Butter 101: The difference between salted vs. unsalted

Which you should use when baking, how to substitute salted butter for unsalted, and how to make your own homemade butter.

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Michael Alberstat

Have you ever wondered why so many baking recipes call for unsalted butter? From a test kitchen perspective, it’s simple.

Unsalted butter is primarily used in baking where you don’t have the luxury of tasting your food as you go. It’s not easy to determine if you have the right amount of salt in a raw cake batter. Therefore, practice makes perfect, and a calculated amount of salt is defined. 

In cooking, commonly the smallest amount of salt is used for seasoning – therefore salted butter is called for. It has a slightly longer shelf life than unsalted butter and is more typically found in the average household fridge. In recipes, it often serves double duty as a fat and a seasoning.

Salt is a powerful ingredient, and during recipe development it is always a balancing act between tasty and healthy recipes. For example, when we were testing our toasted tarragon couscous, we thought the amount of salt in the butter would suffice, however after multiple tests the recipe was still coming out slightly bland. The addition of a mere 1/2 tsp of salt took this dish from good to great.

Try it: Toasted Tarragon Couscous 

That being said, the Chatelaine Kitchen is very mindful of the sodium levels in our recipes. Assistant Food Editor, Irene Ngo is our resident sodium hound and has a chart posted in the kitchen that we refer to during all of our recipe development. 

So, how much salt is there in salted butter? I decided to put Irene’s chart to work with some research of my own. I consulted four major butter brand and determined that on average there are 80mg of sodium per 10g serving. Therefore, for every gram of butter, there are 8mg of sodium. Knowing that very few of us measure things in milligrams, I applied some super tricky math (with lots of decimal points) and calculated some approximations for those times when you don’t have salted butter on hand.

  • 1 lb of butter contains 1.5 tsp salt
  • 1/2 lb butter contains 3/4 tsp salt
  • One stick of butter contains a little more than 1/3 tsp salt

Therefore, if you need to use salted butter when a recipe calls for unsalted butter, be sure to reduce any additional salt by the amounts listed above. If the recipe does not call for any additional salt, be prepared to taste a slight saltiness in your finished product.

It’s funny that butter can be so complicated when it’s such a simple ingredient. If you ever feel like making your own unsalted butter, then get ‘churning’ in your own kitchen. All you need is one ingredient and a blender!

Try it: Homemade Butter 

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