A couple months ago, in the depths of holiday baking season, my friend Wendy sent me a message. "Faith," she said. "I have a question about butter. Why do some recipes call for unsalted butter? I don't always have unsalted butter on hand — is it a big deal or not?"
Can you relate? Maybe you've wondered this too: why do baking recipes usually call for unsalted butter?
This is a good question, and I have actually lost count of the number of people who have asked me this exact same thing. Maybe if you're an experienced cook or baker the answer is obvious, but I still remember learning this for the first time, as a cook who grew up in household that only bought salted butter. After all, salted butter tastes so much better smeared on toast or a biscuit!
You Don't Know How Much Salt Is In the Butter.
The primary reason that recipes don't use salted butter is that you have no idea how much salt is in the butter. This makes it hard to calibrate the rest of your seasoning in the recipe. You can see how much of a range of salt can be in your butter in this article at CHOW:
If a recipe calls for 1/2 teaspoon of salt and you use salted butter you could end up adding quite a bit more via the butter — sometimes as much as doubling the amount called for.
So unsalted butter is always a better pick when you are cooking so that you can add as much as salt as you want (or don't) in your recipe.
But What If I Want to Use Salted Butter Instead?
So what if you only have salted butter, like my friend Wendy? Are you doomed to baking failure? Hardly. Joy the Baker recommends cutting a recipe's salt in half when substituting salted butter for unsalted.
And taste as you go, if you can. You can usually tell if cookies or cake batter need a little pinch of extra salt.
A Side Question: Is the Butter Fresh Enough?
One more reason for baking and cooking with unsalted butter is that salt is a preservative. It preserves butter, meaning that salted butter could be older or less fresh than the sweet, unsalted variety. Unsalted butter has a much shorter recommended shelf life than salted butter.
I honestly don't worry about this aspect too much; I mainly use unsalted butter because I want to control the seasoning in my recipes.
But I do love that salt savor in the butter on my toast! So I sprinkle salt on, or keep an extra little pot of salted butter just for eating.
Do you keep both sorts of butter around? Or do you just stick with one?
More on Butter, Salted or Unsalted
Updated from post originally published February 2007.
(Image credits: Emma Christensen; Dana Velden)