I think it was when Martha Stewart reached her pre-prison heyday that I started purchasing unsalted butter exclusively. I remember her saying on her TV show, which I watched every Sunday morning like domestic church, something about how it was her secret to everything. Since most of Martha’s recipes featured butter (also cream, like Julia Child), I soon went for the Land O’Lakes package with the blue type, not the red type.
The other day, though, I had a piece of toast and found it decidedly lacking. I’ve since upgraded to Irish Kerrygold butter, but just plain unsalted butter on my toast didn’t seem to add much flavor. So I wondered: Should I still be using unsalted butter for everything?
I went to the experts—a variety of chefs—and found out that the answer is a nearly unanimously “yes”: Unsalted butter is the way to go.
As Kevin McAllister, executive chef at Café Robey in Chicago, explains: “I will always choose unsalted butter. Butter acts as a similar tool or component in dishes as salt. It is an agent to add flavor to dishes. With the many types of butter and vast selections of salt, it’s best to keep them separate.”
He has a helpful analogy to describe this culinary relationship: “Unsalted butter is a blank canvas, while salted butter is a coloring book.” Also, “It is the quality of butter that can really change the landscape for what is possible. We use 83 percent unsalted European style butter, the high fat content allows butter to take on more projects around the kitchen as well as great flavor by itself.” Hence my switch up to Kerrygold.
The unknown factor of how much salt is actually in salted butter makes it less appealing for chefs who need absolute amounts of control over their seasoning. As Nicholas Elmi, chef and partner of Royal Boucherie, Laurel, and ITV in Philadelphia, explains, “My theory is, you can always add more salt but you can’t take it out. I like to be able to control the amount of salt myself.” Caitlyn Jarvis, pastry chef of Henrietta Red in Nashville, agrees, “There is a high level of salt in the salted butter and will usually throw off the flavor of anything you are making.”
In talking to several chefs, I found only one outlier: Angela Garbacz, owner and head pastry chef of Goldenrod Pastries in Lincoln, Nebraska, who said, “I always opted for salted butter when I was baking with dairy, as the extra salt really gives your sweets an edge.” But the vast majority were more in line with Brandon Frohne, director of culinary for the southern chain Holler & Dash Biscuit House, who emphatically stated, “Unsalted butter always.”
As I obviously should have suspected, Martha Stewart was right all along. So I’ll stick with my unsalted butter, and maybe add some sea salt to my toast next time.