Ask Peter: Salted vs. unsalted butter
Can you please explain why some recipes call for unsalted butter, and whether it’s okay to use standard salted butter instead. Does it really make that much of a difference?
Thanks, Sandy O
That’s a good question and one that when I was a child wouldn’t have needed to have been asked as I’m pretty sure there was only one type of butter for sale in supermarkets and that was salted. In those days (oh, I am sounding old) all the cake and biscuit recipes, lemon curds, mock icing etc that I cooked from the Edmonds and similar cookbooks were made with salted butter, although we just called it butter. But times have changed and you can now get unsalted fairly easily.
These days, most cakes and biscuits will expect you to use unsalted butter unless you’re making an American-style flat cookie that will often have salt flakes added to it. We’ve become familiar with salted caramel lollies and dessert sauces, Reese’s salted peanut chocolates and the like, so the thought of eating or making a salty sweet is somewhat less odd. But when you think about it, making a plain pound cake with salt in it does sound like it’s not going to be as good as if it were made from unsalted butter.
I’ve tried to see if there’s an industry standard for the amount of salt in butter, and also if it’s always sea salt or rock salt, but it seems it can be anywhere from 1 per cent to 3 per cent salt to cream, and the salt could come from anywhere.
Salt generally is always organic which is why organic butters made with organic cream and natural cultures etc can use the term. As to why salt is used in the first place, it is simply there to preserve the butter from becoming rancid too quickly. Salt is a preservative, as you’ll know from eating jamon and prosciutto — ham joints that have initially been cured in salt to kill any surface bacteria and moulds. The best anchovies, well the most flavoursome, are salted ones, preserved in cans packed in salt which intensifies their flavour.
Salt cod is another popular protein in Europe, especially Portugal and Spain where it’s known as bacalao. To use this lovely, leathery, grey-looking dried fish, it’s first soaked in water which is refreshed several times before being gently poached in water, milk or stock. The cooked cod really has very little resemblance to fresh cod, but the flavour is intense and savoury, which is very appealing, and various European cuisines mash this up with potatoes or bread and olive oil to produce a spread-come-dip called brandade.
I have to say, in my own kitchen I have many salt variations — including a huge crystal of pink salt that my friend Clare de Lore gave me, which originated in the Khewra mines deep in the Pakistani Himalaya. Fittingly it is packaged with a little grater for you to take as needed.
I have a sulphury-smelling black salt from India called kalanamak. It likely started the same way as the pink crystals but it’s then heated to an extremely high temperature and mixed with spices and herbs, some of which are high in sulphur themselves which is absorbed by the crystals.
I have manuka smoked salt from New Zealand, Danish sea salt from my photographer friend Manja Wachsmuth in Auckland and half a dozen types of flaky sea salt from all corners of the world. Excessive and unnecessary I know, but fun to play with.
Back to your question though. In savoury food it won’t make any difference at all if you use salted or unsalted butter as you’ll be seasoning most dishes throughout the cooking and adjusting at the end. For cakes and biscuits, I’d suggest you’re best to use unsalted butter — but as I said, as a child we made everything from salted butter and everything tasted pretty good to me!
If you can’t always find unsalted, remember butter can be frozen for 3-4 months, so stock up if you need to.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes here.