Am I Supposed to Use Salted or Unsalted Butter in Baking?

Plus what to do when you’re in a pinch and don’t have the right kind.

February 11, 2022
Homemade Sweet Peanut Butter Chocolate Cookies Ready to Eat

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Homemade Sweet Peanut Butter Chocolate Cookies Ready to Eat

Photo by: bhofack2/Getty Images

bhofack2/Getty Images

By Jessie Sheehan for Food Network Kitchen

Jessie Sheehan is a baker and cookbook author.

Butter adds richness, tenderness, structure and flavor to baked treats. But should you use salted or unsalted butter? Although you might typically keep salted on hand for spreading on toast (one of life’s great pleasures: a thick slice of toast with salted butter . . .), it’s not the best for baking. We get into the science of why, plus what to do when you’re in a pinch and all you’ve got is salted butter (but those chocolate chip cookies can’t wait!).

Step by step. Flat lay. Stick of butter at room temperature on a white plate.

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Step by step. Flat lay. Stick of butter at room temperature on a white plate.

Photo by: arinahabich/Getty Images

arinahabich/Getty Images

What Is the Difference Between Unsalted and Salted Butter?

The difference between unsalted and salted butter is primarily you guessed it the salt content: unsalted butter has none and salted has about 1/4 teaspoon per 1/2 cup (though the amount of salt an differ between brands).

But there is another difference: unsalted butter is typically fresher than salted butter. This is because the salt in butter works as a preservative, giving salted butter a longer shelf life. This does not mean that the salted butter you see in the grocery store is past its prime, it merely means that the unsalted will likely be rotated more frequently in and out of the dairy case.

Why Do Most Baking Recipes Call for Unsalted Butter?

Baking recipes typically call for unsalted butter because the amount of salt in salted butter varies depending on the brand – there is no “industry standard.” For example, if you use one brand of salted butter in a recipe, and we use another, our baked goods could end up tasting very different from one other.

Most baking recipes do need a little salt in the mixture, as it enhances the other flavors in the baked good. Therefore, recipes typically call for unsalted butter plus an additional measurement of salt (say, 1/4 teaspoon) to ensure consistently balanced results.

"Close up of butter slices, in the background housewife opening the fridge.More like this:"

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"Close up of butter slices, in the background housewife opening the fridge.More like this:"

Photo by: Mitshu/Getty Images

Mitshu/Getty Images

Why Do Some Baking Recipes Call for Salted Butter?

Sometimes a baking recipe will call for salted butter, usually to simplify or streamline the recipe (i.e.: the recipe can call for fewer ingredients since the salt is already in the butter). Occasionally a recipe will call for both salted butter and salt, and perhaps that is because the recipe writer assumes that salted is what most folks have on hand. But the vast majority of baking recipes call for unsalted butter, plus salt measurement, to guarantee the recipe will turn out as intended (not too salty and not under salted).

When a Recipe Calls for “Butter,” Which Butter Should I Use?

Nowadays, most recipes specify the kind of butter called for, just as they do the kind of flour. But if you do stumble across one that doesn’t indicate salted or not, go with unsalted – as in our experience, an under salted-baked good, is much more palatable than an over-salted one.

Baking Ingredients Flat Lay Over Grey Concrete Background. Concept Of Cooking Preparing Sweet Food, Pastry, Cookies Or Cake

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Baking Ingredients Flat Lay Over Grey Concrete Background. Concept Of Cooking Preparing Sweet Food, Pastry, Cookies Or Cake

Photo by: Arx0nt/Getty Images

Arx0nt/Getty Images

Can I Use Salted Butter to Replace Unsalted Butter and Visa Versa?

In a pinch, you can replace unsalted butter with salted, as long as you reduce the amount of additional salt in the recipe.

For instance, if a recipe calls for 1/2 cup unsalted butter, plus 1/2 teaspoon salt, you could substitute 1/2 cup salted butter (which typically though not always!! has 1/4 teaspoon of salt in it) and reduce the additional salt by 1/4 teaspoon.

The same holds true if substituting unsalted butter for salted: for every 1/2 cup of salted butter, you can substitute 1/2 cup of unsalted and add an additional 1/4 teaspoon to the amount of salt for which the recipe calls.

Is There a Substitute for Unsalted Butter?

There are lots of fabulous unsalted butter substitutes on the market, many of them vegan, and you can also substitute vegetable shortening for unsalted butter, one for one.

Can I Use Salted Butter In Cooking?

Because cooking, unlike baking, is more of an art than a science, salted butter is usually okay to use. When you cook, unlike when you bake, you can taste as you go – and in fact many savory recipes instruct you to “add salt to taste.” Thus if a recipe calls for unsalted butter, but you add salted instead, you will be able to taste the dish’s saltiness and then add as little, or as much, extra salt as you would like.

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