If you’re a frequent home baker and cook like I am, you’ll notice that recipes usually call for unsalted butter. There’s a reason for this. Most recipes, especially those for cakes, cookies, and other sweets, are formulated to include a very specific amount of salt. It’s usually added later when you’re making batter or dough, and it’s calibrated by taste. This means the person who made or tested the recipe adjusted the salt level to his or her palette.
Recently, I started reading “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” by Samin Nosrat, a chef who teaches people how to cook by helping them understand the four main elements of any dish. I’d perused the book before and even made a recipe from it, but I didn’t read it front to back like Nosrat suggested because honestly, it’s a time-consuming endeavor. Now that I have plenty of time on my hands, I can devote some attention to it.
In the first chapter of the book, she talks about salt and how we usually under-salt a dish. She also talked about figuring out how much salt to add by taste. It’s trial and error, and it’s an intimidating process for most home cooks. But if you persevere and give yourself some time to make mistakes and learn, you’ll be rewarded with better tasting food.
I’ve internalized this lesson over the past year and I’ve found that there’s a huge difference in the food I cook and bake. It tastes better and less bland. It’s true that when you’re scared of salt (and trust me, it’s normal to feel this way), you err on the side of under-salting a dish, which in turn leads to food that is a little more flavorless. Salt *enhances* flavors and doesn’t hide them. If you mess up it can obscure them, but as Samin says, everyone makes mistakes.
Which brings me to salted butter. I’ve subbed it in some recipes that call for unsalted butter and then adjust the fine sea salt later. I also use it in the place of unsalted butter when I’m making food like the grilled cheese I’ve pictured above.
That particular grilled cheese was the best I ever made, and it wasn’t only because of the flavor components inside, although those were great. I had melted cheddar cheese, which has a little bite to it, fresh farmers’ market scallions and tomatoes, and sourdough bread that I’d baked the Friday before. But it all came together when I fried it in salted butter. The exterior of the bread became crunchy, golden brown, and slightly salty, kind of like the way the outside of a French fry tastes when you sprinkle some salt on it. It tied everything together and made the sandwich taste even better.
I think there’s a good argument to be made for using unsalted butter in recipes. After all, most people do it. It allows you to add salt in specific amounts later, which is generally easier and wiser if you want to taste as you go.
However, I’d urge you to take a chance on salted butter. I think it’s an under-appreciated ingredient. Try it in brownies or cookies, or even when you’re frying food. It will make your flavors pop even more and take your food to the next level. It might involve some trial and error, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll probably be like me and buy a pack every time you go the grocery store.
In honor of salt, here’s a song from one of my favorite salt-friendly bands.