All too often I have planned to bake and then remembered that I did not take the butter out of the refrigerator that morning. So, I thought I would share with you a step by step tutorial on how to quickly and easily soften butter which you can do while weighing out ingredients and preparing your cake pan or cookie sheets.
I also look at some butter-related matters, including why it is so important to soften butter if the recipe says it should be softened and what role butter plays in baked goods.
(Source: Mike Meeks; Unsplash.com)
Table of Contents
Why Butter Should Be Softened If the Recipe Says So
As tempting as it can be too use butter straight from the refrigerator, if the recipe asks for softened butter, then it should always be softened/at room temperature. A recipe usually needs softened butter because it needs to be beaten or mixed through the creaming method (with or without sugar). This is commonly used when baking cakes, muffins and other lighter baked goods.
When butter is beaten through the creaming method, it is beaten with the sugar until light and fluffy. This allows air pockets to be created in the butter which also increases the volume of the cake batter.
When you add the eggs to the batter, this increases the liquid content and fills the air pockets with liquid. As these ingredients mix together, it creates an emulsion of fat and water.
This emulsion allows carbon dioxide and steam to be trapped in the goods as they bake, meaning that they rise and develop a light texture.
When the ingredients for cakes or other baked goods are mixed at room temperature it also means the ingredients will bond together easily to give the goods even fat distribution and texture.
Cold butter rather than softened should usually be used for flaky pastry, pie crusts and biscuits.
In the next section, I look in more detail at butter and what impact different types of butter can also have on your baked goods.
Types of Butter
A stick of butter is a blend of butterfat - the solid fat that results from the churning of fresh cream (along with buttermilk), water and around 1% of milk fat solids. It is the water content of butter that causes it to turn rancid.
Butter sold in the US must be pasteurized and when butter is labeled as ‘sweet cream butter’ it confirms it has been made with pasteurized cream.
The butterfat content of butters differ; but under Federal regulations, they must contain at least 80% butterfat. Many butters produced in the US contain just 80%, but European-style butters can contain as much as 84% fat. Home produced artisan butters may contain even more fat and generally, the higher the butterfat content of the butter, the higher the price!
For most baked goods such as cupcakes, muffins and cookies, regular sweet cream butter from the grocery store is fine. You can keep higher fat butters for spreading on crusty bread or baking flaky pie crusts and light pastries such as croissants.
A sweet cream butter is usually a salted butter and the main advantage of this is that it has a longer shelf life compared to unsalted butter because the salt acts as preservative.
You may prefer to use unsalted butter though, so you can control exactly how much salt is added to the recipe. Depending on the recipe, using salted butter can also add too much of a salty taste to the finished goods.
Pro Tip: If you need unsalted butter for a recipe but only have salted, then you can use salted, but you will need to omit around a quarter of a teaspoon of salt from the recipe as this is how much salt a stick of butter contains.
Butter is always better stored in the refrigerator if you have no plans to use it straight away. Always keep it covered and away from stronger smelling foods as it can easily absorb odors.
Butter can keep for a couple of days at room temperature, up to four months in the refrigerator, or for up to six months if you freeze it.
Pro Tip: A stick of butter is 4 oz or 8 tablespoons or half a cup.
The stick of butter is thought to have originated with Swift and Company in 1907 who started to package butter as sticks for wider distribution.
There are two types of sticks available in the US, mainly due to differences in the type of butter printer (machine which cuts and packages the butter) used. East of the Rocky Mountains tends to be the Eastern or Elgin -pack which is 4.8" long and 1.3" wide and the Western-pack is produced west of the Rocky Mountains. These butter sticks are 3.1" long and 1.5" wide.
Both types of sticks weigh 4 oz; they are usually just packed differently in the box. Butter dishes are often designed for the Eastern-pack butter stick.
The Functions of Butter in Baking
Butter as a fat has various important roles in baking:
- Because fat does not evaporate or is absorbed with heat like other liquids, the butter content means that the baked goods will still appear to have moisture.
- Butter also interacts with the flour as it affects the bonds in the gluten in the flour, allowing it to be tenderized. This process is called ‘shortening’ as the fat shortens the gluten strands and is why solid fats are often referred to as shortening.
- Fats assist in the baking process by moving heat through the goods as they cook, and they also help them to brown.
- As we have already seen, butter assists with rising or leavening as the water contained within the butter begins to evaporate in the oven and the steam from this stays trapped in the baked goods, helping them rise. The layers of butter in between puff pastry is what allows it to rise or puff up.
Butter also adds flavor to cakes and other baked goods and it can help baked goods to stay fresher for longer.
(Source: Taryn Elliot; Pexels.com)
How to Soften Butter
There are various ways of softening butter and as well as including a step by step on how I soften butter, I also take a look at a few other ways that it can be softened.
If you are organized, leaving butter at room temperature for an hour or so before use is often the easiest way to soften it, but if like me, you regularly forget to take it out beforehand, or you suddenly realize the kitchen is cooler than you thought it was, then you need a faster way to soften it.
Just before I move on to the softening tutorial, it is worth mentioning how you know when butter is softened enough.
As a rule of thumb, if the butter is cold to touch but you can leave an imprint of your finger in it when you gently press it, then it is soft enough for being creamed. This is usually round the temperature of 68°F to 70°F. The melting point of butter is around 90°F to 95°F, which is why it melts nicely in your mouth or on toast!
If your finger sinks into the butter or slides around when you test it, then it is too soft. When butter is over soft it cannot be creamed properly and will not hold in air once beaten. Cakes that come out of the oven on the heavier side can be caused by over soft butter and the same with cookies that spread too much.
What You Will Need to Follow This Tutorial for Softening Butter
- Stick of butter for softening
- Knife – to slice the butter
- Microwave safe jug containing 2 cups (16 oz) of water
- Microwave safe plate or bowl – Suitable size to spread out the amount of butter that you need to soften
- Kitchen timer – Useful to use a timer to ensure you do not forget about the butter while you are preparing other ingredients
Step by Step Instructions
Step 1: Start heating microwave: Place the microwave safe jug containing the two cups of water into the microwave.
Turn the microwave on full heat for two minutes then turn off. The water will not be boiling at this point – just very hot.
Step 2: Prepare butter: While the microwave is heating up, slice the butter into smaller pieces and spread out across the microwave safe plate or bowl.
Step 3: Remove water: Take out the jug of water from microwave using an oven mitt is necessary and close the microwave door.
Step 4: Put butter in the microwave: Open the door of microwave once more, place the plate of butter in and close the door. Do not turn the microwave on.
Start your timer counting.
Step 5: Check: Open the microwave door and quickly the butter after 5 minutes, using the touch test detailed above if necessary.
To soften one stick, it usually takes around 7 minutes in my microwave, so if doing two or more sticks, check again at 10 minutes.
Other Methods to Soften Butter
Another way to soften butter, which will take longer though, is to take it out of the refrigerator, cut it into small cubes and spread it out on a plate and leave it at room temperature. It will soften faster than leaving it as a stick to soften.
You can also place the butter in a bowl over a sauce pan with hot water in it and allow it to soften. Do watch it very carefully though as it can over soften.
Some people microwave butter for 10 to 15 seconds as a quick solution but softening butter this way is often inconsistent, some parts of the stick can be solid while other parts are liquified.
Others prefer to place the stick of butter between some wax paper or in a Ziplock bag and use a rolling pin to flatten out the butter. Personally, I am not as keen on this approach as I think it can be too easy to overwork the butter.
I hope that this tutorial on how to soften butter has been useful, offering an easy technique for softening butter which will allow you to focus on getting the rest of your ingredients together for your cupcakes at the same time.
Do feel free to share this tutorial with friends and family and you are welcome to leave any butter-related comments in the section below.