Baking can be such a tricky game. Where cooking allows for a sprinkle of this and a sprinkle of that, baking requires precision and patience to ensure your baked goods turn out the way you want them.
One of the most used ingredients in baking is butter and it also happens to be one of the most finicky ingredients out there. It always needs to be the perfect temperature and texture or it can throw off the entire recipe.
Another issue with butter is that there are both salted and unsalted varieties on the market, and many recipes usually just call for “butter.” It can make choosing the correct butter a difficult process.
So, how do you pick between salted or unsalted butter for cookies? Whenever you are baking cookies, you should always opt for unsalted butter, as it is fresher and makes it easier to control salt use in recipes that are meant to be sweet.
Keep reading to learn how to use salted and unsalted butter, why unsalted butter is better for baking, as well as the different types of butter and how they affect your baked goods.
What Is Butter?
Butter is considered a fat that is made from the churning of milk. Unlike other fats like oil, butter is rich, thick, and creamy in both texture and taste.
It is an extremely versatile fat and is used in both savory cooking and baking. It is also used as a condiment and can be spread on toast or slathered over corn or potatoes.
You will see butter in many different dessert recipes, as it is a staple in baking and plays a very specific role in the success of desserts.
What Does Butter Do and Why Is It Important In Cookie Baking?
With baking, every ingredient plays a specific role. It can be frustrating at times for those who love to do their own thing or use a recipe as a guideline or starting point.
With baking, it is important to measure out perfectly and understand how each ingredient reacts with one another. For example, baking soda and baking powder, though both leavening agents, act in different ways.
One of the most important ingredients in cookies is butter. And that is because butter does quite a lot when the cookies are baking!
Not only does it give cookies delicious flavor and flakiness, but it also affects the cookie’s structure and ability to rise.
This is from butter’s ability to affect the gluten production in a cookie. With its fat and moisture content, it can produce or inhibit the amount of gluten being produced.
So, as you can see, butter affects the taste, texture, and structure of a cookie, making it one of the most important ingredients in a cookie recipe.
Should You Use Salted Or Unsalted Butter For Cookies?
When choosing between unsalted and salted butter for making cookies, you always want to choose an unsalted variety. Of course, there may be times when you do not have an option, but if you do get to choose, always go with unsalted.
Unsalted butter is the expected norm in all types of baking and baked goods. There are a few reasons why unsalted is the better baking ingredient, including taste, texture, and freshness.
Unsalted and salted butter taste quite different from one another, believe it or not.
The amount of salt used in butter varies from brand to brand and you can never be sure how much sodium is actually in each brand’s stick of butter. Some taste mildly salty, while others taste like a salt lick.
For example, Kerry Gold has about 50 milligrams of salt, where Land O’Lakes has 95 milligrams and Horizon a whopping 115 milligrams. Depending on what brand you use, your cookies will be highly affected by this salt content.
With the salt level varying from brand to brand, it is best to use unsalted, as you can control the salt usage much more easily.
Though cookies are meant to be sweet, they still need salt to achieve their desired flavor (all desserts do!)
However, as a baker, you want to be able to control that salt level as much as possible.
Another way salted and unsalted butter differ is in their texture, which can also affect how your cookies turn out.
Compared to the unsalted kind, salted butter has a much higher water content, which is bad for baking. Water in butter can range anywhere from 10-18% and salted butter tends to be on the higher side of this scale.
Too much water in your butter affects both the texture of the butter but, more importantly, the cookies you make.
Too much water in your butter stops the proper process of gluten being formed and will affect the texture of your baked goods.
This is when your cookies become flat, too crumbly, or too hard. Most times, the butter can be blamed.
One thing to keep in mind is that you will not be able to tell how much water is in each butter as there is no indicator or warning on the packaging. However, unsalted butter always tends to be lower in water making it the safest choice.
The last reason unsalted butter should be used over salted butter is the quality of freshness: unsalted tends to be much fresher.
Because salt acts as a natural preservative, salted butter can last on the grocery stores shelves much longer. Of course, always go by expiration date, but unsalted is a safer bet when looking for the freshest option.
Though it may be hard to tell when consuming the butter raw, the level of freshness of the butter can affect the outcome of your cookies.
How To Use Salted Butter For Baking Cookies
We are aware that unsalted butter may not always be an option, and for a number of reasons.
Maybe you do not want to make an extra trip to the store and salted is all you have, maybe you ran out of unsalted, or maybe you are trying to shop a few days before Thanksgiving and they only have salted butter in stock!
Regardless, though unsalted should be your first choice for cookies, there is still a way for you to use salted butter in your recipes if you are in a pinch.
The rule of thumb is for every ½ cup of unsalted butter the recipe calls for, subtract ¼ teaspoon of salt.
For example, if the recipe calls for 1 cup of unsalted butter and 1 teaspoon of salt, you would use 1 cup of salted butter and ½ teaspoon of salt (because you have subtracted ¼ teaspoon per each ½ cup).
Now, this trick also works for recipes that call for salted butter instead of unsalted. The rule of thumb is for every 1 cup of unsalted butter it calls for, add ¼ teaspoon of salt.
For example, if the recipe calls for 1 cup of salted butter and 1 teaspoon of salt, you would use 1 cup of unsalted butter and 1 ½ teaspoons of salt (because you have added ¼ teaspoon per each ½ cup).
The most important thing is to always use the amount of butter the recipe calls for and simply adjust the salt (whether that means add or subtract).
The amount of butter you use will greatly affect the texture, which cannot be fixed like the salt can.
When To Use Salted Butter Over Unsalted Butter
When it comes to salted butter, we want to make it very clear that it is an absolutely delicious addition to your baked goods and cookies…just after you have already baked them.
You want to use salted butter like a condiment more so than a baking ingredient.
This means use salted butter for your toast, muffins, scones, or sweetbreads like banana or zucchini bread. Even add a dollop to your morning oatmeal for a rich and delectable flavor.
So, when it comes to traditional cookie recipes like chocolate chip, peanut butter, or sugar, you want to stick to unsalted.
However, some specialty recipes like salted caramel cookies or salted chocolate chip cookies can use salted butter in their recipes. This is because they want their cookies to have an overwhelming salty taste to them
However, most times, these recipes also include more sugar to balance out the salt content. So, try your best to stick to whatever the recipe is asking for as best as you can.
What About Choosing Between Softened/Melted/Cold Butter?
There is nothing more frustrating than starting a cookie recipe and realizing you need room temperature butter but yours is ice cold.
If you have ever tried using cold butter instead of softened or softened butter instead of melted, you probably know how much of a disaster it can be.
Though using salted over unsalted butter can affect your cookies, nothing affects your cookies more than using the wrong temperature or texture of butter.
It will mostly affect texture, and things like flakiness, softness, and cakeiness of a cookie, which can be quite a big deal!
For example, chewy chocolate chip cookies should not have the same consistency as the sugar cookies you plan on decorating.
Each temperature of butter does a different job in these cookies, and each has a place in certain cookie recipes.
You will find that a majority of cookie recipes out there will require you to use softened or “room temperature” butter.
This is when your butter can still stand alone, but falls into itself with a light touch.
It is easily mixed and creamed but still has a thicker consistency. Softened butter usually produces cookies that are more cake-like and less chewy. Peanut butter cookies, for example, use softened butter.
Melted butter is exactly what it sounds like: butter that has been melted but not boiled or browned.
Melted butter will be warm and still have the bright yellow color that we are familiar with, but just a little bit darker.
Melted butter actually produces the most gluten out of the butter temperatures which results in a sticky and chewy cookie.
Many chocolate chip cookies recipes use melted butter because it produces a sticky and almost caramelized texture to the cookie.
If you cook your cookies right away (so the butter is still a bit warm in the dough) you can expect the cookies to be a bit thin and flat.
Cold butter is not used very often in cookie recipes. Most often, you will see it in pie crust or other pastry recipes.
When using cold butter, however, you can plan on getting the flakiest cookie. This is because the cold butter is distributed in pockets throughout the cookie.
Traditional butter cookies, which closely resemble a pastry, for example, use cold butter.
Now that we’ve gone over the difference between salted and unsalted butter, let’s take a look at a few related questions on the subject!
Can I use ghee in place of butter in cookie recipes?
Ghee is clarified butter, which means it is a form of butter that does not have lactose, the milk solids.
Ghee is made by simmering butter at an extremely low temperature and slow pace and skimming the foam (which are the milk solids) right off the top.
This results in a bright gold liquid that is a little bit darker than a traditional stick of butter. Ghee is also a lot thinner and melts easier than traditional butter and has a higher smoke point.
Because it so closely resembles butter, ghee can be used in place of butter in cookie recipes.
Most often, you can use ghee in a 1:1 ratio for butter. However, there are some things to consider.
Ghee has a much nuttier flavor to it than butter does, and it will most likely be noticeable in your cookies. It will not be overwhelming, but you will definitely notice it.
The texture of ghee is different than butter so the texture of your cookies might be affected as well. Butter is what helps make cookies flaky, where ghee might make them a bit harder.
The texture of ghee also is much more moist than butter is, so your dough might be too moist. You may have to adjust your flour and/or any other liquids you are including in the cookie recipe.
However, if you are lactose intolerant and can handle ghee, it is a great substitute for your cookies.
Can I use margarine to replace butter in cookie recipes?
The one fat you want to avoid if looking for a butter replacement is margarine.
Margarine is made with a mixture of water and another fat but in oil form like canola, palm, or vegetable oil, and additives and preservatives.
These types of ingredients will wreak havoc on your desserts. Adding them into your desserts can affect the texture, taste, and their ability to rise and keep their shape.
It may look like butter, but margarine’s texture and taste cannot compare to the rich and delectable food that is butter.
Why do desserts need salt?
If you are still curious why anyone would even think about salted butter, let alone salt, in their cookie recipes do not worry, we have got an answer for you.
Believe it or not, salt is the secret weapon that makes desserts so wonderfully addictive. Desserts can become overly sweet and almost inedible without the presence of salt.
Salt and sugar work hand in hand and balance each other out. The addition of salt to your desserts actually enhances the flavors and sweetness in your dessert recipes.
Adding salt to a lemon bar, for example, will help that citrusy flavor shine through. Or including salt in your cinnamon rolls will make the cinnamon much more prominent.