Salted vs. Unsalted Butter: What to Know Before You Buy
Does what kind of butter you choose matter when it comes to cooking and baking? We settle the debate between salted and unsalted.
When it comes to baking, we all have our favorites. I always stock the same brand of chocolate chips in my pantry, always shop for pure vanilla extract and normally I always reach for salted butter. But our recent butter taste test got me thinking—is salted butter always best?
Salted vs. Unsalted Butter
The difference between the two kinds of butter is obviously salt. Unsalted butter is all cream, while the salted variety has some salt added, though the amount varies from brand to brand. Because salt is a preservative, salted butter has a longer life in the fridge—typically around five months while unsalted usually is good for about three. (It’ll also keep on your counter if you follow these rules.) In addition, this means that when you visit your supermarket, chances are the unsalted variety is a bit fresher.
(Psst: Know a butter lover? Give one of these gifts focused their favorite ingredient.)
When Unsalted Butter Matters
In our Whipped Shortbread recipe, the Test Kitchen recommends using salted butter to “bump up the flavor.” On the other side of the coin, our recipe for Salted Pecan Squares specifically calls for unsalted butter. But what happens when the recipe doesn’t specify?
To find out when the difference between these two matters, I turned to our culinary director Sarah Farmer. According to Sarah, this varying level of salt makes a huge difference in your baking. “You don’t know how much salt is in salted butter—you just don’t have the control,” she says.
Rule of thumb: If a recipe calls for “butter” (neither unsalted nor salted) and “salt,” it’s safe to assume the recipe’s been precisely calibrated with unsalted butter in mind.
Don’t Get Salty, Now
Since we all know that baking is a science, that extra bit of salt can affect your recipe the same way an improperly measured cup of flour can. (Learn how to measure the right way here!) Regardless of how “scientifically” you approach your baking, unsalted butter is always a wise choice in baked goods whose pure buttery flavor is front and center—for example, in these Swedish Butter Cookies or this Blue Ribbon Butter Cake. This will provide the best showcase for your finished product’s buttery flavor.
For cooking, there’s a bit more leeway, but if you really want to control the exact amount of sodium going into your dishes, it’s best to use unsalted.
In addition, Sarah explains that “if you care a good deal about the freshness of the ingredients you’re using, used unsalted.” So that’s good advice to keep in mind!
When Salted Works
However, just because unsalted butter is preferable in most instances, doesn’t mean that you need to stop buying the salted variety altogether. Salt helps bring out flavor in foods after all, so in some instances, it’s a welcome addition. If you plan to spread your butter on a fresh baguette or a muffin fresh out of the oven, you’ll want that little hint of saltiness to accentuate all those flavors.
If you’re not interested in keeping both types on hand, food stylist Lauren Knoelke has a great tip: “If I want salted butter on toast or bread, I can easily use one of my fancier flavored salts sprinkled on top.”
So I officially learned something that will change my baking routine! No more salted butter for me (well, at least not in my favorite Bundt cake recipes). Interested in going the homemade route? Learning how to make butter is super easy!
Special thanks to Lauren Cahn for the additional reporting.