My butter lives in a duck-shaped dish my father gave me years ago. The duck head is a bit wonky where it’s been glued back on, but it sits proudly on the work surface next to my granny’s pepper mill.
I’m in the minority: most of us buy Lurpak, or Anchor, or one of the supermarket own-label equivalents, in a plastic tub. They promise to be spreadable straight from the fridge. According to market research analysts Kantar, we buy a third more butter “spreadables” in a tub than the regular paper- or foil-wrapped blocks of butter.
I get it. Hard butter is annoying. Trying to spread it on bread rips the crumb. With modern central heating, keeping butter out of the fridge risks it turning dark yellow and rancid smelling if your turnover isn’t reasonably high. And anyway, with our minimalist kitchens, many of us prefer to keep our butter tucked neatly out of sight.
Spreadable butter is a market that’s been growing since the early 1990s, when it first arrived in the UK with the aim of competing with margarines such as Flora (New Zealand takes the credit for the invention; it’s a topic that matters to them.
Up to a decade ago, Kiwi fridges contained warm “butter conditioners” to keep it at the perfect temperature. When someone pointed out that keeping a heated container in a chiller made no sense the tradition was dropped, to the outrage of many New Zealanders).
The method for making real spreadable butter relies on butter’s complex mixture of fats, all with different melting temperatures. By melting the butter, and gradually chilling it, the fats with the lowest setting point can be lifted off, leaving behind those with a higher setting point that stay soft in the fridge. A certain amount of processing is needed to make it butter again (mixing back in the milk solids and water which separate out in the melting) but it’s still just butter.
That’s not the case with most of what you’ll find in the supermarket now. Very few spreadable 100 per cent butters still exist (notably Kerrygold, Président and an M&S version). Other producers found an easier way: simply whip softened butter with around half its weight in oil. Except it’s not butter any more, as legally butter must be at least 80 per cent butter fat. Lurpak Spreadable, for example, is 52 per cent butterfat and 26 per cent rapeseed oil, with water making up most of the rest, while Anchor Spreadable is around 41 per cent butterfat and 33 per cent oil.
The process is so simple you can easily do it yourself – and save money. To make a spreadable Anchor, let 200g butter come to room temperature then beat with an electric mixer with 145ml oil and 4-5 tbsp room-temperature water. Beat for about a minute until you have a smooth, mayonnaise-like consistency. Pour into a tub and chill. That’s it. 400g of spreadable Anchor for £2.27 (based on average costs), saving £1.08 on the cost of a shop-bought tub.
For producers, this method is a fantastic deal too, as oil is much cheaper than butter. And by using all but identical branding on the spreadable tubs as on the wrapper of their actual butter, they can charge almost the same price. Yes, the packaging says it’s a blend and calls it a “spreadable” rather than “spreadable butter” – but it’s hardly what leaps out at the shopper as they grab the familiar tub. On top of that, it’s hugely confusing when there is another range of products called “buttery spreads” including the likes of Clover or I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, which contain buttermilk, not butter, plus plenty of ingredients like palm oil and flavourings, which are markers for ultra-processed food.
True, the “spreadables”, where they are made with a mix of butter and rapeseed oil, are lower in saturated fat than pure butter, by virtue of the fact that rapeseed oil is lower than butter in saturated fat.
The NHS guidelines are still for us to replace saturated fats with unsaturated, although there is far from a consensus in the medical community on this. As Professor Tim Spector, blogging in the British Medical Journal, pointed out: “No study has successfully shown that changing to a low total or saturated fat diet can reduce heart disease or mortality.”
But quite apart from their health credentials, can these spreadable, not-quite butters taste as good as the real thing? And is it worth paying for the likes of Lurpak when the supermarket-own labels can be half the price? To help me taste 15 from the chiller aisles, I enlisted the help of dairy queen and cheese-making legend Mary Quicke, whose family have been making cheese on their Devon farm for 14 generations.
In the 1970s, Quicke’s paved the way for the resurgence of artisan cheese-making in Britain, winning countless awards on the way, expanding its range to half a dozen cheeses as well as whey butter, a by-product from the cheese. An international cheese and butter judge as well as founder of the UK-based Academy of Cheese, there’s no one better qualified than Mary to decide if spreadable butters hit the mark.
The value-for-money taste test
Lidl Danpak Spreadable Slightly Salted
£2.09 for 500g (42p/100g)
Very pale, soft and shiny, with an oily smell. At 64 per cent butter you’d hope to taste some, but the flavour is overwhelmingly of cheap oil. You wouldn’t want to spread this thickly.
Country Life British Spreadable
£3.50 for 500g at Sainsbury’s (70p/100g)
Another pale confection, with just 50 per cent butter and very little smell, but a strong flavour of cabbagey oil. Weird. Enough to put you off your toast.
Yeo Valley Organic Spreadable Blend of Butter & Rapeseed Oil
£4.50 for 400g at Sainsbury’s (£1.12/100g)
I’m a fan of Yeo Valley, and its organic credentials are good, but this 50 per cent butter spread tastes oddly of leafy veg, perhaps down to less processed organic oil. Stick to its regular butter.
Aldi Nordpak Spreadable Slightly Salted
Although it’s very spreadable, it’s got that same unpleasant, cabbagey rapeseed flavour as the Country Life one. At most, it’s a lubricant to moisten the toast.
Tesco Butterpak Salted Spreadable
Pale, with a soft texture like a tub of thick crème fraîche. It’s pretty oily and you can smell it, too. Although the oil isn’t bad, it’s still not butter to me. It leaves an odd peppery roughness at the back of the pallet.
Lurpak Slightly Salted Spreadable
Very oily, with a grapeseed taste. The front flavour does have a buttery note, but it falls flat at the end.
Anchor Spreadable Blend of Butter & Rapeseed Oil Spread
This looks soft and shiny, like margarine, but it tastes like cheap butter. It’s got an odd, wheaty and biscuity taste to it – fine for toast.
Aldi Greenvale Valley Spreadable
Very similar to the Anchor. Very soft and primrose in colour with a slight aroma of oil. The oil is relatively mute and it does have some buttery notes, but the oiliness comes out when heated.
Lidl Dairy Manor British Spreadable Slightly Salted
Very similar to the previous two. Has an oily aroma with some butteriness. A nice spritz of salt, but overall a bit nondescript.
Opt for this one if you want something lower in salt. Very oily and pale. I didn’t like the smell but there are butter notes.
Kerrygold Pure Irish Butter
Looks yellow and has a strong buttery taste – no oil notes. Quite salty and I’m not sure of the waxy texture. However, it’s definitely creditable and I wouldn’t judge if I got served this in a café.
Président Spreadable Slightly Salted
£2.75 for 250g at Ocado (£1.10/100g)
All butter and no oil here, but while it’s on the firm side, it is still spreadable. One for lovers of continental-style cultured butter, with a wallop of cheesy tang. Butter with character.
M&S Softer Butter
This is basically just butter – I can tell from the texture alone that this doesn’t have any oil. Not sure about it being spreadable straight out of the fridge, but it would be just fine spread thickly on toast.
The Butterworks Spreadable West Country Butter
£2.40 for 250g at Waitrose (96p/100g)
Properly spreadable, this tastes a bit bland at first, but develops to a good buttery flavour with no oily taste. The packaging needs careful scrutiny to spot that it’s an oil and butter mix, not pure butter.
Morrisons Spreadable with Real Butter
£1.97 for 450g (44p/100g)
A higher butter content than some, but with a gently unfolding flavour rather than the wallop of cheap butteriness, and no oiliness at all. One you could use for sauce as well as for spreading. Best for value.