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How to soften butter quickly, and why it matters for your baking

Softened butter for baking should give slightly when pressed, leaving a shallow indent. It's easy to go too far, especially when using a microwave. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)
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Of the things I seem to be constantly short on, time and planning are at the top of the list. That can be a problem when it comes to baking. Many recipes require ingredients to be at room temperature — particularly butter. So when the need arises for a last-minute recipe test or I’m hit with a sudden craving for a sweet treat, cold, hard butter from the refrigerator can stop me in my tracks.

Or at least it used to. When I finally came around to the realization that it was okay to give butter the nudge it needs to go from solid to soft, I felt a burden lifted off my shoulders. I could bake when I wanted and not wait for the slow process of naturally letting the butter come up to temperature.

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Here’s why you need to put some thought into softening butter and how to do it right:

Why it matters. Many cake and cookie recipes rely on the creaming method, in which fat and then fat and sugar are beaten until light and fluffy. This process incorporates air, with sugar being particularly efficient 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 sufficiently long to incorporate massive amounts of fine air bubbles, this method will produce a light, well-aerated cake,” Shirley Corriher says in “BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking.” (While many cookies use the creaming method, too, Corriher says it’s not quite as integral to successful cookies as cakes).

Butter that is too cold or too warm won’t properly hold onto those bubbles, and when you don’t have that aeration, you won’t have well-risen, tender results. Ensuring proper aeration in the creaming process is especially important, because chemical leaveners (baking soda and baking powder) will only inflate air pockets already in a batter or dough, not create new ones, Corriher says.

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The temperature question. Even a matter of a few degrees can have an impact on the consistency of butter and how well you bake with it. And not even all the smart sources I consulted agree. In “On Food and Cooking,” Harold McGee says a “relatively cool” 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 explains on Serious Eats that at around 68 degrees, butter’s “ability to stretch and expand during the creaming process tops out. Anything above that, and you’re flirting with disaster. If your butter is creeping above 70 [degrees], you might as well not cream at all — the warm butter won’t retain any air, leading to a dense dough and collapsed cookies.”

Instead, Parks makes a compelling case for aiming on the low side, at 60 degrees, because room-temperature sugar and the friction created by electric mixers can immediately start to warm the butter. To help combat that warming once mixing starts, Corriher says Healy suggests first rinsing the bowl and beaters with ice water, being sure to dry them thoroughly. If the bowl doesn’t feel cool while creaming, pop it into the freezer for 5 minutes, Corriher recommends.

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Relying on the standard descriptor of “room temperature” butter can be dicey, as most home kitchens, at least in the United States, are significantly warmer than 60 to 65 degrees, Corriher says. If you have an instant-read thermometer, it’s easy to check the temperature of the butter. If not, you’ll need a few other cues. Parks notes the butter should be “pliably cool.” Under no circumstances should the surface look at all melted. Cook’s Country says butter at its sweet spot “should give slightly when pressed.”

While conventional wisdom states that butter that’s gone too far is no longer usable for creaming, America’s Test Kitchen discovered that if you rapidly chill it, it can return to a softened state, with identical or very close to identical results compared to cookies and buttercream made with correctly softened butter. Simply add in a few ice cubes and after less than a minute of stirring, the butter should come back together in a softened stage. Just be sure to remove the ice as soon as that happens. You can watch the technique in action here.

How to do it. Again, strategies for softening butter differ depending on whom you ask. Here’s a rundown of some of the options.

  • Let it sit on the counter: If you think far enough ahead of time to do this, by all means let time do its thing. Sometimes I speed up this more passive approach by setting the butter near a warm oven or on the counter above the dishwasher. You just need to pay attention, though, because if left too long in a warm spot, things can go south quickly.
  • Microwave it: I was always really nervous about this technique, but it took reading Erin Jeanne McDowell’s “The Fearless Baker” to finally convert me. She recommends microwaving the stick, still in its wrapper, for 10 seconds, turning it over on its side and then doing another 7 seconds. In “BraveTart: Iconic America Desserts,” Parks says three 6-second bursts work perfectly for two sticks of butter in her 1,000-watt microwave. The most important thing is to figure out what works best in your microwave so, yes, it might take a little trial and error (butter that gets too soft can be saved for toast or greasing 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 using full power, even 50 percent if you want to play it very safe. My colleague Daniela Galarza likes standing the butter on its end so it’s straight up and down, which can speed up the process with more of the butter exposed to the heat of the microwave. I find I get slightly more control laying it on a long side, but see what you prefer. Not everyone is as sold on the microwave, though, which is valid. In “The Baking Answer Book,” author and pastry chef Lauren Chattman says that “the risk of melting is just too high. Melting causes the milk solids and water in butter to separate from the butterfat. This separation will affect the way the butter interacts with 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 couple of variations on this theme circulating. Sally’s Baking Addiction recommends heating a glass measuring cup full of water for 2 minutes in the microwave until very hot, before removing it and sliding in a bowl or plate with the sliced butter. She says the butter should be ready after about 10 minutes hanging out in the microwave. The Kitchn advises setting up a double boiler situation, with very hot water in a saucepan and a bowl with the butter set over it. A similar tactic, tested by Food & Wine, is filling a glass or bowl with very hot or boiling water (you need to be confident it’s something that won’t shatter), pouring out the water and then placing it upside down over the butter for a kind of sauna. (Thanks to NPR’s Linda Holmes for posting this the other week.) All of these require that you be attentive, so don’t walk away for long.
  • Cut it: “Take a stick of butter straight from the fridge, slice it into quarter-inch pieces, and by the time you prep everything else, it’ll be pliably cool,” Parks says. In a 70-degree kitchen, that will take about 10 minutes.

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  • Pound it: This is a fun one from America’s Test Kitchen. “Simply take a stick of butter, place it inside a food storage bag, and beat it with a rolling pin. Not only is this the most efficient way to quickly soften butter, it’s also oddly therapeutic.” Or maybe not so oddly.

Do you have a favorite butter softening technique? Share in the comments below!