Can I Use Salted Butter in Place of Unsalted Butter for Baking?

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Q: Can I use salted butter in place of unsalted butter and reduce the salt in a pastry or baking recipe?

Sent by Barbara

Editor: I think there are two types of people in this world: those who buy salted butter and those who buy unsalted. Me? I’m firmly in the unsalted butter camp. I like to add the salt to taste. Nothing satisfies like the familiar feel of a pinch of kosher salt. Some recipes never specify whether to use salted or unsalted butter — in which case, the default is usually unsalted.

However, with the precise art of baking, every little grain matters. I passed this question along to Gesine Bullock-Prado, pastry chef extraordinaire, for the inside scoop. Here’s what she had to say.

Technically, yes. 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 terribly affect the outcome, unlike bread. The problem is in control.

There’s no saying exactly how much salt is in the butter; different producers add different amounts. Baking is chemistry (and control), and recipes call for specific amounts for a reason. And then there’s the reason salt is added: Salt is a preservative, allowing the butter to stay on the grocer’s shelf for a longer time. Unsalted is fresher (and I find has a “sweeter” taste). Salt also masks rancidity to a degree in unbaked butter, but the taste comes out terribly in a baked good and is what I can only describe as “butter funk.” So if you’re buying butter for a baking task, buy unsalted. If you are in a bind and only have salted on hand, feel free to use it in things like cookies. But do yourself a favor and give your butter a deep sniff and a little taste just to make sure that the salt isn’t masking rancidity.

Read more about unsalted butter in recipes: Why Recipes Call for Unsalted Butter