Salted Butter vs Unsalted Butter in Baking

Salted vs Unsalted Butter in Baking on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Here’s a common question in the kitchen. What’s the deal with salted and unsalted butter in baking? Does it really make a difference? Or is the recipe just being annoyingly picky? Ugh, baking.

Yes and yes I’m sorry.

Butter is our best friend in the kitchen, especially when it comes to pie crusts and cookies and cakes and cupcakes and poundcake and oh yeah, every other thing we have ever baked! Butter’s so common in our recipes that we often take this simple ingredient for granted. But the truth is that butter is just as fussy as the next baking ingredient. If your butter is too warm, forget about creaming it and your “fluffy cake” will end up dense, lifeless, and flat. Too cold and you’ll wind up with harsh chunks of butter in your otherwise pristine cake batter. Not only with regards to temperature, butter is a massive question mark when it comes to salt content. And that’s exactly what we’re going to discuss today.

Salted vs Unsalted Butter in Baking on sallysbakingaddiction.com

It’s quite ironic that a recipe can call for both unsalted (sweet) butter and salt. Why not just use salted butter? 2 or 3 reasons, actually.

1. The amount of salt in salted butter varies between brands.

You know baking is all about science, but it’s all about control as well. When you use unsalted butter in a recipe, you can control the exact amount of salt in your baked good. When you use salted butter, you have no idea how much salt you’re using because it varies between each brand you see at the store. Chowhound tells us the exact amount of salt in popular brands and some are double the amount of others! It would take quite a lot of salted butter to really produce a huge taste difference in baked goods, but it’s still good to be able to fully control the amount of salt.

2. Unsalted butter is fresher.

Salt is a preservative and therefore, salted butter has a longer shelf life than unsalted butter. We’re talking 3-4 months of shelf time. This doesn’t necessarily mean that salted butter has been on the shelf longer; it simply has a longer shelf life. For the freshest butter, reach for the unsalted variety. (Or heck! Make your own!) However, some brands add “natural flavor” to unsalted butter, which extends its shelf life (not quite as long as salt). This is usually lactic acid, which also helps regulate its pH.

Salted vs Unsalted Butter in Baking on sallysbakingaddiction.com

How to Substitute Salted Butter and Unsalted Butter

It’s best to use the type of butter called for in a recipe. But here’s a general rule: reduce or add 1/4 teaspoon of salt per 1/2 cup (1/4 lb; 115g; 1 stick) of butter.

Explained: If you come across a recipe that calls for salted butter and all you have is unsalted butter, use unsalted butter and increase the salt in the recipe by 1/4 teaspoon for every 1/2 cup of butter. So if a recipe calls for 1 cup of salted butter and 1/4 teaspoon of salt, you will use 1 cup of unsalted butter and 3/4 teaspoon of salt. And if you come across a recipe that calls for unsalted butter and all you have is salted butter, simply decrease the salt in the recipe by the same ratio above– 1/4 teaspoon of salt per 1/2 cup of butter. If you’re making a recipe that calls for 1/2 cup of unsalted butter and 1/2 teaspoon of salt, you can use 1/2 cup of salted butter and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Get it?

Further reading:

114 Comments

  1. Margie Sherman says:

    Hi Sally…Along with your wonderful recipes, your explanations and tips for baking are right on. I’m a new baker ( 85 years old and NEW at something ?? ) and find that there’s a science to all this. Thank you so much for helping me understand my new-found activity. I share everything I make with my friends and they think I’m a genius !!

  2. Hi Sally
    Thank you for a great website
    What’s your opinion on replacing butter with block margarine?
    In Thailand butter is expensive.
    Can I replace in some recipes?
    Thank you

    1. Hi Mohamed, Unfortunately I don’t usually recommend margarine for baking. It contains much less fat so you notice a texture change as well as a change the taste.

      1. I have used butter-flavored Crisco in some baking recipes before when I ran out of butter. I know it works great in cookies, but not sure for other recipes especially cakes. What do you think?

    2. I grew up using margarine for everything. Baking, cooking, frosting, greasing pans. You can use it, but you might have to fiddle and adjust amounts to get a specific texture.

  3. A cookie recipe calls for light brown sugar, I have dark brown and don’t care to spend any more money if I don’t have to. Will the taste be different, besides the color a little darker?

    1. Hi Jim, Depending on the recipe you may notice a deeper molasses flavor with dark brown sugar – they can usually be used interchangeably in cookies!

  4. Hi! My recipe calls for just a pound of butter. Is it ok to use the salted butter that I have on hand?

    1. Hi Amanda, Are you using one of my recipes? If so see the section above called “How to Substitute Salted Butter and Unsalted Butter”.

  5. What kind of salt would you add to make unsalted butter salter butter?

  6. Hi i have a question. You talked about the general rule of adding or reducing the amount of salt regarding if it is salted or unsalted butter. But may I know if the recipe doesn’t require salt but need 1 stick of salted butter, but all i have is unsalted butter, how much should i add/reduce for the measurement??
    Please let me know, thank you

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Kenny, If you come across a recipe that calls for salted butter and all you have is unsalted butter, you will add 1/4 teaspoon of salt per 1/2 cup (1 stick) of butter. So if your recipe calls for a full cup of salted butter (or two sticks of salted butter) you will use unsalted butter and add 1/2 teaspoon salt.

  7. How about for a croissant recipe that calls for unsalted but all I have is salted. I plan to reduce the salt by the above amount but will I just waste my time and other ingredients on a product that won’t turn out? Will the salt kill the yeast? What do you think, the idea of getting to the grocery store to get the right butter seems an impossible task…but if I wait, maybe in a few days- but I want to start the croissants!

    1. Stephanie @ Sally's Baking Addiction says:

      Hi Chelsea, Salt in very high concentrations can slow down the yeast. If you use our Homemade Croissant Recipe and use salted butter, you can reduce the added salt to 1 and 1/4 teaspoon.

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