When cooks use butter in cooking for whatever recipe, what is its function? For example, if I add butter to a chocolate sauce which is made from heavy cream and milk chocolate, what do people expect the butter to do?

It's not used to sweeten the product. It's not used to make it thick because with the heavy cream and chocolate its already thick. It's not used for flavor, or is it? What does it do?

Is there a general rule as to what function butter is supposed to do in cooking?

And please don't tell me it's just for the obvious point of being salty or buttery in flavor, surely there is more to it, some chemical process and purpose?

  • 2
    You should ask about butter and sugar in separate questions, since they're not really related here. I'm going to prune this one down to just butter and let you post again about sugar - and on that one, please be more specific about what you're asking, since most of the time sugar is obviously used to make things sweet.
    – Cascabel
    Nov 4, 2014 at 20:58
  • 4
    The butter is also too wide in my opinion, it does different things in different types of dish - sauces, sandwiches, steaks, Danish pastries, the list goes on.
    – rumtscho
    Nov 4, 2014 at 21:10

2 Answers 2


Butter serves multiple purposes. Butter does = flavor, particularly when the milk solids are caramelized. Butter is also used as an emulsifier. Butter + water or stock, can easily become a delicious sauce. An emulsifier is also the role it plays in your example of a chocolate sauce. It contributes to the smoothness of the chocolate sauce. Butter plays many other roles as well. For example in laminated dough (the dough that a croissant is made from) the butter plays the role of keeping layers of dough separate and trapping steam during baking, making a flaky pastry.


Generally, butter is used to make a recipe taste richer.

Butter itself has a nice flavor - not a strong one, but one that goes well with a lot of other flavors. And generally, recipes taste good, they taste richer, with more added fats (good energy source, so biofeedback requests more of them), and adding butter is one way to do that.

Mechanically, fats also make things slippery - one reason they're used for greasing tins for baked goods or at the bottom of cooking pans, to keep food moving. Intermixed in recipes, they make ingredients slide past each other better - for example, in a bread dough fats, when used, let the starches slide past each other a little better during kneading, instead of snagging to make gluten, meaning more kneading for the same amount of gluten formation, or a more tender result for the same amount of kneading.

Butter has a bit of water mixed in, and some milk solids suspended - it makes it possible to use as an emulsifier. Your chocolate sauce likely uses it this way - chocolate itself has starches suspended in fats (cocoa butter) and the process of changing that to a water-based sauce can be tricky because of it (seizing is what happens when things go wrong). Both cream and butter help, since they have emulsions of fats and water, having more or less of one or the other can help even out the fat and water ratios in the recipe. It may make a sauce thicken as it cools, since butter is solid at room temperature, or it may be used to thin the sauce a bit (especially when warm) since fats make things slippery.

So, there are plenty of roles fats play in recipes. The choice of which fat to use often depends on a number of factors, including texture, temperature used at, and flavor. Butter isn't generally used at high temps or for deep frying and such (unless clarified) because of its low smoke point. It is, however, often used in other ways because it has a good flavor, because it is solid at room temperature and so can form layers, or trap air, better than oils, and because it has historically been relatively easy to produce (separate cream and shake for butter, versus mechanical presses for vegetable oils or butchering and rendering for animal ones) and it was generally available to end up in a lot of recipes.

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