When recipes call for “butter” but doesn’t specify “salted” or “unsalted”, which should I use? Does it matter?

  • 13
    Where's the recipe from? That might also matter: At least in Germany, butter is usually unsalted, so that's usually the assumption in German recipes. – hoffmale Oct 24 at 6:34
  • Ditto for France, unsalted is the norm. Unless you're in Brittany, but that's another story. – George M Oct 25 at 21:24
up vote 61 down vote accepted

Generally, you should use unsalted butter. You can always add salt to your unsalted butter, but you can't take it out if you want it less salty!

If it's just being melted on some vegetables, then salted butter is probably fine. However, different brands of salted butter have different amounts of salt added, which makes it difficult to know how much total salt is going into your food. This is more problematic in baking. It's possible to easily oversalt or undersalt just by using a different brand — leading to unpredictable results. By using unsalted butter, the only salt remaining in the recipe is what you have added, and you have more careful control over the outcome.

If you need to substitute one for another, you can estimate how much salt is in salted butter and adjust your recipe accordingly.


If you are not sure whether a particular recipe calls for salted or unsalted, look for clues.

  • Is there additional salt in the recipe? (If not, it may expect some salt from the butter. If so, it may expect unsalted butter!)
  • How old is the recipe? (Newer recipes tend to assume unsalted butter. Older recipes tend to assume salted butter.)
  • Where was the recipe written? Different cultures assume different butters (and salt levels may vary between countries for salted butter!); I will not give an exhaustive list here, mostly because I don't know, but it's worth researching.

If you have the time, interest, and money, you can try making the recipe twice (once with salted, once with unsalted butter) and see which tastes better. This is a bigger investment, though, so only worth doing if you really want to get the recipe as good as possible.

  • 31
    @Gherman "Salted butter is generally used as a condiment because of its strong taste and longer shelf life, whereas unsalted butter is usually used for baking and cooking so that the cook can better control the sodium content and flavor in their dish!" tillamook.com/community/blog/… – Daniel Oct 23 at 15:25
  • 9
    @Chloe — using salt as a preservative for butter was a much more significant factor before refrigeration became widespread. (Also, bacteria apparently can grow in butter, so it's worth at least being aware of the difference.) – Erica Oct 24 at 16:22
  • @Erica These days, a more significant shelf life issue is picking up flavours/smells from other things it's stored alongside in the fridge, in my experience. Although maybe that's just my kitchen hygiene. ;) – Graham Oct 26 at 7:50

It does matter, using salted butter changes the salt content of the dish, which will change the flavor. It probably won't greatly affect the chemistry of a dish aside from that, however.

In my experience it's much more common to see unsalted butter in recipes, so I almost always default to unsalted if the recipe doesn't specify.

If they meant salted butter and I use unsalted, I can usually fix it by adding salt. The only real advantage of salted butter is its longer shelf life.

  • 6
    Well, the other advantage of salted butter is that it tastes nicer spread on bread (modulo personal opinion). – David Richerby Oct 23 at 17:28
  • 4
    @DavidRicherby Try sprinkling a little coarsely ground salt on unsalted buttered bread and get the best of both worlds. :-D – ceejayoz Oct 23 at 19:30
  • 21
    ...Let it be known I once accidentally spread unsalted butter on bread. I learned that unsalted butter is the flavor of sadness. I tried to rectify the error by sprinkling over some salt, but it only succeeded in accentuating the existing flavor, sadness, bringing the subtle notes of shame and despair to the forefront..... Cinnamon-sugar and the broiler took care of it though! – kitukwfyer Oct 24 at 0:15
  • 2
    @kitukwfyer - Let it be known ... that with the right kind of bread, and the right kind of butter(!), unsalted butter bread is delicious! And as an aside to the aside: How can you people stand eating sweet jam with salted butter. Bäh! :-D – Martin Oct 24 at 18:01
  • 4
    @Martin - You really need to try a sandwich filled with thickly sliced mature cheddar cheese (v. salty) and thickly spread strawberry jam (v. sweet); you will be very pleasantly surprised :-) – Spratty Oct 25 at 15:00

This may be somewhat country-specific. Here in the UK, sweetness levels which may be considered normal for the US palate are generally considered overkill here. Using salted butter can provide a balance to the flavour which is missing in unsalted butter.

Adding salt separately can solve that problem, of course. But with salt levels being relatively consistent in butter over here, and with most people who do use real butter as a spread using salted butter, my experience is that UK recipes are more likely to assume salted butter unless otherwise stated.

  • "my experience is that UK recipes are more likely to assume salted butter unless otherwise stated." [citation needed] And how would adding salt compensate for a lack of sweetness? – David Richerby Oct 24 at 15:20
  • 3
    @DavidRicherby The other way around - the salt compensates for an excess of sweetness. It's most evident in high-sugar baked goods such as flapjacks, but also in buttercream icing. I'm afraid I can't give a citation for my personal experience or my taste in baking though. :) – Graham Oct 24 at 16:05
  • OK. So why would a UK recipe compensate for sweetness by secretly hoping that you use salted butter, rather than just reducing the amount of sugar? That makes no sense, especially as "everybody knows" that you use unsalted butter for baking. – David Richerby Oct 24 at 16:07
  • 1
    @DavidRicherby Salt and sugar together do interesting umami things to your tastebuds, so reducing the amount of sugar does not do the same thing as adding salt. There are also some processes (e.g. emulsifying buttercream) which need the sugar. So a recipe may assume that you're using salted butter and then not have "1/2 tsp salt" in the recipe, which otherwise would be needed for using unsalted butter. – Graham Oct 24 at 16:15
  • 2
    @Pod Perhaps just different experiences. David's experience is that "everybody knows you use unsalted butter for baking". My experience is that "everybody I know uses salted butter for everything unless otherwise specified", because with salted butter being way more common in everyday use, why would a recipe secretly hope that you weren't going to use the butter you had already? Either way, it's something we can both live with, so long as we can be more specific in recipes. :) – Graham Oct 25 at 12:04

Good question! It depends on the dish being made. Easy rule of thumb:

  • Savory/seasoned as a main dish or meat = salted butter
  • Sweet, fruit or greens heavy = unsalted
  • Also - you can make melted/browned butter easily, by slowly melting the butter so you have a stable cooking medium.

In the UK, if a recipe just calls for "butter", it is asking for salted butter.

This is because historically all butter was "salted butter", with "unsalted butter" being very expensive before the advent of refrigeration due to its low shelf life.

Additionally, the majority of products labelled "butter" will be salted butter, with the unsalted butter being explicitly labelled "unsalted butter", e.g. Compare the marketing of major brands in the UK in their use of butter vs unsalted butter:

  1. http://www.kerrygold.co.uk/home/products/
  2. https://www.arlafoods.co.uk/brands/butter-and-spreads/
  3. https://www.dairycrest.co.uk/brands/butters-spreads-oils/country-life/

Here is another source:

https://www.statista.com/statistics/301909/leading-brands-of-butter-in-the-uk/

What's interesting is that, with the prevalence of internet-based recipes from the US and other English-speaking countries, the term "salted" is now being applied to plain old "butter". e.g. I remember about 5 years ago Sainsbury's started calling butter "salted butter", which confused my partner at the time as she just wanted "butter", thinking this was an extra salty butter.

  • 1
    The default in labeling is not necessarily the same thing as the default in recipes. It's true in the US as well that salted butter is often simply labeled butter. But still, it's also common to expect to use unsalted butter in recipes, especially baking. Do you have anything about that side of things? – Cascabel Oct 25 at 11:26

Salt and butter have two very different functions. Using them together does not allow you to control them separately. For example, if you need more fat but the dish is already salted, you need butter but not salt. Therefore, if you want to be as accurate as possible, use unsalted butter.

Just a note on all of this - it is not necessarily just about the taste. A few people have touched on the shelf life, which also makes a difference.

Salted butter is designed to last longer, therefore when doing things like baking - where you want to use the freshest ingredients for a better result - you should always use unsalted, because it will be fresher. (Especially true when making "challenging" things like pastry).

  • Sorry but this doesn't make sense. "Last longer" means exactly the same thing as "stays fresh longer". The age of the product is irrelevant: what you care about is how much its quality has deteriorated during that time. And, since salted butter deteriorates more slowly, you can use older salted butter and it will be just as fresh (i.e., will have deteriorated the same amount) as newer unsalted butter. Indeed, if I buy salted and unsalted butter today, by your argument, I should use the salted butter to bake with, because it will be fresher! – David Richerby Oct 24 at 15:19
  • 1
    @DavidRicherby That is certainly not true. There are various measures of freshness, not all of which are helped by salt. Salt's primary use in butter is to prevent microbial growth, and it might have some effect on retaining moisture, but not on oxidation. And it might increase the absorption of smells from the fridge, etc. – Matthew Read Oct 25 at 15:11
  • 2
    Exactly what @Matthew Read said. "Designed to last longer" gives a result that is "still edible and not dangerous" rather than "fresh". Not the same thing at all. – rickibarnes Oct 26 at 7:53

If it's a recipe for homemade bread they say it's best to use unsalted butter because salt tempers yeast activity, therefore, theoretically, using salted butter would raise salt content (slightly) and possibly lengthen rising time, lessen oven "blooming", and up the finished saltiness of baked bread. Regardless, I don't find it makes that much difference, for bread baking anyway.

There is no such thing as unsalted butter. Butter is just made of milk, without salt or any other additive. If you add salt to it, it becomes salted butter, which is a different thing than butter.

That said, the word "butter" can sometimes refer to salted butter in some countries like the UK. In countries like France, butter is normally sold unsalted, and salted butter is considered like butter with an additive (salt).

So if the recipe needs butter, just take what is the default in the country of origin of the recipe book. If you don't know, just take unsalted butter, it's always easier to add salt afterwise than trying to desalt your butter :-).

  • 1
    What you say about "unsalted" butter is true, but it does not necessarily carry through to recipes. Given the proliferation of salted butter and the fact that it is generally the default in the supermarket (giving rise to the term "unsalted butter" to differentiate), many of the recipe books I have will specifically state "unsalted butter" if it's considered important. Otherwise it is unspecified, which seems like "meh, either" to me :P – rickibarnes Oct 26 at 7:58
  • 1
    Linguistically true, but is that the same as how the term is colloquially used? – Erica Oct 26 at 9:42
  • 2
    In much of the English-speaking world this may be logical but it isn't true. The default can in fact be assumed to be salted (in that there's more choice of brands and price points for salted, and some small shops only stock salted) – Chris H Oct 26 at 11:29
  • 1
    So it actually depends where you're from. In France, butter is de facto unsalted, and butter refers to unsalted butter. It seems so much more logical that way. I don't think I deserve that -1. – Gabriel Hautclocq Oct 26 at 11:39
  • Updated my answer to take account of country specifics – Gabriel Hautclocq Oct 26 at 11:50

Your Answer

 
discard

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.