I’m getting more into cooking, thanks to your site, and I’m noticing a lot of recipes that call for unsalted butter. Why should I be using this instead of salted, which I usually buy?
I’m glad you’re inspired to take on new challenges, and that you’re paying attention to recipes. Salted butter exists for the same reason that other mouthwatering ingredients like ham, beef jerky, gravlax, and cheese do—salting is a time-tested method of culinary preservation.
These days, with omnipresent refrigeration, there’s less of a need to worry about whether you, Ma, and Pa will have enough dairy products to make it through the winter on the prairie. However, because modern salted butter will still keep longer than its unsalted counterpart, even the generic unsalted butter at the grocery store will be fresher than the salted version.
The other important factor in choosing unsalted butter is the ability to maintain control over the level of salt and the final taste of the dish. With unsalted butter, you’re working with a neutral palate and you have the option to tweak the flavor to your specifications—this is especially important in desserts and baked goods, where there can be a vast difference between caramels with a minerally hint of sea salt and caramels that taste like they were made with seawater.
In my recipes, any time you see the word “butter” with no qualifier, it’s referring to unsalted butter, and this is generally the case for most chefs’ recipes. Thomas Keller indicates in the introductory notes to The French Laundry Cookbook that “all butter is unsalted,” as does Alice Waters (“with the exception of a few pastry recipes, we use unsalted butter exclusively at Chez Panisse”). Lauded pastry chef Gale Gand specifies “cool unsalted butter” in all her recipes.
An interesting exception, incidentally, is Julia Child, who writes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, “Except for cake frostings and certain desserts for which we have specified unsalted butter, American salted butter and French butter are interchangeable in cooking.” Can any food historians tell me if unsalted butter is a postmodern culinary trend?
Whether salted or not, butter freezes well, so feel free to buy a few boxes at once and replenish your fridge stock one or two sticks at a time. Because unsalted butter will grow “stale” and take on odors more easily (those fat molecules love to suck in flavor), you can maintain the flavor and quality of your butter in perpetuity.
As always, send your Ask Casey questions—both nice-to-know and need-to-know accepted—along with lottery tickets and birthday cards to caseyATwww.www.goodfoodstories.com.