Whether it’s a recipe for chocolate chip banana bread coffee cake or fusilli with spring vegetables, our readers are always asking if they can swap in salted butter for unsalted, or vice versa. (There’s nothing worse than being halfway through a recipe and realizing you don’t have the right ingredient!) So we’re here to explain the differences between the two types of butter, and cover when they’re interchangeable—and how that will impact your meal, whether you’re baking, sautéing, or simply smearing.
The Difference Between Salted and Unsalted Butter
The difference between salted butter and unsalted butter is the salt content! In general, your salted butter will taste, well, saltier, whereas your unsalted butter will have a creamier, sweeter flavor. That being said, not all salted butters are the same. For example, Organic Valley salted butter has 75 mg of sodium per tablespoon, while Horizon contains 90 mg for the same amount.
To get a sense of how salty your salted butter tastes, we give you full permission to taste it on its own or smeared over some plain bread. You could even do a little taste test with a few different brands. That sounds like a fun and delicious experiment. And useful, too, since you’ll get a feel for just how much salty flavor you’ll be adding to your food.
One more thing to keep in mind: The sodium in your salted butter acts as a preservative and will extend the butter’s shelf life. But considering how fast we go through butter these days, shelf life isn’t a huge concern.
How to Swap Salted Butter for Unsalted, and Vice Versa
So you want to make a recipe and you see it calls for unsalted butter, but you only have salted: What do you do? This is where your cook’s intuition comes in.
If you’re cooking, say, pasta or chicken, really any savory dish, use your salted butter one-for-one in place of unsalted butter, but cut back on the physical salt you add. Be sure to taste as you go. You can always add more salt at the end. (It’s much harder to de-salt something, as we all know.)
For baked goods and sweeter items, you’ll need to tread a bit more carefully with salted butter. In general, it’s best to use unsalted butter so that you have complete control over just how salty your baked goods are going to be—especially when it’s a butter-heavy recipe, like pound cake and scones. But if you find yourself in a situation where you only have salted butter, don’t fear! Just reduce the amount of actual salt in the recipe.
Does It Really Matter Which Butter You Use?
If you really want to be truly certain of how salty your food is going to be and want to have complete control over how it turns out, we recommend stocking up on unsalted butter primarily. Then keep some salted butter on hand for when you want a blissful piece of toast that’s balanced and creamy or maybe a sweet-and-salty bowl of oatmeal with granola. That being said, if you find yourself in a pinch, there’s plenty you can do to adjust the salt content. So, in some cases it matters, but in our opinion, you should never be stressed by butter. Only completely happy.