THE WASHINGTON POST – Among the things that I constantly miss, time and planning are at the top of the list. This can be a problem when it comes to cooking.
Many recipes require the ingredients to be at room temperature, especially the butter.
So when the urge arises for a last minute recipe test or I feel a sudden craving for a sugary treat, the cold hard butter in the fridge can stop me in its tracks.
Or at least it was.
When I finally realized that it was okay to give butter the boost it needed to go from solid to soft, I felt a burden lift off my shoulders. I could cook when I wanted and not wait for the slow process of naturally letting the butter heat up.
Here’s why you need to think about softening butter and how to do it right:
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT
Many cake and cookie recipes rely on the creaming method, in which fat, then fat and sugar are beaten until light and fluffy.
This process incorporates air, with sugar being particularly good at introducing and trapping air among the fat (which is often butter, but can also be shortening).
“If you keep the fat cool and beat the fat alone and the fat-sugar mixture long enough to incorporate massive amounts of fine air bubbles, this method will produce a light, airy cake,” Shirley Corriher said in BakeWise: the how and why of a successful baking. (Although many cookies also use the creaming method, Corriher said it is not as essential as cakes for successful cookies.)
Butter that is too cold or too hot will not hold these bubbles properly, and if you do not have this ventilation, you will not have well puffed and tender results.
Ensuring good aeration in the creaming process is particularly important, as chemical leavening agents (baking soda and baking powder) will only inflate air pockets already present in a dough or dough, and not create new ones, Corriher said.
THE QUESTION OF TEMPERATURE
Even a few degrees can have an impact on the consistency of the butter and the quality of cooking with it. And even all of the smart sources I’ve looked at disagree.
In About food and cooking, Harold McGee said that a “relatively cool” temperature of 65 degrees is the best temperature for aerating butter. This is in line with the opinion of French pastry expert Bruce Healy, according to Corriher.
Cookbook author Stella Parks explained on Eat serious that at around 68 degrees, the “ability of butter to stretch and expand during the creaming process reaches its maximum.” Anything above that, and you’re flirting with disaster. If your butter is over 70 (degrees), you might as well not cream at all – hot butter will not hold air, resulting in a dense dough and crumbling cookies ”.
Instead, Parks makes a compelling case for aiming for the low side, at 60 degrees, because room temperature sugar and the friction created by electric mixers can immediately begin to heat up the butter.
To help combat this warming once the mixing begins, Corriher said Healy suggests rinsing the bowl and beaters with ice water first, making sure to dry them well. If the bowl doesn’t feel cold during creaming, place it in the freezer for five minutes, Corriher recommended.
Relying on the standard descriptor of “room temperature” butter can be risky, because most home kitchens, at least in the United States (US), are significantly hotter than 60 to 65 degrees, Corriher said. If you have an instant read thermometer, it’s easy to check the temperature of the butter. Otherwise, you’ll need a few more clues.
Parks noted that the butter should be “softly cold”. Under no circumstances should the surface appear melted. Cook’s Country said butter at its sweet spot “should give out slightly when pressed.”
While conventional wisdom states that butter that has gone too far is no longer usable for creaming, The American test kitchen found that if you chill it quickly, it can revert to a soggy state, with the same or very close to the same results compared to cookies and buttercream made with properly softened butter.
Just add a few ice cubes and after less than a minute of stirring the butter should come back to a soft state. Just make sure to remove the ice as soon as this happens.
HOW TO DO
Again, the strategies for softening the butter differ depending on who you ask.
Here’s a look at some of the options:
Let it sit on the counter
If you think ahead enough to do it, allow time to do its job. Sometimes I speed up this more passive approach by placing the butter near a hot oven or on the counter above the dishwasher. You just have to be careful, because if you leave them in a warm place for too long, things can quickly escalate.
Put it in the microwave
I have always been very nervous about this technique, but it was necessary to read Erin Jeanne McDowell’s book The fearless baker to finally convert me. She recommends heating the stick, still in its wrapper, in the microwave for 10 seconds, turning it on its side and then doing another seven seconds. In BraveTart: America’s Iconic Desserts, Parks said that three six-second bursts works just fine for two sticks of butter in his 1,000-watt microwave.
The most important thing is to figure out what works best in your microwave, so yes, it can take a bit of trial and error (butter that gets too soft can be saved for toast or grease pans or used in recipes that call for melted butter).
If you focus on short bursts, you can always add more time. You can also try not to use full power even 50% if you want to play it safe.
My colleague Daniela Galarza likes to place the butter on its end so that it is straight up and down, which can speed up the process with more butter exposed to the heat of the microwave. I find I get a bit more control by placing it on a long side, but see what you prefer. However, not everyone is so sold in the microwave, which is valid. In The cooking answer book, Author and pastry chef Lauren Chattman said that “the risk of melting is just too high. Melting causes the solids in the milk and water in the butter to separate from the fat. This separation will affect the way the butter interacts with the sugar when the two are beaten together, and in the oven, will affect the structure of your cookies.
Give it some indirect heat
There are a few variations on this theme going around. Sally’s Pastry Addiction Recommended to heat a glass measuring cup full of water for two minutes in the microwave until very hot, before removing it and sliding it into a bowl or plate with the sliced butter.
She said the butter should be ready after about 10 minutes in the microwave. The kitchen advises to set up a situation in a bain-marie, with very hot water in a saucepan and a bowl with the butter put on it. A similar tactic is to fill a glass or bowl with very hot or boiling water (you need to be sure it’s something that won’t break), pour the water in and then place it upside down over butter for a kind of sauna. All of this requires you to be mindful, so don’t stray too long.
“Take a stick of butter straight from the fridge, cut it into quarter-inch pieces, and by the time you prepare everything else, it will be nice and fresh,” Parks said. In a kitchen at 70 degrees, it will take about 10 minutes.
It’s fun to The American test kitchen. “Just take a stick of butter, put it in a food storage bag, and beat it with a rolling pin. Not only is this the most effective way to quickly soften butter, but it’s also oddly therapeutic. Or maybe not so strangely.