Alison Roman’s salted butter chocolate chunk shortbread cookies are everywhere. Bon Appétit, Eater, Nylon, Smitten Kitchen, and The New York Times have covered them in glowing detail; The Cookies pop up on my Instagram discover feed literally every day. The best recipes are more than the sum of their parts, but the sheer volume of breathless, googly-eyed reviews suggest that a concerning number of people have lived deprived, salted-butter-cookie-less lives until now.
I, for one, welcome the salted butter Roman-naissance with open arms because unsalted butter is completely pointless. I fry my eggs in salted butter and spread it on toast, of course, but I also bake with it exclusively. My reasoning is that salt doesn’t just make food taste good; it makes food taste, period. I sub in salted for unsalted one-to-one without even reducing the salt called for in the recipe because I strongly believe that an extra half-teaspoon of salt can’t hurt a recipe with a combined four cups of flour and sugar. Baking with salted butter still borders on the taboo for most, and by demanding it, The Cookies have given thousands of home cooks permission to do something rather naughty indeed. Therein, I think, lies the secret to their popularity.
The Cookie backlash hasn’t started yet, but it can’t be much longer now. It’s both easy and lazy to dismiss popular stuff for no reason other than its ubiquity, especially when it’s consumed primarily by women and girls—like, gee I dunno, cookbooks. After all, cooler-than-thou types have nurtured a blanket, knee-jerk hatred of feminine-coded popular media in lieu of an actual personality since forever, usually in the name of “originality” or “innovation.” I’m no media studies Ph.D., but it seems obvious that cultural phenomena aren’t born by breaking new ground. Instead, they tap into something with longstanding, near-universal appeal at precisely the right moment and, in doing so, tell us more about the human experience than any Gallup poll ever could. The Beatles invented neither cute boys nor four-piece bands, E.L. James certainly didn’t invent BDSM slashfic, and Alison Roman didn’t invent the salted butter shortbread cookie; she just told us about it at the right time.
I think it’s worth considering what primed us for this particular recipe. Thanks to trickle-down molecular gastronomy, home cooking has trended toward the fiddly, expensive, and overly prescriptive for at least fifteen years. Dining In—Roman’s second cookbook and source of The Cookies—is full of singular, exciting recipes that offer a fresh perspective on familiar ingredients and techniques, while remaining completely accessible. In other words, it’s the ideological opposite of Modernist Cuisine or The Food Lab. Already in its fourth printing, people are clearly buying what Dining In is selling. As for The Cookies themselves, it could be argued that they followed the salted caramel mania of the early 2010s to its natural conclusion, then escalated things a bit. (Puzzlingly, most salted caramel recipes call for unsalted butter, then have you make up the difference with flaky salt. Why?) After a decade of obsessive iterations on the chocolate chip cookie and a generation of Olds tut-tutting the use of salted butter in baking, it’s no wonder that the cookie recipe that launched a thousand posts is so simple—and so shamelessly salty.
Somewhere between the first and fiftieth Google searches on the history of unsalted butter (it didn’t become a baking “must” until the late 20th century, probably because poor and middle-class people relied on salt to preserve a relatively expensive ingredient), I figured I should probably just make some of these damn cookies myself. I’m no stranger to salted butter shortbread, and to my relatively experienced eye, these looked so simple that I wondered what the fuss could possibly be about. You’re basically making a slice-and-bake shortbread roll cookie, with one special flourish: a demerara sugar crust. After getting my precious logs into the fridge to chill, I nibbled on a few nuggets of dough from the mixer paddle—and suddenly decided I felt great about my choices.
I’m so pleased to tell you that even among salted butter cookies, Roman’s are exceptional. I was ready for the caramel-like flavor that salted butter cookie dough develops as it browns, and I already knew how I felt about dark chocolate chunk cookies flecked with sea salt—I’m for ‘em!—but what blew me away was the complexity you get from three kinds of sugar. A mixture of white and light brown in the dough is standard enough, but rolling the dough in raw sugar (which I grumbled about having to make a special Trader Joe’s trip to get) made the most addictively lacy-edged cookies I’ve ever tasted. As I write this, I’m staring longingly at a cooling rack half-full of cookies—which I shouldn’t eat more of until my boyfriend gets home—and trying to congratulate myself on having the “good sense” to freeze the second log of dough for later.
Depending on the flexibility of your personal convictions, the mere suggestion of putting salted butter in a cookie could be enough to send you screaming for the comments section to tell me what a good-for-nothing, punk-ass millennial hussy I am. This would be a mistake in at least two ways: first of all, that’s the highest compliment I could ever hope to receive, and second, an irrational fear of salted butter is a great way to miss out on a whole world of tasty treats. Yes, I know that unsalted butter has a shorter shelf life—and thus more turnover on shelves, which some interpret as meaning it’s necessarily fresher than salted—and I know that salted butter tends to have more water, especially if its saltiness comes from a strong brine rather than granular salt. I’ve heard every argument to the contrary and I still choose salted butter because, to me, it tastes better. If you’re still skeptical, just make the cookies—they’ll do the trick.