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What different uses do we assign to salted butter versus unsalted butter?

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The only real advantage to salted that I'm aware of is that the salt acts as a preservative; even if you're just spreading it on toast, you can always hit it with a slight sprinkle of salt if you really think it needs it. –  Joe Apr 6 '11 at 4:25
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Unsalted butter sprinkled with salt and salted butter offer two very different experiences. One is sweetly bland with distinct hits of strong saltiness, and the other tastes like butter. –  Caleb Apr 6 '11 at 19:00

4 Answers 4

Salted butter is good only for spreading on toast. In all other cooking applications, without exception, you want to use unsalted butter. For one, the addition of salt in some contexts (particularly baking) will affect chemical reactions, so you want to control how much salt is being used. For another, and more importantly in most applications, using salted butter means you will have less control over actual seasoning.

We keep both salted and unsalted butter at home. Salted, as I noted, is for toast only really.

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+1: Salted butter is like self-rising flour. You can use it, and hope that the extra ingredient is present in the quantities you need, but you shouldn't rely on hope when you're cooking. –  Satanicpuppy Apr 6 '11 at 15:29
    
Recipes generally specify "unsalted butter" when that's what the author intends; I've always understood "butter" as an ingredient to mean salted. –  Caleb Apr 6 '11 at 19:11
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@Satanicpuppy, that's a little like saying that you should never use baking powder, you should use only sodium bicarbonate so that you can control the level of acid yourself. If you know how salty a particular brand of salted butter is, either from experience or just by tasting it, you can effectively adjust the amount of other salt to compensate. –  Caleb Apr 6 '11 at 19:20
    
@caleb: But you're still guessing. Why guess when you don't have to? –  Satanicpuppy Apr 6 '11 at 19:33
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@Satanicpuppy, you're effectively guessing when you add an exact amount of salt to a dish. Obviously, you're not guessing at the actual amount of salt, but you are guessing at the degree to which that precise amount will impact the flavor of the dish. You might know what amount to use from experience, just as I know from experience that I can simply reduce the salt by about 3/8 tsp per stick of butter if I'm using salted butter to get similar results. Other than that, the best way to know if a dish is properly seasoned is to taste as you go. –  Caleb Apr 6 '11 at 19:46

The short answer is that unsalted butter is for cooking with, salted butter is for spreading on things (biscuits, pancakes, etc.). Salted butters vary in the amount of salt they contain, so when cooking you should use unsalted butter and control the salt level yourself.

I believe I've heard that in some parts of Europe salted butter isn't even sold. If you want to butter your croissant, you use unsalted butter and sprinkle a touch of salt for flavor.

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In the UK most butter is salted and just labeled butter. Most people use this for everything, unless a recipe calls for unsalted butter particularly. I assume our baking recipes take that into account, but lots of our baked goods, eg shortbread, wouldn't taste right without it.

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Well, you can assign whatever uses you want, of course. But in general, unsalted butter is used anywhere that you can't or shouldn't taste for saltiness, or where you want to avoid the salt, and salted for anything that you prefer it on, or where there's no worry about getting too much salt without knowing it. This is because the saltiness varies so much with salted butter, so you never know how much salt you're getting.

Of course, lots of people use unsalted butter for most everything--many prefer it on fresh bread, for example--and there are plenty of people who don't worry about using salted butter for everything either.

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