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Baking & Desserts

Secrets for Baking With Butter From the Experts

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Three baking experts share secrets for handling butter, the most common baking challenge. Home cooks get great results with expert advice on the baking basics of butter.

Baking experts Alton Brown, Shirley Corriher and Anita Chu share their secrets of baking with butter. Butter adds flavor and texture to cakes and cookies. Softening the butter to the correct temperature and proper creaming technique are often overlooked by the home baker. Use these expert butter techniques for perfect cookies and cakes.
Softened Butter is Sensitive

Cake and cookie recipes usually call for softened butter. Softened butter has come up to room temperature or about 65 to 67 degrees F. The temperature is extremely important. “Butter has that razor melting point,” Shirley O. Corriher, food scientist, frequent guest on Alton Brown’s Good Eats Food Network Series, and author of BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking (2008) said in a December 16, 2008 New York Times article. At 68 degrees, butter begins to melt and loses the ability to hold air which is necessary for great cookie and cake texture.
How to Tell When the Butter is Softened

Softened butter bends easily without cracking or breaking. When pressed, softened butter gives slightly, but still holds its shape. The finger imprint from pressing should stay in place. The butter should feel cool and yet a knife should pass through easily.
Cream Butter First

The first step is to beat or cream the butter by itself. A common misconception is that this recipe step is simply to soften the butter and can be skipped. In fact, beating the butter is the first critical step in building the desired texture of the cake or cookie.

“When you cream butter, you’re not just waiting for it to get soft, you’re beating air bubbles into it,” says Anita Chu, author of Field Guide to Cookies (2008), in the NY Times article. Chu recommends beating the butter for at least 3 minutes to incorporate sufficient air before adding the sugar.
Cream Butter and Sugar Next

The second critical step in creating great cookies and cakes is adding the sugar to the aerated butter and to continue the creaming process with both ingredients. The rough sugar crystals cut into the fat, creating more air pockets. Both steps of the creaming process will generally take 8-10 minutes in total.

Alton Brown, Food Network chef and cookbook author, commented in a December 18, 2004 National Public Radio interview that under-creaming butter is a common mistake many cooks make. Under-creaming results in too little air incorporated into the batter and tough cookies and cakes. Brown said, “As a rule of thumb, I like to see the volume of the fat increase by a third.”

Creaming is best accomplished with a stand mixer using the paddle attachment. Keep the speed at medium or below to prevent the butter from warming above 67 degrees. Creaming is complete when the mixture is light and fluffy. Brown says the butter and sugar are sufficiently creamed “when you’re no longer able to see sugar granules, but you can still feel them if you rub a bit of the creamed fat between your fingers.”
Butter is Important

“Butter is like the concrete you use to pour the foundation of a building,” Chu says. “So it’s very important to get it right: the temperature, the texture, the aeration.”
Food Science for Successful Baking

To learn more about the food science behind the best pies, cakes, cookies and breads, check out BakeWise by Shirley Corriher.

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