Ginger Orange Scones with butter / Buttery and tender, flavored with ginger, orange zest, and a touch of five-spice and studded with candied ginger and dried orange. #scones #butter #ginger #orange

What’s the difference between salted and unsalted butter?

Sometimes a recipe calls for just butter. Sometimes for unsalted butter. And once in a while, salted butter. What’s the difference? And why use one in one recipe—these buttery Ginger Orange Scones, for example—and another in another?

Let’s take it from the top.

Q. What’s the difference between salted and unsalted butter?

A. This is kind of like who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb or “Stupid Answers” on Jeopardy. The difference between salted and unsalted butter is—salt. It’s added to salted butter and it’s not added to unsalted.

But the tricky bit is different brands add different amounts of salt. And it can vary from around 1/4 teaspoon to 1/2 teaspoon per stick.

Q. Why do some recipes use one type and others use another?

A. It basically boils down to control. If you use x-amount of unsalted butter plus x-amount of salt in a recipe, no matter what brand of butter you use, your recipe will turn out the same. And that won’t necessarily be true if you use salted butter.

The difference between 1/4 teaspoon in one stick and 1/2 in another might not sound like a big difference. But if you think in percentages, the difference is 100%. So that means that you could be doubling the saltiness of your recipe using one salted butter versus another—which can indeed make a difference.

All this is most important in baking, where it’s not only about taste, it’s about chemical reactions and precision is important. Also in baking, generally you put it all together, bake it, and it’s done. So unlike sauteing, for example, there’s no opportunity to taste and adjust flavors at the end. Which makes specificity in the beginning important.

Q. So that’s why some recipes use both unsalted butter and salt?

A. Exactly! Most recipes need salt, but starting with unsalted butter—which more and more recipes are doing these days—means you are in charge of the amount, not the variations of salted butter brands.

(On a related note, it’s also why my recipes specify low-sodium broth instead of “regular”— so you have more control over the ultimate saltiness of your dish.)

Ginger Orange Scones / Buttery and tender, flavored with ginger, orange zest, and a touch of five-spice and studded with candied ginger and dried orange. #scones #butter #ginger #orange

Q. Salt—that’s really the only difference?

A. No. There are a few more differences between salted and unsalted butter.

One, unsalted will likely have more sweet dairy/cream flavors. Salted, not surprisingly, will be less sweet and, relatively speaking, more savory.

Two, salted butter, because salt is a preservative, will stay fresher longer. But that’s mostly a technicality, because at the store, both types are rotated accordingly. So no matter which you buy, it should last three or four months in your refrigerator. (And if you’re worried your butter is getting old, make scones!)

And three, salted butter has a slightly higher water content. Since additional moisture can affect the texture of some baked goods, using salted butter in a recipe developed using unsalted could result in something less than ideal. Not inedible, but maybe not ideal.

Q. What should I do if a recipe doesn’t specify?

A. If a recipe just says “butter,” use unsalted, especially if the recipe also includes salt. Then when you’re eating it, try a bite with a teeny sprinkle more salt. If it’s better, make a note to add a little salt the next time you make the recipe. It might mean that the first go isn’t as full-flavored as can be, but it’s better than the first go being too salty.

Q. So should I ever use salted butter?

A. Salted butter is best for when you want the convenience of salt-and-butter-in-one but you’re not too picky about how much salt. Places like smearing butter on corn or a dinner roll or drizzling it over popcorn, where the potentially salty flavor is part of the appeal.

Q. You’re saying I should buy both salted and unsalted butter?

A. Well, it’s like I say about whether you need more than one kind of olive oil. It depends on how much money and space you want to devote to it.

At the least, stock your fridge with unsalted, knowing that there will be times when you use butter and also salt. And if you like the convenience of salted butter and have enough salty-buttery occasions—corn, dinner rolls, popcorn, et cetera—to merit devoting money and space to it, you could absolutely keep that on hand too.

Me, I prefer to add my own salt, even to corn, dinner rolls, and popcorn. So I typically don’t buy salted butter.

Ginger Orange Scones / Buttery and tender, flavored with ginger, orange zest, and a touch of five-spice and studded with candied ginger and dried orange. #scones #butter #ginger #orange

Q. Say I’m out of one or the other, and a recipe calls for the one I don’t have—what then?

A. Don’t adjust the butter—in other words, use the amount of butter that the recipe calls for. Instead, adjust the salt. Which means if your recipe calls for salted butter and you have unsalted, it’s relatively safe to add 1/4 teaspoon of salt per stick of butter in the recipe. And if it calls for unsalted and you only have salted, omit 1/4 teaspoon salt per stick.

Q. Huzzah—buttery mysteries solved! Anything else for now?

A. Bottom line, the difference between salted and unsalted butter is really just a small bit of salt. But that small bit can make a difference.

Think of unsalted as your default and also buy salted if you want.

Ideally, use the kind of butter your recipe specifies. But if you don’t have it, now you know how to adjust.

And—treat yourself a buttery scone once in a while.

More butter-licious recipes:
Ginger Orange Scones
Maple Oat Pecan Scones
Raspberry Vanilla Bean Scones
Rustic Gruyère Chive Scones
Banana Walnut Muffins
Chocolate Muffins
Strawberry Rosemary Muffins
Easy Orange Marmalade Bars
Lemon Bars with Cardamom
Mexican Chocolate and Cherry Brownies
Almond Five-Spice Butter Cookies
Hazelnut Milk Chocolate Icebox Cookies
Lavender Butter Cookies
Maple Brown Sugar Butter Cookies
Salted Cherry Almond Oatmeal Cookies
The World’s Best Chocolate Chip Cookies
Basic Pastry Dough

Scallop Scampi with Spring Onions and Orzo
Chicken Paillards with Asparagus, Lemon, and Garlic
Chicken Saltimbocca
Steaks with Lemon-Thyme Butter

Ginger Orange Scones / Buttery and tender, flavored with ginger, orange zest, and a touch of five-spice and studded with candied ginger and dried orange. #scones #butter #ginger #orange


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