It was a night I will never forget. After a round of pretzels, spaetzle and schnitzel, my friend Amanda Hesser, CEO of the website Food52, shared a disturbing discovery: For years, her mother, Judith, had baked with salted butter.
I nearly choked on my bratwurst.
People who write about food or cook professionally wouldn't dream of using the salty kind in our sweets and, since most of us don't bother to keep it around at all, in our savory food, either. Why not? Conventional wisdom says we should use only unsalted butter so we can control the salt, adding it separately.
Since that dinner in 2014, as I flipped through so many new cookbooks full of flaky salt-sprinkled brownies and observed fancy restaurants offer two types of butter - one with salt, one without - with their bread, I thought back to Hesser's disclosure. It wasn't until a few months ago, when cookbook author Alison Roman's recipe for salted butter and chocolate chunk shortbread went viral, that I began to investigate the state, past and present, of what I once presumed the "other" butter.
Those of us who have made a big deal about salting our sweets in recent years have assumed that our predecessors liked saccharine desserts, but Hesser's theory is that the ingredient had been excluded from old recipes because it was already incorporated into the butter.
From there, I reasoned, as unsalted or "sweet" butter became more accessible and came into fashion, people continued to rely on those old formulas, swapping out salted butter - without accounting for the salt. Cooks "just forgot that not using the same butter is going to affect the final taste," said pastry chef Olivia Wilson, co-owner of Chairlift bakery and Brenner Pass in Richmond, Virginia. Perhaps, I concluded, the current trend for salty or salted desserts is simply a reaction to a lack of balance created when the salt was written out of recipe history.
"For centuries, really, butter was three to four times saltier than our salted butter because it was used as a preservative," Elaine Khosrova told me. In "Butter: A Rich History" (Algonquin Books, 2016), she explains that the mineral would extend the fat's shelf life and, in turn, the butter could be applied as a coating to cooked food to make leftovers last longer.
In the late 19th century, butter making became big, centralized business with the rise of commercial creameries. According to Khosrova's book, this also yielded a fresher, milder-tasting product labeled "sweet cream butter" - sweet in the sense that the cream is not cultured or fermented so is missing the related sourness; some salt was added, but not as a preserving agent. This was the prototype for the salted butter found in modern-day grocery stores.
France was one of the only places where unpreserved - and therefore drastically less salty - butter existed, dating back to preindustrial society, if not earlier. It held on, and Khosrova says it became popular in the United States when we started emulating the French after World War II. Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," is where I found one of the earliest references to unsalted butter in an American cookbook: "Except for cake frostings and certain desserts for which have specified unsalted butter, American salted and French butter are interchangeable in cooking."
Judith Hesser was married in 1961, the same year "Mastering" came out; not long after, she discovered her passion for cookbooks and found her "true enjoyment" was baking. "I do not know if unsalted butter was even available in the grocery store," Hesser said in an email. "I simply bought butter (salted) and used it for baking and everything else."
The assumption that unsalted butter was superior and should be the default developed later. I asked Amanda Hesser if she'd pinpointed a switch-over moment in recipe language while working on "The New York Times Essential Cookbook," for which she scoured the newspaper's archives. "I don't know if I'd say there was a clear demarcation around butter, per se," she said. "But ingredient lists began getting much more specific in the 1990s. Previously, a recipe might just call for butter, and people probably used whatever they had."
Today, most cookbooks stipulate unsalted butter, which might lead you to believe that this has become the de facto choice in residential kitchens. Statistics say otherwise. According to the Dairy Farmers of America, since 2012, 77 percent of the butter sold in America has been salted and 23 percent unsalted. Tom Balmer, executive director of the American Butter Institute, quoted similar figures, but said that when it comes to bulk sales, unsalted butter sells more.
Sure enough, in most restaurant galleys, the majority of butter is unsalted. Pastry chefs will tell you they prefer it because it allows more precision. "I like to strictly control the salt content in my pastries, and for that reason I calculate the percentage of straight salt in proportion to the flour," said Melissa Weller of Walnut Street Bakery in Philadelphia.
Last summer, Weller traveled to Brittany, while attempting to perfect her version of the kouign amann, the Breton-born pastry that's composed of caramelized laminated dough. The versions there were notably better than those she'd eaten elsewhere, due to the fact that French butter has a higher fat content than its American counterpart and this makes for a flakier pastry. But there was something else: "It had more complexity, and it was because they'd used salted butter and not because they'd added the salt in."
When it comes to your more homey items, a plain old-fashioned American-type stick of salted butter from the grocery store is all you need. As luck would have it, that's what most of us already have. Weller kept that in mind when she developed a recipe for Milk Chocolate and Raspberry Blondies. That's what I used in my sugar cookies for the same reason.
Roman's decision to beat salted butter into her shortbread wasn't so calculated. "With these, I was sort of like 'to hell with it,' " she said. She doesn't use salted butter in other baking endeavors. "It's not something that I buy; it's something that I put on toast, on pancakes." In this particular recipe, though, she recognizes the "depth of flavor" salted butter creates, especially with so few ingredients involved. In a more complicated baked good with multiple layers of flavor, the subtlety of salted butter might go undetected. "Baking with salted butter in this instance, I'm forcing you to look at it," she said. "In most other cakes and cookies it's more just a backup singer," she observed.
Wilson likes to use salted Plugra butter in her financiers, the small French cakes prepared with almond meal and browned butter. Roman has made her dough with that butter and, of a similar caliber, Kerrygold. She's done it with less expensive Horizon Organic and Whole Foods' 365 butters, too. "They were really great; it's just a relative scale of greatness," she said. Unless a recipe states a clear preference, consider these brands interchangeable; salt-wise, variations in concentration abound but are incremental. Should you wish to develop your own recipes or replace the unsalted butter with salted in those you already trust, keep in mind that 1 stick of the latter has approximately ¼ teaspoon salt.
Judith Hesser bakes with Land O'Lakes or Publix; these days, it's unsalted, thanks to her daughter's intervention. "I even use unsalted butter in the old recipes, and I do not adjust the added salt," the 76-year-old told me, nearly causing me to choke on my shortbread. "I think we consume too much salt."
Adapted from a recipe by Wilson, co-owner of Chairlift Bakery and Brenner Pass.
Makes 60 pieces (48 pieces when baked in a mini muffin pan)
Classic tiny French cakes made with browned butter and finely ground nuts, financiers are named for their shape; they're intended to look like bars of gold and, accordingly, baked in small rectangular molds. If you don't have such a mold, you can use a mini muffin pan instead. (In fact, we liked the muffin-pan financiers better.)
There are lots of ways to dress them up: Richmond, Virginia, pastry chef Olivia Wilson places a small piece of fruit on top of each before baking, or, after they're out of the oven, dips them in tempered chocolate and sprinkles them with chopped almonds.
We have included measures in grams, for precision.
The batter needs to be refrigerated for at least 1 hour, and up to several days. The financiers are best enjoyed the same day they are made.
13 Tbsp. (190 grams) salted butter, preferably a high-fat, European-style brand such as Plugra
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (50 grams) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons (90 grams) sugar
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons (135 grams) almond flour or almond meal
5 large egg whites (150 grams)
1 tsp. vanilla extract (may substitute scrapings from 1/2 vanilla bean)
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat; cook until it stops bubbling and has turned a golden nutty brown, being careful not to burn the milk solids (if you do burn it, it's best to start over). Cool to room temperature.
Combine the all-purpose flour, sugar and the almond flour or almond meal in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer. Beat on low speed until well blended.
Slowly whisk in the egg whites, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Mix until everything is incorporated and smooth. Slowly mix in the brown butter and vanilla extract. Transfer to a piping or large zip-top bag (for easy portioning) or bowl. Seal/cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, and up to several days.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter or grease the molds or muffin pan with cooking oil spray. Fill each well about two-thirds full. Bake (middle rack) for 5 to 10 minutes or until evenly browned. Dislodge the financiers while still warm.
Milk Chocolate and Raspberry Jam Blondies
Adapted from pastry chef Melissa Weller of Walnut Street Cafe in Philadelphia.
Makes 24 blondies
Here, using salted butter instead of adding salt to a batter separately tends to yield a more muted salinity and, in less capable hands, can lead to a saccharine baked good. When you pair it with something tart, like a fruit - or, as it is done here, raspberry jam - you curtail some of that sweetness and wind up with something beautifully balanced.
If you like a more pronounced salty effect and enjoy the crunch that flaky salt provides, sprinkle some of those grains on top of the bars before baking. It's not necessary here, but it's all the rage right now.
The blondies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
1 1/2 cups packed dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
16 Tbsp. (2 sticks) salted butter, melted and cooled but still pourable
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
8 ounces milk chocolate, chopped into slightly smaller than 1/2-inch chunks
1/2 cup raspberry jam
1 tsp. flaky sea salt (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray the bottom and sides of an 8-by-12-inch baking pan with cooking oil spray, then line the bottom with parchment paper so that two of the sides hang over the edges (for easy lifting when the slab of blondies is done).
Whisk together the brown sugar and eggs in a medium bowl until the mixture is smooth and lightened in color. Carefully whisk the melted butter into the sugar mixture a little at a time so it does not slosh out of the bowl, then whisk in the vanilla extract.
Whisk together the flour and baking powder in a separate bowl. Use a flexible spatula to blend the flour mixture into the butter mixture, followed by the chopped milk chocolate, until well incorporated. Scrape into the pan, spreading it evenly into the corners.
Drop teaspoonfuls of the jam across the surface of the blondie batter, and then gently pull the tip of a paring knife through the jam in one direction and then the other, creating a zigzag/grid pattern on the surface. Sprinkle the flaky salt on top, if using. Bake (middle rack) for 32 to 35 minutes, rotating the pan front to back halfway through, or until crisp edges form and the top is just set.
Cool in the pan, then lift out the slab and cut into 24 equal pieces.
New and Improved Sugar Cookies
From cookbook author and food writer Charlotte Druckman.
44 to 50 servings cookies
A trick picked up from cookbook author Stella Parks, toasting sugar can be as easy as popping it in a toaster oven. It results in a deeper, less sweet flavor that matches the subtle complexity of salted butter and renders additional salt unnecessary.
If you don't care as much about aesthetics and are more concerned with convenience, you can ditch the rolling pin and 2-inch cookie cutter for the old slice-and-bake method: Roll each half of the dough into a log 2 inches in diameter and chill. Slice, sprinkle with the finishing sugar-and-salt mixture and bake.
The dough needs to be refrigerated for at least 3 hours, and up to 2 days. It can also be frozen for up to 1 month.
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour (3 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, sifted), plus more for the work surface
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) salted butter, slightly softened (left at room temperature for up to an hour)
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 Tbsp. whole milk
Coarse raw sugar such as Demerara or turbinado, for sprinkling
To toast the sugar, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the sugar evenly across the surface of a heavy 10- to 12-inch skillet (not cast-iron). Transfer to the oven; bake (middle rack) for 25 to 30 minutes or until the sugar takes on the barest of color (a pale, wheatlike hue); watch closely to make sure the sugar doesn't start to melt. Alternatively, you can do this in a toaster oven, placing the sugar on an aluminum-lined toaster-oven tray. Immediately transfer the sugar to a mixing bowl and let it cool.
Sift the flour and baking powder together into a medium bowl.
Beat the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer or with a handheld electric mixer on medium-high speed, until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla extract and toasted sugar and beat well. Beat the eggs in one at a time, followed by the milk. Stop to scrape down the bowl. On low speed, gradually add the sifted dry ingredients to incorporate, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Do not overbeat.
Divide the dough in half, wrapping each portion in wax paper and transferring it to the refrigerator to chill for at least 3 hours (or up to 2 days). If there's room in your refrigerator, go ahead and roll out the halves of dough between sheets of wax paper and stack on a baking sheet before you refrigerate.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone liners. Lightly flour a work surface and your rolling pin.
Place one half of the dough on a lightly floured workstation and turn it over so it's evenly dusted in flour and shape it into a ball. Use the floured rolling pin to roll out the dough so it's 1/4-inch thick. With a 2-inch round cutter (or the shape of your choice), cut as many cookies as you can, placing them on a baking sheet, 1 1/2 to 2 inches apart. Repeat with the second half of dough. Gather your scrap dough into a mass, rewrap in wax paper and return to the refrigerator to firm up. You can make another batch of cookies with it.
Sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon coarse raw sugar over each cookie. Bake (middle rack) for about 8 minutes, rotating the baking sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through. The cookies should have puffed up and their edges should be just on the brink of browning. Transfer them to a wire rack to cool.
Salted Butter Chocolate-Chocolate Hazelnut Shortbread
Based on an Alison Roman recipe; adapted by cookbook author and food writer Charlotte Druckman.
An instant classic, the recipe for Salted Butter Chocolate Chunk Shortbread in Alison Roman's cookbook, "Dining In," is one for the viral age - and the ages. It requires few ingredients, is easy to follow and highly adaptable. Simply by switching out some of the flour for cocoa powder, you can make the dough base a chocolate one.
For a complete makeover, why not bring hazelnut to the party and do a Nutella-inspired shortbread? The easiest way to do that is - surprise - with chopped Ferrero Rocher candies. Their sweetness is the perfect counterpart to the more bitter notes of the cocoa powder. No need to swap in a different butter; the salted variety gets along quite well with chocolate.
The logs of dough need to be refrigerated overnight, and up to 1 week. (The logs of dough can be frozen for up to 1 month.) The cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.
18 Tbsp. (2 1/4 sticks) chilled salted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 packed cup light brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cocoa powder, preferably Valrhona brand
6 ounces Ferrero Rocher candies, coarsely chopped (12 to 13 pieces; round up when in doubt)
Demerara sugar, for rolling
1 large egg, beaten
Flaky sea salt, for sprinkling
Line a rimmed baking sheet (or two, ideally) with parchment paper.
Combine the butter, both sugars and the vanilla extract in the bowl of a stand mixer or with a handheld electric mixer; beat on medium-high speed for 3 to 5 minutes, until the mixture is light and fluffy. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Add the flour and cocoa powder; beat on low speed until incorporated, then add the chopped Ferrero Rocher candies (they'll be a little messy, it's okay), and beat just to incorporate.
Divide the dough in half, placing each half on a large piece of plastic wrap or parchment paper. Use the plastic or paper (to protect your hands from stickiness) to roll and shape each portion of dough into a log, wrapping it at the same time. Each log should be 2 to 2 1/4 inches in diameter. Refrigerate until totally firm, about 2 hours, and up to 1 week.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the Demerara sugar on a piece of plastic wrap. Unwrap the logs; brush their exteriors with the beaten egg, and then roll the logs in that sugar. Discard any sugar that's left behind.
Slice each log into 1/2-inch-thick rounds, placing them on the prepared baking sheet(s) about 1 inch apart, and sprinkle with flaky salt. Bake (middle rack) for 12 to 15 minutes, until the edges are just beginning to brown.
Let cool slightly before serving, or cool completely before storing.