Unsalted Butter

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    Consisting mostly of butterfats, butter most often comes from cow’s milk with a fat content around 80%, with the remainder consisting of milk solids and water. Grocers stock both salted and unsalted butter and the difference between the two is simply added salt and no added salt. Both salted and unsalted butter use the term “sweet cream butter” so make sure to read a package’s label carefully to determine if the butter contains salt. The all-purpose salted versions work nicely for spreading on bread, topping pasta and vegetables, on pancakes and waffles, and in recipes where complete control over salt content is unnecessary. However, when baking, most recipes call for unsalted butter. In cooking, conventional wisdom says unsalted butter allows the food’s natural flavor to shine and allows the butter’s pure sweet cream taste to come through.

    Virtually every pastry recipe calls for unsalted butter, that simply means that all salt levels in the recipe are accounted for–thus, another salt source is redundant and potentially adverse to the finished product. With no industry standard for salt content, different companies add varying amounts of salt in their butter so it requires some math to know your butter’s salt content and its impact on a recipe. It thus sometimes becomes a guessing game when baking if you use salted butter (and hate math). To illustrate the difference between different producers, reference the following list:

    Horizon: 920 mg. sodium/stick
    Land O’Lakes: 760 mg. sodium/stick
    Organic Valley: 600 mg. sodium/stick
    Trader Joe’s Store Brand: 720 mg. sodium/stick

    By using unsalted butter, bakers retain full control over seasoning, which is critical when it comes to flavor. So, if possible, use the type of butter called for in the recipe. If left with no alternative but to use salted butter, try cutting the salt in the recipe by one half. A more precise general rule: reduce or add 1/4 a teaspoon of salt per 1/2 cup by volume or 1/4 pound (one stick) by weight of butter. So to convert from salted butter to unsalted, the equation looks like this:

    1/2 cup salted butter = 1/2 cup unsalted butter + 1/4 teaspoon of salt

    Without salt, a common preservative, unsalted butter’s shelf life is shorter (one month in a refrigerator) than a salted version (three months in a refrigerator). As a result, unsalted butter is often, but not necessarily, fresher than salted butter. Keep in mind, some brands add natural flavor, usually lactic acid, to unsalted butter to extend its shelf life. While this practice is helpful in regulating the butter’s pH, it does not extend shelf life as long as salt does. Furthermore, butter does spoil and salt masks various odors and funky tastes, so just sniffing butter does not always reveal if it is good. A better option is to cut into the butter and look, a slice of bad butter reveals two different colors.

    Some bakers note that salted butter possesses a higher water content than unsalted butter and, as a result, this impacts texture. This camp argues that excess water impacts gluten development in a way that results in baked goods with a tougher texture. As a consequence, using salted butter results in not only a taste difference but also a difference in texture. While we present this position, the veracity of this claim remains yours to determine.

    Another often overlooked advantage of unsalted butter is that it provides great value in teaching. When a bakery student begins their journey, the primary focus should be on technique and not about perfecting seasoning. So, to keep all other things consistent, the beginning baker should use unsalted butter.

    Unsalted or Salted, Does It Matter?

    A growing chorus disputes many of the advantages or claims listed above and uses salted butter without shame when baking. The argument is that salted butter gets salted right after the butter is churned and that adding salt at this point ensures the salt is fully dissolved and mixed into the butter. Like any other food, properly seasoned, salt amplifies butter’s intrinsic flavors. There is credence to this argument, most properly seasoned foods land between 1.5 and 2.0% salt by weight. Since most commercially available butter falls well within this range, the logic says it is largely impossible to oversalt because the salted butter itself is not egregiously salty.

    This camp acknowledges that salt levels vary between manufacturers, but asserts the point is mute since a simple calculation determines how much salt is actually in a particular brand. Nutrition labels do specify the amount of sodium per serving, so some quick math provides the answer to any salt level questions. Further, the need to exactly control the level of seasoning pales in comparison to the increased flavor provided by salted butter. Bakers subscribing to this view often point out that the anti-salt bais stops at butter. By never extending to any other ingredients, the anti-salt bais flies in the face of logic.

    Now What?

    The overwhelming majority of bakers use unsalted butter today, to them the mere suggestion of using salted butter remains heresy and flies in the face of time tested principals. The alternative viewpoint rightly points to blind taste tests where significant, while not majorities, numbers of people prefer the same recipe with salted over unsalted butter. So the unsalted-salted argument boils down to personal taste and like everything else in food and drink, the right answer is what you prefer–whether considered blasphemy or not.

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