Tips and techniques

Different recipes call for different butter: here’s the best type to use for your recipe

What's the difference between salted, unsalted, cultured and clarified butter? What's shortening? And can you bake with margarine?

Never fear, we have your definitive guide to all things butter.

Salted or unsalted butter

Unsalted butter, often called “sweet” butter, simply has no added salt. The salt content of regular salted butter is sometimes discernable in a sweet recipe, especially with chocolate. You can use regular butter in most cakes and baking, but it’s advisable to stick to unsalted butter when it’s specified in recipes for delicate toppings, icings and so on.

Cultured unsalted butter is unsalted butter with a culture added to give it a distinctive, slightly sour taste, similar to sour cream and yogurt. Many chefs prefer it for its slightly lighter result.

Clarified butter

Clarified butter, or ghee, is almost pure milk fat and is mostly used in cooking and for frying, as it can reach higher temperatures than regular butter before burning.

Make your own: Simply melt some butter in a pan over low heat, then allow it to stand until the milk solids settle on the bottom. Gently skim off the clear liquid on top – this is the clarified butter.


Cooking margarine is suitable to substitute for butter in most cases for baking, as it has a similar consistency. However, in a recipe that relies on the flavour of butter, such as butter cake and shortbread, it’s preferable to use regular butter.

Margarine spreads are often not suitable for baking, as they’re too soft and unstable to cream with sugar, which helps to aerate cake mixtures.


Shortening is a generic term for a solid fat. The type called for in most American recipes is a type of cooking margarine. Either butter or cooking margarine can be used, and one can be substituted for the other.

Can I substitute oil for butter in baking?

The short answer is “no”. The longer answer is, you really have to know what you’re doing when substituting ingredients for cooking margarine or butter, so you’d have to be prepared to experiment.

How soft should butter be for baking

Butter should be soft, but not melted, for cake-making. Have butter at room temperature before chopping it into an appropriate-sized bowl. If the kitchen is cold, stand the bowl in warm water for a while. If you forget to take the butter out of the fridge, coarsely grate it into the mixing bowl.

Related stories