Before we get into Salted vs Unsalted Butter, let’s talk basics.
What is Butter?
Butter is made from the fats in milk or cream. Milk and cream are solutions of liquids with emulsified fat. The process of churning milk disrupts the fat molecules, allowing them to combine. Eventually, the fat molecules turn into visible chunks, leaving behind the liquid (buttermilk). The buttermilk is drained off, leaving butter. (This process can be replicated at home by over whipping milk or cream in the mixer.)
US regulations require that butter be at least 80% butterfat (also known as milkfat). The actual percentages can vary by manufacturer and type (European Style is typically 83-86% butterfat). The remaining is water, salt, and milk solids. Milk solids consists of proteins, lactose, minerals. The proteins and lactose in milk solids leads to the Maillard Reaction (that’s caramelization) in baking. The water content in butter also adds moisture and leavening in baking.
Types of Butter
There are three main types of butter. Butter made from pasteurized cream is known as sweet cream butter. Most sweet cream butter has salt added (Salted Butter). Sweet cream butter without added salt is called Unsalted Butter or Sweet Butter. (Warning: Sometimes manufacturers will call it “Sweet Cream Butter” and the fact that it is salted is hidden in small font, so take note at the grocery store.)
Cultured / European Style Butter and why it’s amazing
European Style Butter is like a sweet cream butter but it is made from cream that has been cultured with lactic acid. This type of butter is often prized for it’s more complex flavor and creamy mouth feel. Trying European Style Butter for the first time was like having BUTTER for the first time. It’s that good. No wonder, at 83-86% butterfat, it’s 2-4% higher than sweet cream butter.
The higher butterfat content means the butter has less water. This is great when you’re making a laminated dough because the butter is easier to work with and more stable at a wider range of temperatures. This means the butter is less likely to melt into the dough, resulting in a finished product with better rise and flakier layers. It’s results in a more stable buttercream (again, water and oil don’t mix).
For other uses, such as a cookie dough, the difference is negligible.
One word of caution before you run out and buy some. A compound called diacetyl is naturally produced during the fermentation process, giving a tangy flavor and yellow color.(The same compound is naturally produced, or even added, during the wine fermentation process to give Chardonnays a buttery flavor! It’s also added to margarines and spreads, giving them an “almost butter” taste.) The various fermentation “recipes” that manufacturers use can produce huge differences in taste, so give your European Style butter a taste test before you cook with it. If formula isn’t quite right, you can end up with butter that tastes like movie theater popcorn. (Not quite what you’re looking for if you’re making buttercream or croissants.) If you’re buying for the first time, I recommend Plugra.
Salted vs Unsalted Butter
Salt is added as a preservative to lengthen the shelf life and to add flavor. I recommend using Unsalted butter when baking or cooking for the a couple reasons:
If your recipe has little to no salt or is mostly butter, the salt content in the butter you add can have a huge effect on the final product.
In fact, many recipes would actually go down the drain (or more likely, into the trash) because they simply don’t WORK with salted butter. Take bread for example. In the correct amount, salt will give strength to the gluten molecules in bread, which otherwise would be left slack and sticky. (Not a good quality in bread.) If you add too much salt, you end up with tough bread that doesn’t rise. Too much salt will also decrease or even stop yeast fermentation by pulling too much water out of the yeast molecules by osmosis…meaning your dough won’t even rise!
The salt in shields the normally positively charged areas of the gluten protein, leading to an overall loss of net charge. This causes hydrophobic interactions, which leads to aggregation of gluten proteins (tough bread).
End result: a tough ball of dough that blames you for being lazy and thinking the Salted Butter in your fridge will work.
If your recipe does have salt, you have to adjust for the salt content in the butter itself. The salt content can vary between manufacturers. However, as a rough estimate, you’d have to account for ~ ⅕ oz (6 g) of salt for every 1 pound (455 g) of butter.
Is Cheaper Butter Better?
Is cheaper butter necessarily as good as more expensive brands? Butter is actually graded like meat and eggs. Grade AA is the best quality. Grade A butter still must have a “pleasing taste” but it may possess an “off flavor”, color, or consistency. Grade B butter has a “fairly pleasing taste” but it’s more likely to have a malty, musty, scorched, weed, bitter, old, or feed flavor. Yikes. If you see a good deal on butter, keep an eye out to make sure you’re not buying butter that could ruin the recipe.
Are you storing your butter wrong? (Aww, poor butter…)
Butter’s high fat content makes it susceptible to picking up odors in your fridge. Butter should smell like butter, not last night’s stir fry. Most manufacturers package butter in parchment paper and rarely, a manufacturer use special parchment paper treatments to block odors. To be on the safe side, store butter in a sealed plastic ziplock or wrapped in plastic wrap.
Let’s Get Cooking: Hollandaise Sauce
If I could make one thing that would best showcase butter, it’d be Hollandaise sauce. (Big surprise, right?)
The first step to Hollandaise is making clarified butter.
Clarifying butter removes water and milk solids, leaving pure butterfat. Removing the milk solids means clarified butter can be cooked at higher temperatures, temperatures that would have burnt the milk solids. This makes it great for sauteing. The lack of water also makes it easier to make Hollandaise sauce (remember water and oil don’t mix), and gives the Hollandaise sauce a creamier and thicker consistency. If you’re using regular melted butter and are getting runny sauce, now you know why!
- Saucepan for clarifying
- Saucepan for bain marie (hot water bath)
- Stainless steel mixing bowl that will set halfway in the sauce pan. (The bowl shouldn’t be small enough to fit completely inside the saucepan.)
- Unsalted Butter (1 lb produces approximately 12-13 oz of clarified butter)
- 10 oz (281 g) Unsalted Butter
- 3 ea Egg yolks
- 0.5 fl oz (1 T) Water, cold
- 0.75 fl oz (1.5 T) Lemon juice
- to taste Salt
- to taste Cayenne pepper or Paprika
Yield: 1 cup
- Clarify the butter
- Melt butter in a heavy saucepan over moderate heat. (Don’t let it brown!)
- Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes.
- Using a large spoon or ladle, skim the froth that forms at the top until all the froth is gone.
- Without disturbing the milk solids that have settled at the bottom of the pan, carefully ladle out or pour the clear butter into another container. Discard the remaining milk solids.
- Keep the clarified butter warm, not hot.
- Prepare the bain marie
- Add ~1″ of warm water to the saucepan and bring to just below a simmer. You want a steaming pot of water. The water shouldn’t be high enough to touch the bottom of the mixing bowl once you set it on top.
- Place egg yolks and cold water in the mixing bowl and beat well.
- Add a few drops only of lemon juice, beat well.
- Hold or set the bowl over the bain marie (steaming saucepan) and whisk continuously until the yolks are thickened and creamy.
- Remove the bowl from the heat.
- Tip: set the mixing bowl on a coiled up towel to prevent the bowl from moving around
- In one hand, hold the whisk in the mixing bowl, ready to whisk. In the other, collect a very small amount of warm clarified butter in a ladle. Slowly add the small ladle of clarified butter drop by drop, whisking continuously.
- Repeat, slowly and gradually adding all of the clarified butter. The most important step is to start slow. Once a small amount of butter is completely mixed in, it’s easier to add the rest.
- If the sauce gets too thick to whisk but you haven’t added all your butter yet, whisk in a small amount of lemon juice, then continue adding the rest of the butter.
- Once all of the butter has been added, add the remaining lemon juice, salt, and cayenne to taste (add a little and see how it tastes, adjust from there).
- Keep warm (not hot). Do not put on top of a steaming bain marie, over any direct heat, and please do not microwave. You could cover with a towel and keep near a warm stove, float the mixing bowl over a warm (not hot) water bath, or set on top of a bain marie that isn’t steaming anymore.