Butter: Salted vs Unsalted

One of the most common questions I get is “Do I use salted or unsalted butter in your recipes?”

I’d like to set the record straight about butter, and it’s incredibly simple:

NEVER buy salted butter.

The only application for salted butter is to spread it on something already prepared that you’re about to eat, like a pancake or waffle or dinner roll.  That’s the ONLY TIME you ever use salted butter.  (Or, if you’re like my friend Chuck Snavely, you buy salted butter in massive quantities because it’s better for making butter sculptures.)

Any time any recipe in the world calls for butter, use unsalted butter.

There are many reasons for this…first of all, a recipe generally has a carefully formulated salt content, and if you add salted butter, you’re adding additional salt.  (When you’re baking with butter, salt can have a toughening effect on the gluten that naturally exists in flour, so you never want to add more salt than the recipe calls for, or your pie crust or muffin may end up tough or chewy.)

Salt is added to butter as a preservative, and there generally is at least a trace of salt even in unsalted butter, but salted butters are fairly heavily salted, which means they last longer in the fridge, which generally means the average age of the package of salted butter in the grocery store is OLDER than the average age of the unsalted butter, which the store has to toss out after a few weeks.  So you’re also getting fresher butter when you buy unsalted.

Unfortunately, grocery stores seem to stock more salted butter than unsalted.  Sometimes I actually have a bit of trouble finding unsalted butter.

But, for future reference, never buy salted butter in stick form.  If you like to spread butter on toast and you like the taste of salted butter, buy that whipped salted butter in a tub so you never make the mistake of adding a stick of salted butter to your recipes!

I’ve also been asked about “Sweet Cream Butter,” what it is, and if you should use it.  The answer is…virtually all butter sold in the US is, in fact, “sweet cream butter” whether the label says it or not.  This just means that the milk has been pasteurized before it is churned into butter.  It’s extremely rare to fine raw cream butter in the US.  Another type of butter which is common in other countries is “Cultured Butter,” which means the cream is inoculated with a bacteria which helps to thicken it before it is churned into butter, similar to the way yogurt and cheese are made.  Cultured butters are popular in Europe, and you can find them here in the US but they cost significantly more than sweet cream butter.  The taste is definitely different, and you should try it sometime.  Cultured butters often have a higher butterfat content, as well, so they are richer and more complex.

Thankfully, the age of butter paranoia is ending.  People are realize all the hydrogenated fats in margarine are killing us, instead of making us healthier (which is the reason people switched from butter to margarine in the first place).  Natural fats, even if they are saturated, are still better for us than synthesized or molecularly altered fats.  Your body knows what to do with them.  As long as you eat everything in moderation, don’t worry about a little butter here and there.  Or a whole stick for a special recipe (nods to Julia Child and Paula Deen).  Butter makes everything better!  Enjoy it!

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