We’re having a nice dialogue about butter, one of the most important ingredients in any kitchen, and I’d like to expand it by addressing a question recently posed by a blog reader: “I guess salt was originally added to butter for taste. Some recipes call for no salt butter. Some do not specify either. What difference does it make? Is there any ‘rule’ for when to use and when to not use either?”
My initial thought when I read this question was that the difference is only in the flavor. Salted butter obviously contains salt while unsalted butter does not. I’ve always heard that when baking, one should never use salted butter, and I assumed that was because you didn’t want too much salt flavor in the baked goods. But I buy salted butter as a general rule and use it in baked goods and have never experienced any negative effects.
Further research indicates that flavor is part of it, but not the whole story. Salt also acts as a preservative in butter, so the salted variety lasts longer in the refrigerator (about 5 months) while the unsalted kind only lasts about 3 months unless you store it in the freezer, which you can do for up to 6 months. Some say salted butter may not be as fresh because the salt masks any off taste. How can you tell that your butter is too old? If you cut it through the center and find that the outside is darker than the inside. This reportedly means it has oxidized.
Joyofbaking.com says you can use salted butter in baking recipes, but if you do, you should omit any salt called for in the recipe. If you think about it, though, under what circumstances would you cook anything and need to use salted butter – unless you happened to be out of salt? The only situation I can think of is when you are buttering toast or muffins for breakfast. It would be a little weird to sprinkle salt on your toast.
I’m thinking about changing my ways and only buying unsalted butter from now on. There’s no way it’s going to last as long as three months in my house anyway, and I can add salt to any recipe according to taste.
One final piece of advice in terms of whether to use salted or unsalted butter comes from the FAQs on the Land O Lakes’ website: “Unsalted butter gives recipes a uniquely delicate, cultured flavor (and, it is not necessary to add more salt to the recipe). When you are baking recipes where sweet cream is the main flavor – such as butter cookies and pound cakes – the sweet delicate flavor of unsalted butter will really come through.”
Now, that makes good sense to me.