I went totally butter-crazy while testing my way through the reader-submitted recipes from the "My Mother Makes The Best…" dessert contest published in the new May '13 issue of the magazine. We obsess over nuance in the GolfHr test kitchen—a pinch of this or a dash of that can completely transform a dish!—so I was thrown when most readers didn't specify whether to use salted butter or unsalted butter in their family's favorite sweets. I kept wondering: Will this dish win or fail depending on which butter I choose to test it with? Does salted vs. unsalted butter really make that big of a difference?
For accuracy's sake, we retested all recipes that did not specify butter-type with both salted and unsalted butter but my larger question still wasn't resolved. So I organized a side-by-side taste test to give us a little more clarity…
TEST SUBJECT: VANILLA CUPCAKES WITH VANILLA BUTTERCREAM
- VARIATION 1 (CUPCAKE P): Use unsalted butter and use salt listed in recipe.
- VARIATION 2 (CUPCAKE O): Use salted butter and use salt listed in recipe.
- VARIATION 3 (CUPCAKE R): Use salted butter but eliminated salt listed in recipe.
I chose the Yellow Cake and Big-Batch Butter Frosting from the for the experiment. They're very straight forward recipes that don't call for many ingredients—meaning the butter stands out! For the cake recipe, I tested it as written with both unsalted and salted butter, and once more omitting the 1 teaspoon salt (since bakers often suggest omitting the added salt when substituting salted for unsalted butter in a recipe). For the frosting, I tested it as written with both unsalted and salted butter. It did not call for any added salt.
The cupcakes baked up exactly the same. No visible difference.
There was, however, a noticeable taste difference between variations. For the most accurate assessment, I set up a blind tasting for the food department and other editors from the institute.
Here are the results from a full afternoon of cupcake-eating...
- 50% tasters preferred Cupcake P: unsalted butter with added salt.
- 38% tasters preferred Cupcake R: salted butter with no added salt.
- 12% tasters preferred Cupcake O: salted butter with added salt.
Most tasters preferred the recipe as written using unsalted butter. But here's the good news: If you're baking a recipe that calls for unsalted butter (or doesn't specify a butter) and you only have salted on hand, you can eliminate the added salt and still have a fabulous treat on your hands! Remember, the amount of salt flavor the salted butter will add depends on the product you buy. Look at the sodium variation between these popular brands:
- Organic Valley: 600 mg. sodium, per 1 stick butter
- Trader Joe's Store Brand: 720 mg. sodium, per 1 stickbutter
- Land O'Lakes: 760 mg. sodium, per 1 stick butter
- Horizon: 920 mg. sodium, per 1 stick butter
What we really discovered, however, is that the salted vs. unsalted butter argument really comes down to personal taste. For recipes that don't specify which to use, go with the one that will most suit your palet. Don't know which way you and your family lean? Try this experiment at home using the recipes from the book or try one of our reader recipes from this month's contest (will post on Friday 4/12)!