the most versatile variety. It will see you through every cooking job, from baking to sautéing. Made from only milk or cream (or sometimes both), it contains at least 80 percent milk fat—the fatty particles in milk that are separated out to make cream.

Salted butter: Just like the original, but with (surprise) the addition of salt. Many people reach for this when buttering bread, but use caution when you’re cooking or baking, since most recipes call for unsalted butter.

Organic butter: Comes from cattle raised without antibiotics or growth hormones and given 100 percent organic feed grown without toxic pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. It is available unsalted and salted and can be used like conventional butter.

Whipped butter: This variety has air or some other gas, such as nitrogen, added to it to make it less dense than standard butter, so a little goes a long way. The increased volume results in fewer calories per tablespoon (often half) and a lighter texture. Best for spreading on toast and finishing dishes, whipped butter is not recommended for baking or cooking.

European-style butter: This is the reason French croissants are so utterly irresistible: Loaded with extra milk fat—82 to 85 percent for most brands—European-style butter has less moisture than standard butter and so produces extra-flaky pastries and tender, fluffy cakes. Because it is made with fermented (also called “cultured”) cream, it has a slight tang. European-style butter can be used for all cooking tasks.

Spreadable butter: A combination of regular butter and vegetable oil (and sometimes other flavorings and fillers), this product maintains a soft texture even when refrigerated. It is not recommended for baking or cooking.

Light butter: This option has half the calories of standard butter because it contains less milk fat—40 percent at most. The rest is made up of water, lactic acid, and other fillers. It is not recommended for baking or cooking.

Butterlike spread: Often marked with the label “buttery spread,” this has a similar soft texture to spreadable butter but contains far less real butter—at most 5 percent and sometimes none at all. Instead, it is made primarily from a blend of vegetable oils and other fillers. Its benefits include fewer calories, less fat, and just a trace amount of cholesterol. It is not recommended for baking or cooking.

Find the best butters here.