Thursday, May 13, 2010

Baking conundrum

Why does every recipe for a dough of any kind call for a) unsalted butter, and b) salt? Presumably this is so that you can control the amount of salt you put in, but the end result is almost invariably in indistinguishably different salt-to-butter ratio. Is it something to do with the texture of the butter? Is it part of the Pollan-esque need to make everything from scratch, and to consider all pre-combined ingredients suspect? Am I the only one who just uses salted butter for everything, without noticing a problem?

8 comments:

Will B. said...

Deb at Smitten Kitchen appears to have an obsession with salted butter, although she doesn't use it exclusively.

Salted butter also apparently keeps longer, which some people think is a bad thing, because if butter can be less fresh, it probably will be less fresh.

I have both in the freezer, the major downside of which is that sometimes I use the wrong one by accident. My super-salty peanut butter cookies are not an experiment that one should replicate.

Phoebe said...

That caramel sauce looks good, but what interests me isn't the possibility of salty desserts (I like them, but not all the time) but the fact that dessert recipes pretty much always call for that pinch of salt - if there's never a recipe that requires butter but not salt, what's the advantage to starting with unsalted butter?

The issue of butter freshness seems easily enough overcome if you're cooking at home and know roughly when you bought ingredients, are checking how they're holding up, etc. What I'm now confused by is the idea of storing butter in the freezer...

Will B. said...

Depending on what you're making, salted butter may contain well more than the "pinch" of salt. That can be a good thing, if you like salt, but that might account for the difference in some of the less-salty desserts you observe.

As for freshness, I believe the idea is that the butter will be much less fresh from the day you buy it because the store can afford to keep it around for longer, although I don't quite know why it would want to. Since stores mark "sell by" dates but not "this butter was churned on" dates, you wouldn't have any way of knowing.

As for the freezer: Butter can pick up off flavors the longer it sits in your fridge, and if you are married to a frequent baker, you buy butter 8-12 sticks at a time and keep it around for a while. The freezer is the best place to do that.

Phoebe said...

OK, so it must depend on the salt, because I've never found things I've baked (muffins, primarily) with salted butter to taste salty.

What you say re: the store makes sense. Of course, I'm starting to think I may just not notice subtle differences in salt level, butter freshness, etc. I apparently don't notice packaging details, either, because after writing this post, when I went to make flan, I realized the butter I have now is, in fact, unsalted!

Interesting re: flavors. The baking in my household is small-scale and infrequent enough that I haven't known this to happen. I also don't like to eat butter plain (like, on bread), so the difference would have to be enough to ruin some kind of cake for me to notice.

Will B. said...

To be honest, I've never actually left my butter in the fridge for a long time and then tasted it for off-flavors. Nor have I carefully scrutinized the salt content of salted butter, although I notice that when it's spread on bread the sale is quite noticeable.

I'm just repeating the conventional wisdom that I've somehow unthinkingly absorbed. No doubt everybody else who has similar practices has done the same. But maybe you are right!

Phoebe said...

I suppose my reason for posting about this question was that I started to suspect that salt and unsalted butter are listed separately less because of anything noticeable that changes if you just use salted butter, than because of a kind of fetishization (beginning well before Pollan!) of from-scratch baking. As though it would be somehow cheating to start with anything 'processed', however slightly. (For whatever reason, those who believe butter needs to be home-churned remain in the minority.)

Kaleberg said...

I don't buy the freshness idea. Butter is mainly fat. Bog butter, preserved in bogs sometimes for over a thousand years, is bland, but edible. Refrigerated and properly wrapped, butter can probably stay fresh for decades if not centuries. (Clarified butter probably lasts even longer. Don't the French preserve duck and goose meat in fat without refrigeration?)

I tend to use unsalted butter because it lets me control the overall salt dose better. I often use less salt than the recipe calls for. My dirty secret? I taste the dough! Salted butter tends to drown everything with salt, so I don't taste the vanilla and sugar and other notes properly. Am I just deluding myself? Probably. But, I do make a great pie crust.

Will B. said...

Your pie crust doesn't have enough salt.