Oftentimes we tend to overthink small details that barely have an effect on our dishes.
Telling if a recipe calls for salted or unsalted butter isn’t difficult, but it can be confusing when you’re baking.
Most bread recipes require a precise amount of salt since using too much can kill the yeast.
At the same time, however, the lack of salt in many desserts such as chocolate chip cookies or carrot cake can make them taste flat.
Generally speaking, in baking it’s accepted to only use salted butter if the recipe specifically calls for it. However, there are some exceptions to the rule which I will address below.
Therefore, knowing the difference between salted and unsalted butter can be crucial for the flavor of your baked goods.
How to tell if a recipe calls for salted or unsalted butter and which one to use?
To properly answer this question I need to shortly explain the history of butter.
Bear with me for half a scroll or so.
Butter is an indispensable cooking ingredient in many sweet and savory dishes.
It can be used to provide structure to baked goods, add richness to or cut the unnecessary acidity of a sauce, or simply improve the flavor of an entrée.
During medieval times, butter was typically produced without any salt.
This, however, slowly began to change when dairy makers from one of the wealthiest regions in Western Europe, Brittany, began adding sea salt to fresh milk and cream to keep them from spoiling.
Soon many other French regions as well as some neighboring states followed suit.
But despite the resurgence of salted butter, most European countries kept producing butter without salt. As a result, most classic recipes and their modern revisions were written with unsalted butter in mind.
Nevertheless, some dishes such as Mac and Cheese taste better when they’re made with salted instead of unsalted butter.
So how should you figure out if a recipe calls for salted or unsalted butter?
The general rule of thumb when cooking with butter is to use salted butter for savory dishes or meats, and unsalted butter for desserts, fruits, and heavy greens. Some baked goods can also be made with salted butter, but you should avoid using it unless the recipe specifies it.
Even though adding salted butter to desserts isn’t unheard of, it’s not something I advise since you can make them too salty by mistake.
However, I decided to include a simple method you can use to substitute unsalted butter with salted butter in case you’re out of stock.
But before we get to it, we’ll see why unsalted butter is the “king” in baking.
The role of Salted versus Unsalted Butter in baking
I’ve always loved baking since it’s much closer to science than it is to cooking.
And if you know how the basic baking ingredients interact with each other, you can make wonders with little effort.
To this end, butter is probably the most common ingredient used in baked goods.
Anything from homemade brownie mixes, pastry dough, and biscuits to cakes and brioches, includes some or a ton of it. The role of butter in all of these is to give them more richness, a tender structure and a better taste.
So knowing what type of butter to use can certainly make a difference.
And while salted butter can sometimes be found in baking recipes, most pastry chefs use unsalted butter.
The reason behind the prevalence of unsalted butter in most baking recipes is twofold:
- Salt and yeast don’t get along – Using salted butter alongside yeast in breads and pastries can decrease their volume.
This is because salt has the ability to kill bacteria and fungus by reducing water activity and causing something known as osmotic shock. These antimicrobial properties are the reason why salt was one of the most common food preservatives before the invention of refrigeration.
And since yeast is a fungus, it absolutely hates salt.
So if you mix salted butter and yeast together, there’s a high chance the salt will kill some of the yeast and the volume of your pastry.
- Salt can throw off the flavor in desserts and pastries – When we’re making a dessert, we typically try to retain the sweet cream flavor of butter.
And since most desserts require small amounts of salt, we can inadvertently make them too salty if we use salted butter.
Using unsalted butter in place of salted butter in this case lets us control the exact amount of salt a recipe calls for.
This way we can be sure our cakes and desserts taste light and creamy.
So if you’re going to bake it would be best to buy unsalted butter.
Can you use salted butter instead of unsalted when baking?
Sometimes circumstances force us to improvise and come up with substitutes for certain recipe ingredients. When I quit alcohol, I had to find a non-alcoholic substitute for one of my favorite ingredients – Shaoxing Wine.
And even though I was initially skeptical, it turned out there were quite a few viable alternatives to my beloved Chinese wine.
Well, if you only have salted butter you’ll be glad to hear you can use it to achieve the same results. You just have to be extra careful with the amount of salt you add.
The first time I ran out of unsalted butter was when I was making a cake for my parents’ anniversary.
Pressed by time, I had to quickly find out if I could use the salted butter I had at hand. After doing some research, I found the butter I had at the time contained 90 mg of Sodium per tablespoon or roughly a 1/4 tsp of salt per stick. So I simply removed a 1/4 tsp of salt from my recipe and my cake turned out just splendid!
This experience buttered up my curiosity so I set out to find whether the most popular brands of salted butter in the US contained equal amounts of salt.
Here’s what I found:
As you can see, four of the top five brands of salted butter on the U.S. market have the same amount of salt.
The only exception is Kerrygold which is slightly saltier, with 100 mg of salt per 1 tbsp (14g) of butter compared to the 90 mg found in the other brands.
Using this information, I came up with a method that lets you find the exact amount of salt you need to use if you substitute unsalted for salted butter.
How to substitute salted and unslated butter for each other in recipes?
Here’s how replacing unsalted with salted butter in recipes works:
When you bake with salted butter, you have to remove a 1/4 tsp of salt for every stick of unsalted butter the original recipe calls for. So if the original recipe is made with 2 sticks of unsalted butter (226g) and 1 tsp of salt, you’ll need to add only half a teaspoon of salt.
Conversely, if you want to make salted butter from unsalted butter, you should add 1/4 tsp of salt for every stick of unsalted butter.
In case there isn’t any salt in the recipe, you should simply add a bit more sugar to balance out the flavor.
This method could also be used if you want to cook a dish that is typically prepared with salted butter.
In this case, you’ll have to increase the amount of salt by 1/4 tsp for every stick of salted butter you substitute.
You don’t need to add salt to the unsalted butter as it won’t impact the final flavor of the dish in any way.
My Final Takeaway
Salted and unsalted butter both have their own merits.
Salted butter shines when it’s used as a toast spread or a condiment.
Unsalted butter on the other hand is widely appreciated in the baking world for the structure and freshness it provides.
In many cases, both types of butter can be used interchangeably.
However, using salted butter in some baking recipes can lead to undesired results.
Therefore it’s always better to use unsalted butter when you’re baking or the recipe doesn’t specify the kind of butter that should be used.