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Unsalted butter (Recipe: scotch shortbread)

Updated August 2010.


What do Santa Claus, Richard Nixon, Elvis, and the unofficial mascot of a midwestern state fair have in common?

Each has been sculpted in unsalted butter.

It's true.

The 2006 Iowa State Fair's famous Butter Cow weighed in at 600 pounds, Santa at 700 pounds, and Elvis at a whopping 800 pounds. Nixon weighed just three pounds (insert obvious jokes here).

I'm not sure why unsalted butter is the choice of sculptors. Perhaps unsalted butter is more predictable. That's certainly why it is the choice of bakers. With unsalted butter, you know just what you're getting.

Unsalted butter

The amount of salt in regular butter varies with each brand, but can be up to three percent, or 3/4 teaspoon per 1/2-cup stick. According to Joy of Baking, you can replace unsalted butter with salted butter, but you should reduce the salt in the  recipe by about 1/2 teaspoon per cup of butter used, calculated as follows:

The USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference shows one cup of "Butter, salted" as containing 1308 mg of sodium and 1 cup of "Butter, without salt" as containing 25 mg, for a difference of 1283 mg. They also show table salt as containing 2325 mg of sodium. Dividing 1283 mg of sodium by 2325 mg sodium per teaspoon of salt gives 0.55 or just over 1/2 teaspoon.

Originally, salt was added to butter as a preservative. Even today, with modern refrigeration, salt can mask the freshness of butter, as guests at one of my summer picnics found out a few years ago, when I unknowingly slathered some beautiful ears of sweet corn with butter that was no longer, well, sweet.

Now I use unsalted butter as a matter of taste, whether I'm baking sweets or preparing savory dishes. And nothing beats unsalted butter on fresh crusty bread with slices of tomato or smoked salmon.

Except, maybe, a butter bust of Richard Nixon.


Gwendolen's scotch shortbread

In the same little black notebook where I found Chocolate Outrageous Pie, I came across an old, slightly stained piece of paper folded up in one of the pockets. This recipe, typed many years ago on a manual typewriter, was my mother-in-law's holiday specialty. Here's the recipe, exactly as she wrote it. (Notations in parentheses are mine.) Be sure to read the notes at the end before you start baking.

Shortbread is a buttery cookie usually associated with Christmas and New Year celebrations. There are many variations in the way the ingredients are measured, prepared and cooked, but the same three ingredients are always used -- butter, sugar and flour.


A basic recipe consists of

1/2 lb butter (I use unsalted butter and a pinch of salt, to taste)
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups flour

Butter: make sure the butter has been left at room temperature until it is soft.

Sugar: This can be superfine granulated sugar, or a mixture of sugar, light brown sugar and/or icing sugar. I find 2/3 white and 1/2 light brown sifted well together is satisfactory.

Flour: All-purpose white flour. Part of this can be rice flour.


Method: Add sifted sugar a little at a time to the softened butter until both are thoroughly combined -- no gritty feel under the spoon. A wooden spoon is best. Add flour a bit at a time until all is absorbed. This should give a soft but workable dough. Gather into two lumps and knead each on a lightly floured board until smooth and no cracks appear. Roll or pat into shape and cut with small cutter, keeping dough about 1/4 or 1/3 inch thick. Gather up cuttings and reroll into shapes. If dough gets too soft, refrigerate for a while. Place on lightly greased cookie sheet.

Bake: 300 to 325 degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes. Some ovens take longer, but don't let the shortbreads brown. They should be quite light and they deepen in color after cooking.

Put on rack until cool. Store in tightly covered container. May be kept for several weeks.


A small piece of cherry can be pressed into center of cookie before baking, and it is customary to prick shortbread with a fork -- not deep enough to break the cookie, but deep enough to leave an impression.

I also find it worthwhile to refrigerate the shaped cookies on the cookie sheet, before baking. I put them in the frig before I set the oven. Also -- the cookie dough can be rolled and wrapped in wax paper and kept in the refrigerator until ready to bake, then sliced into circles etc.

After you have read this, just remember: Mix butter, sugar and flour, knead, shape and cook for a short while in a slow oven.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:
Cardamom shortbread
Chive and parsley butter
Nectarine and white peach crisp
Chocolate double ginger cupcakes
Cheese phyllo triangles

Other recipes that use unsalted butter:
A mean chocolate chip cookie, from Megnut
Brown butter green beans with almonds, from Andrea Meyers
Fresh strawberry tart with lemon cream, from Technicolor Kitchen
Browned butter whole wheat blueberry muffins, from Guilty Kitchen
Peach-raspberry galette, from Use Real Butter

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


I always boy unsalted butter because I love the original taste better. If I need salted version for certain recipes, I just add in a wee bit of salt myself. LOL.

I love unsalted butter - in fact, I just made a batch of biscotti with it. I must admit that I crave the salted variety on slices of bread for some reason, that must have started in childhood. I would have liked to have seen that butter sculpture of Nixon!

I am so accustomed to salted butter that unsalted tastes and smells "off" to me. I've used it unsalted in some baking, but never for uncooked frostings. For me, it's an acquired taste.

Yes! Let's hear it for the unsalted butter. I love olive oil, but butter still finds its way into many of my recipes. It has an unmistakeable taste. There's a Danish unsalted butter that I've used (but not very often because of the expense), and I swear--it's heaven. It's like....butter. :):)

I am a spoilt girl when it comes to butter. When I was little, my family only used presidente brand. And now I am sold for Danish Butter (Lurpak). It's quite expensive, but we do have an Australian product that can be substituted... But it can't beat that creamy and buttery taste of real Danish butter!

oh how i love butter! this recipe is so alluringly simple i have no excuse not to try it. hee!

I'd love to see those sculptures, wouldn't you? Very interesting indeed!

The first line got MY attention!
I had no idea there could be that much salt in butter.
My brand - the Irish Kerry Gold!

I come from the land of shortbread, but I didn't really like it until I was in my mid 20s! Now I love it and like to try new flavours too :)

Agree with everything except butter and fresh tomatoes. I don´t know why , but it´s one of my few no-nos. I guess olive oil wins the battle there, but almost everywhere else, butter has no contenders, I think.

RM, I'm the same way -- at first I thought unsalted butter was bland, but now I love how sweet it is.

TW, I've started using unsalted butter and adding some crunchy sea salt when I want that salt flavor on sandwiches. Gives me an excuse to keep an obscene variety of sea salts on my spice rack!

Susan, it is an acquired taste -- and I hope you acquire it!

Sher, I've had that lovely Danish butter just once. When I do find it in markets here (Whole Foods, usually), it's so expensive. I like a New England premium brand (Kate's), but didn't have any in my fridge when I took the photo for this post.

Anh, now that you and Sher have mentioned the Lurpak, I might have to give it another try...

Aria, my mother-in-law used to make these cookies for every holiday -- but why wait for holidays???

Kristen, I couldn't find a photo of the Nixon sculpture, which I would have loved to see. I'd love to see the butter cow, but after a few days at the fair, I'm guessing it wouldn't smell entirely wonderful!

Katie, thanks. I'm not familiar with the Irish butter, but I imagine it is great. Will keep an eye out for it next time I'm in the UK.

Kelly-Jane, I didn't grow up in a shortbread household, but my husband adores it. And he bakes, too!

Lobstersquad, the butter/tomato thing comes from the farming tradition -- you would grow your tomatoes, and churn your own butter, so everything was incredibly fresh and sweet together. with a sprinkling of crunchy sea salt on top, this remains one of the great summer sandwiches for me.

It's the only type of butter I'll cook/bake with, Lydia - and I know you won't believe me, but I have never had shortbread (shame!!).

I should give it a go soon, the idea of adding cherries sounds wonderful!

We tear through this stuff in our house!

I l ove the Irish Kerry Gold also. I find it at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's in Southern California.

Unsalted butter indeed is a staple in my kitchen. I start to panic when my stock of it dwindles...

Patricia, I'd never had shortbread either, until I met my husband! It's really quite yummy.

Jeff, same here.

Mazie, I'll look for this at my local Whole Foods and Trader Joe's -- might be that I just never noticed it. Thanks for the info.

Veron, I've really come to prefer the unsalted butter for everything -- baking and slathering.

Lydia, do try Danish butter if you can get it! It's great on bread after sitting at room temp for a while... In baking, it's good for cake and buttery cookies, but I find it a bit too creamy for use in tart or pastry.

BTW, I have heard the butter from Vermouth is very good. What's your opinion about it? :)

Whats your favorite brand? Do you use different brands for different things? baking vs. cooking vs. slathering on bread

Anh, I learned from my sister-in-law that it's actually okay to leave butter out at room temperature all the time (instead of keeping it in the fridge), as long as you use it within a couple of weeks. But I still can't bring myself to do that; I only leave at room temperature what I'm going to use that day. I'm not familiar with the other butter you mentioned.

Steamy, I am partial to Kate's, which is a New England brand. It's twice the price of the supermarket brand butter, but for slathering it's my favorite because the sweetness really comes through. I wrote about their sea salted butter last year:

I do the refrigerator thing with cookies, too, AND I leave my butter out so its spreadable. The best I can find up here is Plugra. I have yet to develop a taste for bread dipped in olive oil; I still prefer butter. Call me Plebian...

Richard Nixon in butter? Yum. Oh.

When I was growing up in India, there was no unsalted butter sold commercially at all! All the butter came with oddles of salt. When we needed unsalted butter for making cakes, we had to save cream, then churn the butter ourselves :)
Now, I love the fact that I can buy unsalted butter, Plugra is a favorite brand.
Thanks so much for sharing a beloved family recipe!

Mimi, I'm not into the bread/olive oil thing, either. There is something about the sweetness of butter and the saltiness of bread that makes a perfect match. As for Nixon...well, think of all of that butter melting...

Nupur, I'm guessing that the butter was salted to preserve it? If I'd had to churn my own butter to bake, I never would have become a baker -- oh, wait, I didn't become a baker! I do see Plugra in the markets here.

I always use unsalted butter too. Nothing beats butter on a crust baguette. I didn't know they made butter sculptures, huge ones no less!

Amy, I agree -- crusty bread and unsalted butter is the best.

Butter makes life better!
Paula Dean & I both think so

Sandi, I think Julia Child agreed with you, too.

My first experience with unsalted butter was in Munich, Germany. In the German Kantina at my work, they would sell large, soft pretzels that would be split in half and slathered with sweet butter. Absolutely delicious.

Dschmitt, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. Soft pretzels with sweet butter? Sounds amazing -- I will definitely try it, as I have a soft spot for soft pretzels.

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