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Unsalted butter (Recipe: cardamom shortbread)


Here in The Perfect Pantry, I don't always set out to explore the intersection of food and art.

However, there are times when I can't overlook the obvious, when doing so would do you a disservice.

This is one of those times.

Oh, I could have passed up the butter-art connection altogether, and just gone for the culinary. I could have debunked the myth that unsalted butter is always better quality, fresher, and superior for baking.

I could have skipped over the fact that, by law, in North America all butter must contain at least 80 percent butterfat, a maximum of 16% water and 2% milk solids, and that butter is graded according to flavor, color, texture, aroma and body. AA (93 score), A (92 score), and B (90 score) are the letter codes and numerical scores used.

And, really, do you need to know that unsalted butter -- free of preservatives and of the annatto sometimes used to color salted butter -- will keep in the refrigerator for three months, and that salted butter will last a bit longer, because the salt is a preservative? Is it important to tell you that the amount of salt added to salted butter can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, which is why bakers prefer to use unsalted butter, so they can control the amount of added salt?

And do you also need to know that, if your butter is fresh, it almost doesn't matter whether it's unsalted or salted, as they can be used interchangeably -- with a little tweaking here or there in the amount of added salt -- in most recipes, such as buckwheat cookies, butter prawns, apple-bluberry turnovers, green beans with garam masala butter, crispy sage and brown butter pasta, honey and sea salt caramels, and tomato sauce?


What is important is that unsalted butter has been used as a sculpture medium by monks in Tibet since the 15th Century. That the Ohio State Fair has exhibited butter sculptures of astronaut Neil Armstrong, golfer Jack Nicklaus, and movie bad guy Darth Vader.

That the Iowa State Fair has featured a butter cow since the early 1900s, and at last year's fair, a butter sculpture of Harry Potter stood right beside the cow. (I've read all of the books, and I don't remember any scene where Harry meets up with a butter cow. Do you?)

It's important to know, too, that this year's Pennsylvania Farm Show displayed a 900-pound butter sculpture of three kids and a dairy cow boarding a school bus. All made of unsalted butter.

This is art. I kid you not.

Cardamom shortbread

Make sure you use very fresh butter for this shortbread; it really will make a difference in the flavor. Leave the butter out on the counter overnight, except in the hottest times of year. This recipe makes approximately 20 cookies.


1/2 cup sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2-1/2 cups flour


Preheat oven to 325°F. Spray a glass or nonstick 9x13 baking pan with baking spray. In a Kitchenaid-type stand mixer or large bowl with a hand mixer, beat together sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add the cardamom and vanilla, and stir in the flour just until the mixture combines (do not overmix). Put your hand inside a plastic bag, and press the dough into the baking pan, making sure it is firmly packed and evenly distributed. Lightly score with the back of a knife to mark out the final size cookies (approximately 20, depending on the size you want). Bake 20-30 minutes, until lightly browned. When the pan has cooled completely, snap the cookies apart along the scored lines.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

Also in The Perfect Pantry:

Gwendolen's Scotch shortbread
Drop In & Decorate sugar cookies
Confetti spaghetti
Egg noodle, farmer's cheese and cauliflower gratin
Sweet potato pie
Green herb risotto

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There is nothing like a statue made of butter.

At the Minnesota State Fair a specialized butter sculptor works in a refrigerated studio with windows on all sides, making statues of the heads of the butter princesses. They get to take their heads home to eat or keep forever in the freezer. No doubt throughout the Midwest there are further examples.

Unsalted butter used to be the default in France, to the surprise of visiting Americans.

rofl, I simply have no words about the sculptures.

For some reason, I used to always go for the salted butter first. I don't know why, but I just thought it was somehow better. Once I finally snapped out of that silly habit, I would never go back. The shortbread sounds like it would be quite tasty--cardamom is one of my favorite spices!

Amazing sculpture! I always buy unsalted butter. For the stick that goes on the butter dish, I'll grind some sea salt on top of the stick so the butter tastes better on my morning toast.

Love the sculpture - I think there is room for that on my front lawn! Early in my baking days I made a beautiful and rather salty chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream icing. With one bite, I learned how important it was to use unsalted butter in baking, and particularly with frosting! The guests, however, were incredibly polite, and never said a word!

I've been one of those 'unsalted' folks for many years but just now am in transition. I definitely keep salted butter on hand for bread and crackers but also for ALL of my favorite aunt's recipes, because she used salted butter (all she knew and knows after 85 years) her recipes are perfectly balanced for the salt.

PS Cultured butter: your next butter post, maybe?

Very interesting and informative post. I've tend not to use the unsalted stuff, but you may have just swayed me...

Salted butter for table.
Unsalted for baking/cooking.
That's my motto.
Butter is a necessity and I'm a big fan of mixing olive oil and a little butter when sauteing.

I keep both salted and unsalted butters on hand, and even like to keep some in a butter bell for easy spreading on toast, pancakes, etc.

Living in the Midwest, I've been to more state fairs than you can imagine (or I'd like to admit) and seen some of the most amazing butter sculptures over the years. But I've always wondered what happens to those sculptures when the state fairs are over? I mean...this one of the kids, cow and school bus is humongous. Where does that go when the exhibit is kaput?

Since we get raw milk from a local dairy we make our own butter (it's very easy with a kitchenaid) and we don't even add salt anymore. We will season what we are adding it to but we have discovered that unsalted butter on a piece of toasted homemade bread is perfect as is- not salt needed.

Peabody, that's what I hear....

Mae, I had no idea that a butter princess could keep her head! What a strange thought -- would you save your head, or eat it?!

Mike, I think that salted butter is the taste many of us grew up with, so it's natural to want to replicate those tastes that are familiar. For me, unsalted butter was a revelation -- until I was an adult, I don't remember ever keeping it in the house.

Deanna, grinding salt on top of the butter sounds fantastic -- I am going to borrow that idea.

TW, not all that long ago I baked something with salted butter -- not a good quality, but something from the supermarket -- and the taste of the salt was so strong that it ruined the dish. Each brand is different -- some, like the Kate's butter I love -- are so mild that the salted butter is fine for making baking uses. But to be safe, I just use unsalted now for almost everything.

Alanna, I agree, there's definitely a place in the kitchen for salted butter. Now, cultured butter -- I'll have to look around in the pantry to see what I've got...

Mallika, unsalted butter is just a whole different taste -- one I've really come to love. A bit of unsalted butter on warm bread fresh from the oven -- well, it's a hard combination to beat!

Catherine, that's a great rule. And I love the combination of olive oil and butter for cooking, too

Sandie, I have absolutely no idea -- is there a butter sculpture museum somewhere, or a giant refrigerated warehouse? Readers, if you know what happens to the butter sculptures, please let us know.

N&J, how great that you're making your own butter. What could be better?! Sweet butter + warm bread = heaven.

I am not trying to butter u up by saying that I love this informative article ... me and my bad puns :/

I've always wondered if there is any significant difference between salted n unsalted butter (apart from the salt). Not knowing better, I often grab the one which is currently on offer at the supermarket, hee.

I'm for unsalted butter too. From ground zero, I can add what I want - salt, herbs, garlic etc :)

I hadn't considered the extra staying power of salted butter, but probably should have. Thanks for all the tidbits. Like many other commenters, I've stood in the dairy aisle pondering the difference.

Those sculptures are fun, but I'm with Sandie. What happens to them at the end of the day? I guess the state fair (pronounced "fay-yer" here in N.C.) is all about abundance (and sadly, some waste).

Lydia - the shortbread sounds great. One thing I've learned is unsalted butter is better because you can always add the salt in later!

Wonder how many Daring Bakers could bake cakes from that school bus? ;)
Great info as always.

I can still remember my first shortbread...sublime! Cardamom only sweetens the deal. I think the butter sculptures were among my favorite things at the NY State Fair. Harry Potter huh?

Noobcook, there is a difference, and the difference is salt. It's really good to keep both kinds of butter on hand if you have room in your fridge or freezer.

Tigerfish, I agree -- and flavored butters made with unsalted butter always taste so clean; the salt really muddies the flavors of herbs or whatever you mix in with the butter.

Wasted Food, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. You and Sandie have now made me determined to get the answer to the "where did all the butter go?" question. I promise to report on my findings.

Hillary, you're absolutely right. Control the amount of salt you want in a dish instead of letting the salt in the butter take over.

MyKitchen, with the number of Daring Bakers over 700 last time I checked, I'm thinking that's one big load of cakes!

Callipygia, I have never gotten up close and personal with a butter sculpture. The fairs we go to most often are in Connecticut -- maybe they're just not a butter state!

Butter from different countries tastes very different too :)

A fun post, as always :)
The cookies sound outrageously good, and very similar to some Indian cookies that I adore, called nankatai.

It may not be art - but it's interesting: In Ireland they have found butter, buried in swamps, in copper age settlements dating back several thousand years.
You may want to rethink that 3 month rule...
Of course, I don't think anyone tried to eat it... It was rather black....

Gattina, you are so right. Different breeds of cows? Different food/water? So many factors.

Nupur, I'll have to look up nankatai -- these are new to me. As always, I learn so much about Indian cooking from you.

Katie, this gives new meaning to "store in a cool, dark place"!

I have got to try this recipe. I love shortbread, and I love cardamom, so what could be better? Thanks for sharing!

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