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Unsalted Butter vs Salted Butter: Is One Better for Cooking?

Extra Crispy 12/5/2017 Rebecca Firkser
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Go grab a cookbook or click onto a recipe website and find an average recipe that calls for butter, like muffins or cookies. What kind of butter does the recipe call for? This is a guess, because I’m not looking at the same recipe you are, but odds are you’ll find unsalted butter on the ingredients list. If you’ve ever wanted to bake or cook something with butter, but changed your mind because you only had salted butter in the fridge, allow me to blow your mind: Both salted and unsalted butter are perfectly fine to use in a pinch.

Of course, there are a few key differences between salted and unsalted butters. Because manufacturers make such large quantities of butter, the salt content in salted butter will vary by batch and brand. All salted butters will taste pretty similar when spread on toast, but many bakers and chefs are nervous about using salted butter because of this potential variation. Although it’s tricky to nail down exactly which brand of butter is the saltiest in flavor, Chowhound tested the sodium content from several butters. They found that one tablespoon of Straus salted butter contained 45 milligrams of sodium, a tablespoon of Horizon Organic salted butter contained 115 milligrams of sodium, and other popular brands fell in between these amounts.

Most recipes that call for unsalted butter also list a specific amount of salt as a separate ingredient in order to maintain control over the saltiness of the dish. However, the amount of salt in salted butter is still relatively minimal when it comes to flavor. Even if salted butter makes a dish a bit saltier than you originally planned, odds are it’ll still taste great. Think about it, haven’t you ever sprinkled sea salt onto a tray of cookies before baking, even though they already had a teaspoon of salt in the dough?

Since salt is a preservative, there’s also a chance your salted butter may be a bit less fresh than unsalted. To avoid any butter that’s been hanging around for too long, just try to buy sticks with the most recent “sell by“ date, and shop at grocery stores that regularly restock their shelves.

Salted butter may also contain a higher water content than unsalted, which makes some bakers nervous. Bob’s Red Mill notes that the extra water could affect how gluten forms in a dough, making it too sticky, not sticky enough, or even not hold its shape. On the other hand, Good Housekeepingtested the difference between butters in a standard cupcake recipe, and found no variance in the way the final products looked.

Ultimately, you should never feel you can only use unsalted butter in the kitchen. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you use salted butter, taste the dish as you cook it, and you’ll know how much (if any) additional salt is needed. For batters or doughs with eggs that you may not want to taste raw, Joy the Baker recommends that if you’re using salted butter, halve the amount of salt called for in the recipe.

So go forth and try buying salted butter for a change. And while you’re at it, make a batch (or five) of Alison Roman’s salted butter chocolate chunk shortbread.

Related video: Does It Hack? - Softening Butter (provided by Food & Wine)

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