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Culinary Lesson #27 - Baking with Butter

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Whether you're making cookies, brownies, or cake, there's a good chance that butter is involved.  And despite being extremely common in the baking world, butter can cause quite a bit of confusion when it comes to properly using the ingredient.  The following list addresses some of the common questions, as well as a few not-so-common facts that will help demystify this seemingly well known ingredient.

  1. Salted butter vs. unsalted butter:  As many of you have probably noticed, every recipe on this blog calls for unsalted butter rather than the more common salted butter, but why is this?  Largely, it is so that I can control the amount of salt in my end product.  Since different brands of salted butter carry different amounts of salt, it is hard to know exactly how much salt you are actually using.  In addition, some recipes call for ingredients that are naturally salty, so when combined with salted butter, you run the risk of an over-seasoned dish; something that you can't undo.
  2. Creaming butter:  Most baking recipes have you start off by creaming the butter.  But what does this mean, and is there a point to it?  Creaming is a process of beating together softened butter (see below) with sugar in the hopes of achieving a light and fluffy end product.  When butter is at the perfect temperature, granules of sugar are able to tear through the butter, leaving tiny pockets of air in its path.  This gives your creamed mixture volume, and ultimately gives your dessert volume.  If you were to mix melted butter with sugar, the butter wouldn't have the structure needed to hold any incorporated air.  Because of this, your end product will be dense and chewy.  This is why many brownie and chewy cookie recipes call for melted butter rather than softened butter, whereas more of your standard cookie recipes call for softened butter.  [Side note:  Although melted butter is a key way to make your desserts chewy, it isn't the only way.  Sugar also plays a role...but that'll have to wait until another post].  An additional reason why melted butter often creates a chewier dessert is because the water in the butter has already separated from the emulsion.  More water plus flour equals more gluten development.  And as we all know, more gluten means more chew.

    In addition to providing your baked good some lift and structure, creaming is often used to better incorporate all of your ingredients.  If you were to, say, combine all of your dry ingredients first (or wet ingredients first), and then mix in your butter, you would have bits of butter in your end product.  Creaming creates a uniform mixture that can easily be incorporated with your remaining ingredients.
  3. Softened butter:  So how soft is softened butter supposed to be?  According to Cook's Illustrated, "butter that is between 60 and 65 degrees is ready for creaming".  For those who don't carry around a thermometer at all times, this means that you should be able to make an imprint in the butter when slight pressure is applied, but if you press even harder, the butter should crack rather than keep yield to the pressure.  In The Science of Good Cooking, two cakes were made side by side, each with varying butter temperatures.  The first cake used butter that was at 70° F (room temperature) before creaming, while the second used butter that was initially at 60° F.  Ten degrees may sound pretty insignificant, but the results were pretty obvious.  The room temperature butter wasn't able to increase in volume, which yielded a flat and dense cake.  Whereas the properly softened butter increased in volume when creamed with sugar and produced a domed cake with uniform air pockets.

    Some of you might be wondering now, what's the proper way to soften your butter.  If you have the time, just let it sit out on the counter for 30 to 60 minutes.  If you're pressed on time, the next best way is to cut your butter into small cubes and let it sit on the counter for 15 to 30 minutes.  Another solution, although not recommended by most, is to cut your butter into large cubes and soften it in the microwave at a power level of 10% for increments of 15 seconds.  The obvious reason to be cautious using the microwave is running the risk of bringing your butter past 70° F, or even to the state of being melted.

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