One of life’s greatest disappointments is to bite into a hot crumpet only to discover that it’s been adorned with lashings of unsalted butter by mistake. When it comes to all things toasted it has to be the salted stuff. However, the decision whether to use salted or unsalted in cooking is a more contentious affair. My method has always been salted for spreading, unsalted for cooking. An approach which I’ve picked up subconsciously over the years. But why is that? I thought I’d better find out…
Salt was originally added to butter as a preservative and to hide impurities. Probably born out of the fact that if you leave unsalted butter out for too long (as you need to do when spreading butter on bread/toast etc) it goes rancid. And It would seem the addition is one we’ve grown to like. However this enthusiasm is not shared on the continent. In Italy, France and Spain they think it a culinary abomination the we spread butter on sandwiches! But then why wouldn’t they? Their butter has a higher fat content. Which means whilst turning wonderfully sweet and nutty when cooked in a hot pan it doesn’t fair so well spread on cold bread! It would be like spreading lard on your BLT! In reality British salted butter is often used as a condiment. Added after the cooking process (toast, scones, jacket spuds mash potato asparagus etc etc) when you know that adding extra salt won’t ruin the dish.
Unsalted is generally considered preferable for cooking (especially in baking) for a few reasons. First is practicality. Most chefs use unsalted butter as they can control the salt levels. It doesn’t matter at what stage you add the salt (just as long as you add it!) and it’s easier to add salt at the end than take it away. Second is it’s considered to be better quality, also known as ‘sweet butter’ it takes on a sweeter and nuttier taste when cooked. However, I’m not sure if this is entirely true of modern, commercial butter making practices. I can’t imagine lurpack making two different batches of butter. More likely they make exactly the same product and add salt to one (supposedly a good test is to fry a knob of salted and unsalted butter together and see how much rubbish comes off the salted). So in the end it probably comes down to personal preference (and what you’ve got left in the fridge!). I know how I like my bread buttered and that’s with salted butter. But when it comes to cooking, I’m sticking with the sweet stuff.
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