Should You Use Salted or Unsalted Butter When Baking + Why

April 13, 2022

Buttered Bread
When baking, is it better to use salted or unsalted butter? It is a much-debated question and this post explains why one is a better choice than the other, what to do if the recipe doesn’t say which one to use, and how to substitute if you don’t have the right variety on hand.


COOK + BAKE   |   Published April 13, 2022



Butter on plate with knife




The ingredients you use when baking each play a role in how your cobblers, cookies, and cakes turn out.


Butter is important because it adds flavor and moisture to your baked goods and makes them more tender and fluffy.


But when you go to the store to purchase butter, you are left to question whether you should buy the salted or unsalted sticks, and does it even matter? The short answer is when baking, unsalted is the best choice and yes, it does make a difference to your recipes which you choose.


There are some home bakers who will stand by using salted butter for everything and that is their personal preference. But like most things in life, you’ve got to understand the reason behind the “rules” before you can break them.


So, for the sake of this post, we’re going to break down exactly why choosing unsalted butter will lead to better baking results.











UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN UNSALTED AND SALTED BUTTER






What Is Butter?


Butter is a solid fat product created when pasteurized cream is shaken or churned until the milkfat (or butterfat) separates from the remaining fluid (the buttermilk). After the excess buttermilk is removed, the butter is rinsed and then salted if making salted butter.


Unsalted butter is just the churned cream, while salted butter has salt added to counter the pure sweet cream taste. Salt is an important enhancer, bringing out the flavor in other ingredients and is added to most baking recipes.


So, you would think that choosing salted butter is the obvious right choice when baking. But as you’ll read, it isn’t that simple.



Brushing butter on croissants



Differences Between Salted Butter and Unsalted Butter



CONTROL OVER SALT


Because there is no salt in unsalted butter, every butter is the same regardless of the brand. You are in complete control of the amount of salt going into your baked goods, which allows you to control the flavor of the finished product. Recipes are written with this in mind for consistency, assuming that there will be no additional sources of salt added.


With salted butter, however, brands can add as much or as little salt as they’d like. Generally, there is about ¼ teaspoon in a stick of butter, but there is no industry standard in the US to make this a rule. Some brands choose to use up to twice the amount of salt as other brands, as you can see below. You could actually change a recipe without meaning to just by using a different brand of butter than you’re used to. And too much salt can affect your recipe just like too much flour can.


SODIUM IN ¼ LB OF SALTED BUTTER

Organic Valley – 600 mg
Land O'Lakes – 720 mg
Target + Walmart Generic Brands – 720 mg
Trader Joe’s – 760 mg
Horizon – 920 mg



The type of salt varies among brands, too. You’ll find some butters made with regular table salt, sea salt, and fleur de sel.




TASTE


When you use unsalted butter, you get a cleaner, more pure butter flavor that allows other ingredients to shine. Salt in the butter mutes the buttery flavor as it acts as a preservative.


FRESHNESS


Salt is used as a preservative, so it has a longer shelf life than unsalted butter. While this doesn’t mean that the salted butter you buy at the store isn’t good, it just means that unsalted is typically fresher because the stores can’t keep it as long.

Unsalted butter will last about 3 months in your refrigerator.

Salted butter will last for over 5 months.

According to Joy the Baker, there is an easy way of knowing whether or not your butter has gone bad. Slice into the stick and see if the inside and outside are the same color or if there is a darker casing formed around the outside. If it is two different colors, your butter has gone bad.


In addition to preservation, the salt also masks off odors and flavor, so while you may not be able to tell if unbaked salted butter is bad, the taste will come out in the baked goods when the butter interacts with the other ingredients.




TEXTURE


Salted butter almost always contains more water than unsalted, with tests showing it can range from 10 to 18% of the butter’s content depending on the brand. This amount is not listed on the ingredients label, so it is impossible to know for sure how much water is in your butter.


When baking, a low water content is preferred because extra water can compromise the chemical reactions involved in gluten formation. Gluten holds the structure of your baked good or dough together, so too much water affects the texture and crumb of your baked good, how sticky your dough is, and its ability to hold the right shape. Salted butter often results in a tougher dough.



Buttered bread and knife



When to Use Salted Butter


Think of salted butter like a condiment: something used to enhance what you’re eating. While butter doesn’t have much flavor, the saltiness enhances the taste. Salted butter is what you want to spread on bread, warm muffins, or noodles, topping vegetables, pancakes, or popcorn, and scrambling eggs. You’re going to want to use salted butter mainly for cooking and eating.



When to Use Unsalted Butter


Butter without salt should be your go-to choice for baking and making pastry and can be used anytime fat needs to be added to a recipe. It is especially important in yeast doughs because too much salt can kill yeast in bread and leads to improper leavening.



Putting butter into a bowl



What If a Recipe Doesn’t Specify the Type of Butter?


Unsalted is the standard in baking and is implied unless the recipe instructs otherwise. But if you are still unsure, look at the ingredients and amount of salt that is used. In typical baking recipes, the most salt you’ll see is ¼ to ½ teaspoon for every ½ cup of butter. If it calls for more than that, definitely use unsalted. If there is no salt, you’ll likely be safe using salted butter.




How to Substitute Salted Butter and Unsalted Butter


It is best to use the type of butter called for in the recipe. But if you need to substitute one for the other, the general rule is that ½ cup salted butter = ½ cup unsalted butter + ¼ teaspoon of salt.


For example, if your recipe calls for ½ cup of unsalted butter and all you have is salted, you’ll want to decrease the amount of salt in the recipe by ¼ teaspoon. Or if the recipe calls for salted and all you have is unsalted, you’ll need to add ¼ teaspoon of salt for every half cup of butter.


Remember, though, that salted butter includes more water content, so while this substitution will help with the taste, it will still affect the texture of your baked goods.


And you should pay attention to the mg of salt included in the brand that you are using to make sure that that taking out ¼ teaspoon is enough.



What About Margarine?


With all this talk about butter, you may be wondering about substituting margarine. Butter is a dairy product made from milk. Margarine is an oil-based product made with oil, water, and butter flavor. The ingredients will not provide the same results when baking and should not be substituted.



Stick of butter on white plate with knife



When trying to improve your baking skills, it is important to do all that you can to ensure your success. Choosing the right butter is one step to take on the path to being a better baker.




CONTINUE READING THESE POSTS IF YOU'RE INTERESTED IN THE BAKING 101 SERIES: A collection of posts designed to help you better understand the fundamentals of baking to improve your success in the kitchen.

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