It was a night I will never forget. After a round of pretzels, spaetzle and schnitzel, my friend Amanda Hesser, CEO of the website Food52, shared a disturbing discovery: For years, her mother had baked with salted butter.
Since that dinner in 2014, as I flipped through so many new cookbooks full of flaky salt-sprinkled brownies and observed fancy restaurants offer two types of butter — one with salt, one without — with their bread, I thought back to Hesser’s disclosure. It wasn’t until a few months ago, when cookbook author Alison Roman’s recipe for salted butter and chocolate chunk shortbread went viral, that I began to investigate the state, past and present, of what I once presumed the “other” butter.
Those of us who have made a big deal about salting our sweets in recent years have assumed that our predecessors liked saccharine desserts, but Hesser’s theory is that the ingredient had been excluded from old recipes because it was already incorporated into the butter.
From there, I reasoned, as unsalted or “sweet” butter became more accessible and came into fashion, people continued to rely on those old formulas, swapping out salted butter — without accounting for the salt. Cooks “just forgot that not using the same butter is going to affect the final taste,” said pastry chef Olivia Wilson, co-owner of Chairlift bakery and Brenner Pass in Richmond. Perhaps, I concluded, the current trend for salty or salted desserts is simply a reaction to a lack of balance created when the salt was written out of recipe history.
“For centuries, really, butter was three to four times saltier than our salted butter because it was used as a preservative,” Elaine Khosrova told me. In “Butter: A Rich History” (Algonquin Books, 2016), she explains that the mineral would extend the fat’s shelf life and, in turn, the butter could be applied as a coating to cooked food to make leftovers last longer.
In the late 19th century, butter making became big, centralized business with the rise of commercial creameries. According to Khosrova’s book, this also yielded a fresher, milder-tasting product labeled “sweet cream butter” — sweet in the sense that the cream is not cultured or fermented so is missing the related sourness; some salt was added, but not as a preserving agent. This was the prototype for the salted butter found in modern-day grocery stores.
France was one of the only places where unpreserved — and therefore drastically less salty — butter existed, dating back to preindustrial society, if not earlier. It held on, and Khosrova says it became popular in the United States when we started emulating the French after World War II. Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” is where I found one of the earliest references to unsalted butter in an American cookbook: “Except for cake frostings and certain desserts for which have specified unsalted butter, American salted and French butter are interchangeable in cooking.”
Judith Hesser was married in 1961, the same year “Mastering” came out; not long after, she discovered her passion for cookbooks and found her “true enjoyment” was baking. “I do not know if unsalted butter was even available in the grocery store,” Hesser said in an email. “I simply bought butter (salted) and used it for baking and everything else.”
The assumption that unsalted butter was superior and should be the default developed later. I asked Hesser if she’d pinpointed a switch-over moment in recipe language while working on “The New York Times Essential Cookbook,” for which she scoured the newspaper’s archives. “I don’t know if I’d say there was a clear demarcation around butter, per se,” she said. “But ingredient lists began getting much more specific in the 1990s. Previously, a recipe might just call for butter, and people probably used whatever they had.”
Today, most cookbooks stipulate unsalted butter, which might lead you to believe that this has become the de facto choice in residential kitchens. Statistics say otherwise. According to the Dairy Farmers of America, since 2012, 77 percent of the butter sold in America has been salted and 23 percent unsalted. Tom Balmer, executive director of the American Butter Institute, quoted similar figures, but said that when it comes to bulk sales, unsalted butter sells more.
Sure enough, in most restaurant galleys, the majority of butter is unsalted. Pastry chefs will tell you they prefer it because it allows more precision. “I like to strictly control the salt content in my pastries, and for that reason I calculate the percentage of straight salt in proportion to the flour,” said Melissa Weller of Walnut Street Bakery in Philadelphia.
Last summer, Weller traveled to Brittany, while attempting to perfect her version of the kouign amann, the Breton-born pastry that’s composed of caramelized laminated dough. The versions there were notably better than those she’d eaten elsewhere, due to the fact that French butter has a higher fat content than its American counterpart and this makes for a flakier pastry. But there was something else: “It had more complexity, and it was because they’d used salted butter and not because they’d added the salt in.”
When it comes to your more homey items, a plain old-fashioned American-type stick of salted butter from the grocery store is all you need. As luck would have it, that’s what most of us already have. Weller kept that in mind when she developed a recipe for Milk Chocolate and Raspberry Blondies. That’s what I used in my sugar cookies for the same reason.
Roman’s decision to beat salted butter into her shortbread wasn’t so calculated. “With these, I was sort of like ‘to hell with it,’ ” she said. She doesn’t use salted butter in other baking endeavors. “It’s not something that I buy; it’s something that I put on toast, on pancakes.” In this particular recipe, though, she recognizes the “depth of flavor” salted butter creates, especially with so few ingredients involved. In a more complicated baked good with multiple layers of flavor, the subtlety of salted butter might go undetected. “Baking with salted butter in this instance, I’m forcing you to look at it,” she said. “In most other cakes and cookies it’s more just a backup singer,” she observed.
Wilson likes to use salted Plugra butter in her financiers, the small French cakes prepared with almond meal and browned butter. Roman has made her dough with that butter and, of a similar caliber, Kerrygold. She’s done it with less expensive Horizon Organic and Whole Foods’ 365 butters, too. “They were really great; it’s just a relative scale of greatness,” she said. Unless a recipe states a clear preference, consider these brands interchangeable; salt-wise, variations in concentration abound but are incremental. Should you wish to develop your own recipes or replace the unsalted butter with salted in those you already trust, keep in mind that 1 stick of the latter has approximately ¼ teaspoon salt.
Judy Hesser bakes with Land O’Lakes or Publix; these days, it’s unsalted, thanks to her daughter’s intervention. “I even use unsalted butter in the old recipes, and I do not adjust the added salt,” the 76-year-old told me, nearly causing me to choke on my shortbread. “I think we consume too much salt.”
More from Voraciously