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October 14, 2008 6:30 AM

Baker's quandary: salted vs. unsalted?

Posted by Nancy Leson

Beth Geiger emailed with this query: "What is the reason so much baking requires unsalted butter? How does it affect the baking compared to salted butter, especially when the recipe calls for salt anyway?"

That's a question I've asked myself plenty of times -- as I flouted convention and cut up a stick of salted butter for a pastry crust, trying to remember to adjust the amount of salt in the recipe to account for that culinary "transgression."

Perusing my bookshelves in search of a definitive answer, I turned to "The Cake Bible," a favorite among bakers. In it, author Rose Levy Beranbaum acknowledges the superiority of unsalted butter in baking and explains: "Unsalted butter produces the best flavor, not only because of its own incomparable flavor but also because it releases the flavors of other ingredients more fully." As for salt, Beranbaum says, "The only function of salt in a cake is to accentuate or heighten flavor. Without salt, the cake would have a decidedly flat taste." Which, if I'm to interpret this correctly, is to say: it's more about flavor than science.

In my well-worn copy of "Desserts by Nancy Silverton" every recipe calls for unsalted butter, because, she says, "It is generally fresher than salted butter when you buy it." Perhaps that's because, according to the "Joy of Cooking," unopened unsalted butter keeps for about eight weeks while salted butter keeps for approximately 12. The Joy cautions: "always use store-bought butter, whether salted or unsalted, within 1 week of the date stamped on the carton" and suggests that because butter readily absorbs odors, it should be stored "well wrapped in the refrigerator and away from other foods." (Aha! That's why there's a butter-holder on the fridge door.) For the record: I keep extra butter -- salted and un -- in the freezer, where, according to my "Joy," it keeps for up to six months, "although the flavor can sour slightly." So, again, we're talking flavor-quotient.

The best answer to Beth's question, though, came not from a book but from a local baker. Jenny Christensen's been a pastry chef for years, making dough -- literally and figuratively -- at places like Campagne, Le Pichet and Brasa. Today she owns Pies by Jenny, selling sweet and savory pies at area farmers markets. After greeting her at her stand at the University District Farmers Market on Saturday, I posed Beth's question: "Salted vs. unsalted -- what's the diff, and why should we care?" Jenny went with the flavor-factor, had this to say about that:

"It's easier to control the flavor when you use a neutral base," and unsalted butter provides that neutrality. You can't control the amount of salt in any given block of salted butter, she says, but you can adjust the amount of salt in a recipe to suit your taste. "It's more efficient to add salt than to add extra butter," says Jenny, who uses organic European butter (with its glorious butterfat content) in her pie crusts. And if I'm to believe what I hear from friends who've sampled her pricey-but-worth-it pies, they're out of this world. I'd have splurged for one on Saturday but I've been in a home-baking-frenzy all week, rolling my own (crusts) and stuffing them with the fruit of the harvest (mine and various farmers').

Stay tuned to the blog for more on that subject, and in the meantime here's a little taste of what's to come:

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