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Salted vs unsalted butter: here's what you should know

January 3, 2022

Butter is a delicious and versatile ingredient that can be used for so many different types of cooking. Many people choose to use salted butter, believing that it gives their food a more distinct flavor, but is unsalted butter just as good? Is there a difference between the two?

It turns out, accidentally swapping unsalted butter for salted, or vise versa is one of the most common mistakes in baking and cooking, and can have detrimental effects.

What is the difference between salted and unsalted butter?

The difference between salted and unsalted butter is — duh — salt! Pure butter is made only from only from the solids and milkfat of cream, while salted butter has added salt as well. But it's a little more complicated than that.

There are a few other considerations to keep in mind if you are thinking about swapping one for the other. The exact amount of sodium in your salted butter can make a big impact on your recipe, so you will want to be exact in your ingredient swap if you plan on using unsalted butter instead.

Salted butter also lasts a lot longer than unsalted butter. When refrigerated, unsalted butter should be used within about three months, while salted butter lasts as long as five.

How much salt is in salted butter?

Most salted butter has about 90mg of sodium per tablespoon — including Land O Lakes and Kroger brands. But the salt content can vary a lot from brand to brand. Organic salted butter by 365 (Whole Foods brand) contains only 75mg of sodium per tablespoon.

That might sound like a healthier option, but that's a 16% difference which can make a big difference in flavor when you are cooking or baking with it. If you notice that your salted butter is lower in sodium content than 90mg per tablespoon, you may need to add an extra pinch of salt to your recipe.

If your recipe just says "butter", should you use salted or unsalted?

In most cases, recipes that just say "butter" mean salted butter. That's why it is so common in baking recipes to see "unsalted butter" specified.

However, if the recipe doesn't specify that the butter should be unsalted, and it has added salt, you're safer to assume that the ingredient they are looking for is unsalted butter especially when you are baking.

When to use salted butter

You should use salted butter any time a recipe simply lists "butter" without further direction, and as the general default when you cook or bake.

It may seem counterintuitive, but even for sweet treats like topping a muffin or stack of pancakes, using salted butter will enhance all of the other flavors in your food and make it taste even better.

It's also amazing for anything savory, including sauces, scrambled eggs, sauteed veggies, and to top warm bread or a baked potato.

Here are a few of our favorite recipes that use salted butter:

Buffalo chicken sliders

Butternut squash and kale ravioli

Classic brown Irish soda bread

When to use unsalted butter

Unsalted butter is a beautiful and pure fat form and is commonly used in baking. Use it for cookies, bread, pie crusts, and any recipe that specifically calls for unsalted butter.

The benefit of unsalted butter is that it gives you precise control over how much sodium is in your recipe. If you are sensitive to sodium or have certain conditions like heart problems or high blood pressure, reducing your sodium intake may benefit your health.

Here are a few of our favorite recipes that use unsalted butter:

Peach crisp with brown butter crumble

Pumpkin spice bundt cake

Easy honey caramel popcorn

If a recipe calls for salted butter, can you use unsalted butter and add more salt?

If your recipe calls for salted butter, it is usually okay to use unsalted butter and add additional salt. The only risk here is precision — the recipe was developed with exact ingredients and outcomes in mind, so if you add the wrong amount of salt your recipe may fall flat in flavor or taste overly salty.

How much salt to add if you are swapping salted butter for salted

The most precise way to swap out the salt content from salted butter is by weighing your ingredients. Most salted butter has around 90mg of sodium per tablespoon. On the other hand, one tablespoon of salt has a whopping 6,976mg of sodium, so it's incredibly easy to overdo it!

Here is a table of the amount of salt you will want to add if you are subbing salted butter with unsalted:

1 tablespoon of buttera tiny pinch of salt (230mg)
4 tablespoons buttera big pinch or dash of salt (900mg)
8 tablespoons (1/2 cup) of butter1.8g of salt (just less than 1/4 tsp)
1 cup of butter3.6 g of salt (just less than 1/2 tsp)

As you can see, the amount of salt is so small that non-weight measurements (like a pinch or dash) is highly imprecise. The best way to be sure you are adding the right amount of salt is by weighing the salt you add with a kitchen scale.

If a recipe calls for unsalted butter, can you use unsalted butter and reduce the added salt?

In most cases, you can replace unsalted butter with salted butter as long as you reduce the salt content. However, baking can be a precise science, so if you don't match the exact quantities your recipe might suffer.

For example, not only will your baked goods taste too salty if you don't balance the salt levels exactly, but salt can kill yeast, so you may end up impacting the rise of your bread if you use salted butter in place of unsalted.

Do you need to add salt to recipes that use salted butter?

In general, you should follow the exact instructions the first time you make a recipe. So, if your recipe calls for salted butter and added salt, you will probably have the best results from using both!

However, if you try the recipe and it turns out too salty for your personal taste, you will know to adjust the salt levels in the future by reducing the added salt or using unsalted butter.

Is it more important to have salted or unsalted butter on hand?

So you're doing a grocery run, and you're not sure if you should buy salted or unsalted butter. And you don't need butter coming out of your ears, so you'd rather stick to one or the other!

If you are an avid baker, it's safe to say unsalted butter is the best bet for you. After all, you can always add salt to recipes that would otherwise require salted butter, and you can mix up a salted butter to serve with warm bread at the table.

On the other hand, if you rarely bake but often sautee, or if you go through butter very slowly and want an extended shelf life, salted butter may be a better pick. It's really up to you!

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