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Salted vs unsalted butter?

With more time post retirement, I have been trying to expand my cooking skills, with the reluctant collaboration of my "stick to the basics" spouse. Many recipes I've recently tried are very specific about using salted or unsalted butter, particularlly when sauteing vegs. I have not figured out the rationale for using one or the other. Can anyone clue me in? Thanks

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  1. Jenni,

    I am not 100% sure what you are asking. Obviously, the salted butter has salt and the unsalted butter does not. Most recipes call for unsalted one, because it is difficult to know the amount of salt is added to the butter. All the recipes I have always ask for unsalted butter (aka sweet butter) and then ask for salt.

    For example, Land O' Lake Salted Butter has 30mg of sodium per tablespoon.

    Happy Farms Salted Butter has 90mg per tablespoon

    6 Replies
    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

      In addition, unsalted butter can be fresher than unsalted, since salt prolongs the shelf life of butter. This has often been discussed on CH before - search the topical boards for previous comments.

      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

        I do know that salted butter has salt & unsalted does not. I guess my poorly articulated question had more to do with why recipes would specify one or the other. I quess the bottom line is preferred taste. Thank you.

        1. re: jenni49

          Some people want absolute control over the amount of salt in their finished baked goods. If they use an unsalted butter they know that there's no variable beyond the amount listed as an ingredient.

          Plus, some people feel that unsalted butter is fresher since salt was a traditional way of improving the keeping time of butter. I can't say I'm inclined to worry much about that with modern refrigeration and the turnover rate of items in a contemporary grocery store. But that reasoning remains.

          For me, whose father *prized* cultured butter from local dairies in Maine where the color and flavor approached cheese, the flavor of unsalted butter is flat and unappealing. I use salted butter freely where unsalted is called for without adjusting the salt listed as an ingredient. So my advice would be use unsalted butter if it improves your confidence or fits your palate and use salted if that's what you have on hand. I doubt you'd taste very much difference.

          1. re: rainey

            Compared to cultured butter, of course. It has a tang. But you must not have tried, as of your writing, Kate's Homemade Unsalted Butter - made in Maine. It is hard to refrain from eating the unsalted butter as a dessert, which, of course, many people have done.

            Unsalted butter is also known as "sweet cream" butter. Cultured butter has either bacterial culture added to it, or is allowed to clabber naturally, which produces the tangy flavor. They are entirely different styles of butter.

            The cultured butter would have a stronger taste in a recipe. But as to amounts of salt included in a recipe, I haven't found it to make a difference.

            By the way, Kate's Homemade Butter - unsalted - has taken first prize in the World Dairy Expo Championship.

            1. re: Savorytart

              Sweet cream butter may be salted or unsalted. Unsalted butter may be sweet cream or cultured. In the US, most butter is sweet cream butter, whether it is salted or not.

      2. There is not much of a rationale. It happens to be currently popular. Maybe because 'salt' is such a bad word. Forty years ago, unsalted butter was relegated to back of the frozen case and comes in half pound packages. I think one can use it interchangeably. I find the taste comes through better in many baked good by using salted butter. Just have to adjust the salt in recipes.

        1 Reply
        1. re: PBSF

          I think 40 years ago butter itself was probably relegated to the back of the frozen case :) My grandparents were all about "oleo" and shortening. I don' t think this is a point to get stuck on-- unsalted or salted won't make too much of a difference in most applications IMO. Though I am interested in the idea that unsalted might be fresher. Had never heard that. It's hard for me to imagine it would matter much in sauteing especially since I've never sauteed something that I didn't also salt.

        2. I keep unsalted around just because if I'm baking I there are occasionally times when I'd rather use unsalted. 90% of the time, I'd use salted for general stuff, given the choice.

          1. Besides the previous reason of salt control, I also find unsalted butter has a cleaner flavor. However, unless baking, or using a large amount of butter, it doesn't matter too much.

            1. Although I agree that, with most recipes, it probably doesn't matter that much whether you use salted or unsalted butter, I prefer to use unsalted butter because salt is something I can always add, if I want to, but can never remove. Because I taste what I cook as the dish develops, I like to have full control over every aspect of its flavor profile.

              3 Replies
              1. re: todao

                I hear a lot of this "I need full control" idea. I have never wanted less salt than the minimal amount found in butter-- even in a dessert. I use salted butter in place of unsalted butter all the time. I add the salt called for in the recipe anyway, and have never had anything come out tasting over-salted, in spite of the apparently differing quantities of salt in different brands. And if you're tasting as you go anyway, it just means you'll add less later on. I've never had a need for unsalted butter.

                1. re: jvanderh

                  I almost never use salted butter because of the control thing: I just like knowing how much salt goes into what I eat. That's my preference and I really do think it is nothing more than preference. The only right way is what works for you and your family or me and mine. Before I chose to use only unsalted butter I cooked with salted all the time. As I learned and read more I decided to switch. But I never really noticed my food tasting overly salty. Of course I do think if one is trying to lower blood pressure or some other medical reason, unsalted is the way to go.

                  1. re: jvanderh

                    +1
                    I almost never use unsalted butter unless trying a new recipe that specifically calls for it. Plus for me, it just doesn't taste like anything, and I love buttered bread, rolls, mashed potatoes, etc. It's not the same with unsalted butter and a sprinkle of salt.

                2. We only used unsalted butter here for anything.
                  We can always add salt, but in particular for sautee.

                  1. Using unsalted butter allows you to control not only the amount of the salt but the timing of when the salt is added. There are times when I want to saute things in unsalted butter so that the item browns better and moisture isn't drawn out of the food.

                    1. I need to limit sodium for health reasons, so I put away the salt shaker decades ago. The only time I use salt is for making bread, brining, and in the cooking water for pasta and grains. In all those cases, I use no more than half of what the recipe calls for. I've had the same 1# canister of salt since before Y2K. Like most people who go cold turkey when giving up salt, food tastes bland for a couple of weeks but after that, most processed foods and many restaurant foods taste way too salty. And there's so much hidden sodium in our diets that not salting your food may not even make that much of a difference. But for anyone who wants to reduce their salt intake, unsalted butter is a good place to start. If you really miss the salt, you may be able to use less salt if you sprinkle it on your food just before eating than if you incorporate it in the cooking process.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: greygarious

                        just a note that it's generally unheallthy to add salt

                        1. re: kdean

                          There's an awful lot of debate around the real risk of salt for the average person (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/23/sci...). It probably depends more on each individual's health situation.

                          1. re: Procrastibaker

                            Something up with your link. Here's the article. Very interesting.

                            http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/23/sci...

                      2. In the most general sense, it seems like the right butter is the one that tastes best to you. I use unsalted. I like the flavor, plus I bake a lot. If you taste while you cook, you should be able to make adjustments either way.

                        1. I rarely see a recipe that specifies un/salted butter except, usually, baking sweet things which usually calls for unsalted. I tend to buy unsalted because I eat a very low sodium diet but find it's "use by" time to be quite a bit shorter than salted. Not a problem though If I'm just buying for baking as it's not going to hang around for a while.

                          1. Mostly I use salted butter for cooking because it does not pick up odd flavors from the refrigerator the way unsalted butter does. Salted butter lasts a long time in the refrigerator. Unsalted does not.

                            On the other hand, if you spread unsalted butter on, for example, baking powder biscuits, the unsalted tastes a little better, I think.

                            1. I buy unsalted butter, just because I like the taste better. As others have said, you can always add salt if your dish needs it.

                              1. In the Collins' "New Orleans Cookbook" it says, "All recipes calling for butter in the book require lightly salted stick butter; sweet butter is made differently and should not be substituted." On the other hand, Paul Prudhomme's "Louisiana Kitchen" says to use unsalted butter in his recipes because the amount of salt in the butter varies. You pays your money...

                                Unsalted butter is standard nowadays in most cookbooks, so when a recipe specifically calls for salted butter there has to be a reason. The Collins suggest what that reason might be. But if you prefer to use unsalted butter and season to taste, you might not be able to tell the difference. And if you keep only one kind of butter in the fridge, as most people do, unsalted is the way to go.