Salted vs. Unsalted Butter

By: Bob's Red Mill | September 8 2017
When we are cooking or baking, there are so many different types of ingredients to fuss over. What variety of fruit should we use, is it okay to use dried herbs instead of fresh, and exactly what type of flour will work best for this recipe? The questions are never ending, especially since we have established many different varieties of almost every food imaginable. It can be even tougher if you are trying to eat healthy or stay within the limits of a certain diet plan. There are a few ingredients that, if you are like me, you may tend to take for granted. These are the ones that are sitting in your cupboard or your refrigerator, that get used and replaced often enough that you never seem to worry about it, and that you rarely actually measure out. I think of olive oil first when I think of these ingredients, but butter is another one that I do not pay nearly enough attention to sometimes. The truth is, butter can be as finicky as any other ingredient and it can lead to undesired results if you do not use it correctly. The most common question when it comes to butter is, “What is the difference between salted and unsalted butter?” If you are like me, you probably just use whatever is in the fridge right now, and do not pay too much attention to it. However, for strict bakers and chefs, this can be a bad habit. We need to understand the differences between the two types of butter before we decide how important it is to stick to the recipe instead of just using what we have on hand. Also, depending on what you are making the most of, understanding the differences between salted and unsalted butter can change what you decide to keep on hand for the majority of your cooking and baking.

So, What Is the Difference?

Well, it is fairly simple, at least at a basic level. Salted butter has salt, unsalted butter does not (I know, very enlightening). Yet you will often see recipes that call for unsalted butter, and still also call for salt later in the recipe. Why could we not just use salted butter in the first place? Also, does the difference in a little bit of salt really matter in the scheme of the entire recipe? These questions are important to answer, so we have explored all the ins and outs of salted vs. unsalted butter to help you understand.

It Depends on What You’re Making

Salted butter will have a higher sodium content than unsalted butter, so if you are watching your sodium, we highly recommend sticking completely to unsalted butter, no matter what you're making. If you are not watching your sodium, then the difference between these two will lie more in the results of what you want to make than anything else. If you are cooking, oftentimes we add salt in the end anyway, so salted butter can help bring out additional flavors in things like sautéed veggies, chicken, and soups, as well as avoiding having to add as much salt. However, if you are baking, then things can get a little more finicky. Many people say that baking is a science, and that is definitely the case. To get the best baked goods, you have to be really specific about the weights and measurements of all of your ingredients, as well as what type of ingredients you use. You will definitely get a better end product if you use fresher, better ingredients, and butter is no different. The amount of salt in a baked good can make a bigger change in the final result, so you will want to stick with whatever type of butter the recipe calls for when you are baking, whether that is salted or unsalted. Typically, your baking recipes will call for the salt and butter separately, which simply allows you more control over the recipe, so we recommend following the recipe exactly.

All Butters Are Not Created Equal

On the same vein, all butters are not created equal, and the biggest difference can be the salt. All salted butters do not contain the same amount of salt in them, which is very odd when you think about it. Check out the differences in some popular butter brands: 
  • Organic Valley contains 600 mg sodium
  • Trader Joe's contains 720 mg sodium
  • Land O'Lakes contains 760 mg sodium
  • Horizon: contains 920 mg sodium
(All of these values are per stick of butter.) You could change a recipe without meaning to if you use a different brand of butter than you have previously. For this reason, in baking it is important to use unsalted butter if it is called for in the recipe, so you can add the right amount of salt to your recipe and avoid adding too much by accident. If you are a baker, then you will likely need to keep both types of butter around, but if you are simply cooking a lot, then you should be safe sticking with butter that has salt added. If you are out of unsalted butter, then feel free to use the salted kind, especially for recipes like cookies, but decrease the additional salt in the recipe to compensate for it, so you do not accidentally overdo it on the salt.

Shelf Life and Freshness

One other big difference between salted and unsalted butter is that salted butter actually lasts longer than unsalted butter. The salt acts as a preservative, keeping the butter “fresh” about three or four months longer than otherwise. We put fresh in quotation marks because although the butter will still technically be good to cook with, for baking you will probably want to use fresher butter. Your baked goods will taste better if you use fresher ingredients, so even if the salted butter is technically still good, you may still want to pick up a new stick before baking some pastries or cakes.

Water Content

Another interesting difference between salted and unsalted butter is the water content in each variety. Apparently, salted butter contains a slightly higher water content than unsalted butter. In cooking, again, this will not really present much of an issue as it is a small difference. With baking, however, extra water content can have an effect on how the gluten reacts and forms within your dough. As you may know, gluten is used to hold the structure of a baked good or dough, so any differences in its formation can vary your end result a great deal, causing your dough to be too sticky, not sticky enough, or not hold the right shape as well as possible. This is another great reason to stick with unsalted butter if you are a frequent baker, because you will simply have more control over the water content in your dough.

Other Butter Tips

There are always other considerations when cooking or baking with butter. We absolutely love butter, and we know what a difference it can make in your cooking and baking recipes, so we want to make sure you are using butter correctly in all of your dishes! Vegan butters are typically salted, so you will want to make sure you take that into account in your recipes. You can use shortening or other substitutes, but if you need butter for the flavor, then you will likely use a salted option. Ghee can be made using salted or unsalted butter, and the resulting ghee from unsalted butter will have a slightly higher salt concentration due to the removal of other aspects of the butter. When you are cooking, one of the most important things to consider with butter is the temperature. If butter is too cold, then your recipe can turn out too chunky, but if it is too hot then the result can be very oily—neither of which is what you want. Make sure that you are very attentive to the temperature of your butter, and keep it as warm as the recipe calls for. Really, butter is an amazing food for cooking, baking, and well—the eating part especially! Just take these few considerations into account when you are cooking with butter and you will sure to be creating the most delicious baked goods and recipes. Overall, the differences between salted and unsalted butter are actually fairly small. If you prefer to have more control over your recipes, or are baking finicky baked goods, then definitely plan to have both on hand—or just unsalted if you want to add your own salt. However, if you are regularly cooking dinners and more savory items, then you can typically rely on salted butter for your cooking needs and even an additional flavor kick! Try out both and let us know your thoughts on the great butter debate!


  1. Carol Caruso
    Your explanation of salt vs. unsalted butter, in general, baking and cooking was very informational and written so that all folks could understand. As one who is new to having my salt intake monitored this was the best article I found on the internet.
    Thank You
    With Appretiation,
    Carol Caruso
  2. Lorraine K
    All the years i have been baking, I did not know the difference between salted and none salted. Thank you
  3. Pat P
    Thank you for this informative article. I never really paid attention to the reasoning behind choosing salted or non-salted. I think I will always have the unsalted version on hand since I like to bake. Very helpful!
  4. Cheri mello
    Thanks FOR Sharing❤️ VERY Interesting!! I didn't know This about Water contents BUT I DO read LABELS for sodium AND Sugars. I NEVER eat margarineOR oleo. IT Like Eating PLASTIC!! I Believe it's Molecular structure ISN far FR ITG-d Bless
  5. Gregory D Kibitz
    Gregory D Kibitz
    From what I've read about the chemistry of salt in baking, excess salt only causes a problem in the chemistry of yeast based products (breads) and they rarely includes butter. For most butter based baked goods (cakes, pies & pastry) too much excess salt would only make the final product taste too salty. However, the amount extra salt you may add due to salted butter sodium level uncertainty will rarely ever be enough to cause that, esp. if you cut back on the the quantity of pure salt you add as well.
  6. Sharon Berkowitz
    I was told decades ago by a dairy farmer that unsalted butter was the best quality butter and as the quality of the butter fat went down the market added salt to improve flavor. Is this an old wives tale? I can’t find any proof about what I have always believed.

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