Ingredient Intelligence

Salted vs. Unsalted Butter: Which One Should I Use?

updated Oct 26, 2022
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Sticks of butter on a wooden cutting board
Credit: Joe Lingeman

It might seem like a personal preference, but using salted vs. unsalted butter has surprisingly crucial consequences. That one ingredient changes how butter tastes, how long it stays fresh, and how your recipe comes together — especially if you’re using the butter to bake.

Learn how and when to choose between unsalted and salted butter in this guide.

Can I Use Salted Butter in Place of Unsalted Butter?

Technically, yes, says pastry chef Gesine Bullock-Prado. You can use salted butter instead of unsalted butter if that’s all you’ve got — especially if you’re making something simple like cookies where the chemistry of adding salt in a specific amount and at a certain time won’t have a meaningful impact on the outcome (as it would with yeasted bread).

The problem is in control. There’s no saying exactly how much salt is in the butter because different brands or producers add different amounts to their butter.

This is especially tricky in baking, which can use chemical reactions to turn raw ingredients into something puffed or pillowy. For all recipes, but especially baked goods, the amount of each ingredient has been carefully calibrated.

Credit: Sarah Crowley

Salted Butter

Packaged butter that has been seasoned or preserved with salt will be labeled salted butter.

How much salt is in salted butter? That depends on the brand. Salt can comprise anywhere from 1.25 to 1.75% of the total weight of your butter or, nearly 92 milligrams of salt per tablespoon.

Because the amount of salt in salted butter varies, it’s better to use it as a spread than in baked goods. If you’re cooking something savory and using salted butter, taste as you go to avoid over-salting your dish. If you’re baking with salted butter, and the recipe calls for unsalted, some cooks recommend halving the amount of salt in the recipe.

Salt is a preservative, so salted butter can stay on supermarket shelves for a longer time than unsalted butter. Before you cook or bake with salted butter, give it a sniff to be sure the salt isn’t masking any rancidity. If it smells at all funky, it’s better not to use it than to spoil your recipe.

Unsalted Butter

To make butter, the only ingredient you need is cream, plus maybe some yogurt cultures. Salt is optional. So, anything labeled “unsalted butter” was made without salt to flavor or preserve it.

Unsalted butter is many cooks’ preference because it allows them to customize how much salt goes into whatever they’re cooking or baking. Unsalted butter may be fresher or taste sweeter than salted butter, too, as it doesn’t have any salt to preserve it or mask off-flavors. It also tends to have a shorter shelf life, so be sure to use yours quickly or freeze it.

Some recipes don’t specify whether to use salted or unsalted butter. In that case, the default is usually unsalted.