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.
Baking basics series, we’re back!
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! And this doesn’t even include store-brand butter, so who the heck knows how much salt is hiding in those. The flavor in your baked good is completely compromised, especially if butter is the main flavor– think poundcake, sugar cookies, pie crust etc. It doesn’t matter as much in cooking since you can taste as you go, but it’s crucial to control the salt in baked recipes. Pair this with the added salt in your recipe and you’ll wind up with super salty poundcake.
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. For fresher 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.
3. Salted butter has a higher water content than unsalted butter.
I heard this one at one of my cooking demos, but cannot attest its truth. The reason this would be a negative is because excess water could impact the way gluten develops resulting in a tougher textured baked good. However, I never notice a texture difference in my baked goods– just a taste difference. But something to keep in mind. Have you heard about this before?
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?
Mom’s Butter Confession
My mother uses salted butter in all of her baking and cooking. Unapologetically! She loves salty sweet foods, so if you are currently doing the same OR love a bit of salty with your sweet– go for it.
Could baking BE any more confusing? (cue Chandler Bing)
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Also: new post on my photography blog today!