salted vs. unsalted butter

Ah, butter. I don’t know about you, but in my life, butter has been synonymous with the breakfast table - but not so much when it comes to actual cooking.

Most of it can be attributed to my mother. While smearing some butter on a slice of fresh hot bread or putting a knob on a stack of pancakes had been a part of daily ritual, in our family, she had never found much fondness for cooking dishes with it. She used it for some classics like mashed potatoes, but mostly she reserved butter for baking or using as a spread while cooking exclusively with olive oil. 

Once, many years after already reaching adulthood, I asked her why that was, and she said that frying or baking with butter always made the dish fill uncomfortably heavy for her, even excessively greasy. 

Now, not to be disrespectful to olive oil (it’s delicious, and I prefer cooking with it to this day, though I suspect childhood nostalgia bias might play at least a little role in that), but I’d argue certain dishes simply require using butter. They just don’t taste right without those creamy notes. But used to my mother’s cooking habits, I certainly didn’t know much about butter and had no idea salted butter was even a thing until long past my majority.

It’s somewhat embarrassing, I know. But before you start snickering, do be patient with me. You are, after all, here reading about salted vs. unsalted butter. Something tells me I haven’t been the only one whose knowledge about butter was lacking for a long time.

Let’s remedy that together.

Suppose you wish to act as an independent judge for the flavor qualities of salted vs. unsalted butter. In that case, you can always check out the assortment we keep right here at Yummy Bazaar, well-stocked with premium-quality butter from manufacturers dedicated to preserving the fresh, natural flavors in the product.

But if you, like me all those years ago, have little understanding of how salted vs. unsalted butter works in baking and cooking and feel like you need a little more information before deciding which one to purchase, then read right on:

What is Butter?

Butter is a fat emulsion made from cream (or, if we’re deep into semantics, milk), most often the cream derived from cow’s milk. To make butter, unhomogenized full-fat milk is left to sit out for hours. Somewhere between the twelve and twenty-four-hour mark, it’ll effectively separate into two parts, with the cream rising to the top and skimmed milk left on the bottom.

The cream is then separated from the skimmed milk and continuously agitated (the process is called churning) until it starts to solidify. The cream, too, splits into two parts during the butter production process: the butter itself and an opaque liquid called buttermilk (though these days, the term is most often used to refer to a fermented dairy drink).

Over the centuries, butter has found various applications, including a spread, a condiment, a baking ingredient, and, of course, a cooking fat. Its rich and creamy flavor with subtle sweet notes is considered a great flavor enhancer.

What is Cultured Butter?

If you’re paying more attention to the labels on your butter than I used to, you might’ve noticed some of them are marked as cultured butter, and they tend to be more expensive than your regular pack of butter.

Cultured butter shares many similarities with regular butter. It’s made with all the similar ingredients and similar techniques. There’s just one difference between the two, but that difference is crucial: bacterial cultures are added to the cream and left to ferment before churning it. Once the cream is fermented, it’s churned into butter.

Cultured butter has a bit more complex, tangy and nutty flavor than regular butter. That, along with the longer manufacturing process, determines its higher price average.

Just like regular butter, cultured butter also comes in both salted and unsalted varieties.

Salted vs. Unsalted Butter: What are the Main Differences?

If salt is added to the cream during the churning process, you get salted butter. Unsalted butter has no added salt content. On average, about 1/4 of a teaspoon of salt per cup of cream is used, but depending on the brand, the salt content per stick can vary between 1/4 of a teaspoon to 3/4 of a teaspoon. Checking labels is paramount when choosing salted butter.

To put it succinctly, the difference between the two is flavor, sodium content, and shelf life.

The differences in flavor depend on the amount of salt used. The more heavily salted the butter, the harder it will be to catch its natural sweet undertones. Salted butter will be just as rich and creamy but will have somewhat of a less smooth flavor profile.

The sodium content varies not only per brand but also per the type of salt used. For example, kosher salt and sea salt have different sodium levels, so if you have two sticks of butter with similar salt amounts, their sodium levels might differ. Again, check the labels. 

And last but not least, unsurprisingly, the shelf life of salted butter is longer than that of unsalted. Salt is a preservative that impedes microbial growth and is widely used to keep products shelf stable. Butter is no different: salted butter can last almost twice as long as unsalted. Unsalted butter is good for about three months when kept in optimal conditions, while salted butter lasts for five to six. 

When to Use Salted Butter

Salted butter is generally considered a good fit for recipes that don’t require strict control over the salt amount. Pan-frying certain products, including meat or fish in butter, is common, with salted butter thought to infuse them better than adding additional salt.

Adding salted butter to more complex dishes that only get salted and seasoned by the end of the process is also an option. If you continuously taste whatever you’re cooking, you’re controlling how salty the dish is by default. Adding salted butter to potatoes while mashing works excellent, for example. It can be added to egg-based dishes, soups, stews, and savory sauces with a bit more improvisation.

And, of course, salted butter works great as a spread or a topping, where you can pair it with any other ingredient you want and have total control over how salty the final dish will be. Smear it on a hot toast and pile on some soft cheese or ham or even sweet fruit like pear or fig to cut through saltiness, and you have a great breakfast on your hands.

When to Use Unsalted Butter

Unlike salted butter, you don’t need additional instructions when using unsalted butter. It allows you to do the one thing salted butter can’t: maintain control over how much salt goes into your dish. 

First and foremost, unsalted butter is, of course, the default option to use in baking, particularly baking sweets, like cookies, pies, pound cakes, etc. Salt is a necessary ingredient in baking, but the amount used is far more precise than in cooking, and sticking to the recipe is easier if you have complete control over the amount that goes into your dough. 

But unsalted butter can generally be used for any recipe you’ve been using salted butter for. It has a smoother, a bit sweeter flavor, but that difference is hardly noticeable if you aren’t eating butter raw. Unless you’re using the unsalted butter as a spread or a topping, adding a bit of extra salt is all it takes to get the exact same dish.

If you like using salted butter as a spread, you may want to add an extra sprinkle to unsalted butter, but generally, just pairing it with salty cheese or cured meats is enough. 

Can You Substitute Salted Butter for Unsalted Butter?

Yes, in cooking, you can easily substitute salted butter for unsalted butter. Just adjust the amount of salt you’re adding to the dish.

In baking, substituting salted butter for unsalted butter can be a little trickier. If the amount of salt in butter is on the lower end (at around 1/4 tsp), there should be no significant differences in the flavor, but for the higher salt level, you will need to adjust the amount you add, which can be tricky (yes, even sweets need salt to taste good).

Basically, if you’re buying butter for pastry, stick to unsalted. If you’re doing impromptu baking and salted butter is all you’ve got, go ahead - but do so carefully. 

Can You Substitute Unsalted Butter for Salted Butter?

Yes, unsalted butter can easily substitute for salted butter regardless of what you’re using the salted butter for. You’ll only need to adjust the amount of salt added to the dish, and you’ll maintain the exact same flavor profile. 

The one pitfall I can think of right now is only being complacent in your cooking: if you’re so used to cooking certain specific dishes with salted butter that you’re skipping salt or adding very little during the cooking process. Before serving, give the dish a taste to check if it has enough salt.

In certain instances (i.e., when using as a spread or a topping), you likely won’t even need to consider salt level. 

What Professional Chefs Say Re: Salted vs. Unsalted Butter

While you’re most likely not going to find any professional Chef decrying either type of butter, the more recipes you check, the more obvious it is they prefer using unsalted butter, whether it’s for baking sweet treats or cooking rich, savory dishes. If the recipe calls for butter, the author usually specifies whether you need salted or unsalted butter, but on the off chance it’s not specified, I’ve learned enough to know they tend to mean unsalted butter.

The famous Pastry Chef Eddy Van Damme explains it with the importance of controlling the salt amount during the process. While it makes particular sense when sweet pastries are concerned, it bears to keep in mind that most Chefs, pastry or not, are very attentive to details. Using unsalted butter allows them to maintain control every step of the way while cooking. In fact, some of them even differentiate between different unsalted butters: if it has too strong a flavor or, on the contrary, if the taste is too mellow, the Chef might still be dissatisfied with the result.

In other words, using unsalted butter in baking or cooking (but particularly baking) allows better control of the final flavors since you get to decide how large every last pinch of salt added to the dish is. Unsalted butter is simply more versatile.

Salted butter, on the other hand, is more flavorful by itself and can be a great addition to dishes that are already cooked. It works great as a spread or a topping. Serve it on a separate small plate to be either smeared on a piece of toast freshly out of the pan or used as a topping for hot steak or mashed potatoes.

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