Beginner’s guide to baking: Butter – why temperature matters

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This post is part of our beginner’s guide to baking series – catch up on the other post here.

Ever wonder why some recipes call for room temperature butter, while others need cold? Or what to do when a recipe doesn’t specify a temperature at all? I know it’s tempting just to grab a block of butter and start using it, but the temperature of your butter really does matter.  

Why do some recipes ask for room temperature butter?
Most recipes that call for butter to be room temperature have one of two things going on – you’re either going to cream it with sugar, or combine it with something liquid like milk or eggs.

Let’s start with creaming butter and sugar. Just like pretty crystals in a shop, sugar crystals have jagged edges – and that’s actually really important. As you cream room temperature butter and sugar, the sugar is busy digging out little air pockets in the butter. Leave them mixing away for a few minutes in this sweet spot and the mixture becomes smooth, pale and creamy – that’s how you know your creaming is done!

If your butter’s too cold, the sugar isn’t able to dig through the butter the way it should. Too warm? Then the sugar will just scratch around, rather than digging out little airy pockets.

When you’re adding milk or eggs to butter, you want them to combine together beautifully – and to do that, you need room temperature butter (and other ingredients!) If your butter’s cold, it’ll contract together into cold little pieces which stops it from blending together the way you need it to. That’s why you might end up with a curdled or grainy looking batter – not great!

When you bake, the little air pockets you’ve created in the nice room temperature butter give the mixture room to rise – the bubbles from your baking soda and powder fill the space and puff it up.

Psst – find more info about how baking soda and powder work here.

How can I tell if it’s room temperature?
This is easy – you should be able to press your finger into it and easily leave an indent, without your finger sliding around or the whole block caving in.

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I’m in a hurry – how can I warm my butter quickly?
While leaving your butter on the counter for an hour really is the best way to bring it to room temperature, that’s not always practical. Luckily there are a few other things you can try in a pinch:

  • Cube your butter into small pieces and line them up in a sunny spot to warm up. The increased surface area of the butter means it’ll get warmer, faster.
  • Cut the amount of butter you need and pop it on a plate. Fill a glass with hot water and wait until the outside of the glass becomes warm to touch. Pour out the water, quickly dry the glass and invert it over the butter like a dome. The butter will warm up in a couple of minutes – keep an eye on it!
  • You can always use a microwave! Cut the butter you need, place it on a plate and microwave on high for 5 seconds. Open the door, turn the butter and heat for another 5 seconds. Repeat for about 20 seconds until your butter is at room temperature – check by pressing your finger into it gently at each turn.

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Why do some recipes need cold butter?
Many doughs call for cold butter. This is so the butter doesn’t completely blend into the flour when you mix them together. This means that as you roll or press out your dough, the butter gets stretched out and you’re left with long, flat sheets of butter in the dough. Butter contains a lot of water, and this water turns into steam when baked – that helps create layers in your dough. Flaky pastry is the perfect example.

Not all recipes say what temperature it needs to be – what do I do then?
Just have a think about what else is happening in the recipe and go from there. Are you making a dough? Then the butter should almost always be cold. Mixing in liquids, creaming, or trying to make something that needs to rise up nice and fluffy? Then room temperature butter will be the way to go.

The more you learn about the ins and outs of baking the more you realise that it really is a science – every ingredient and instruction is there for a reason. It’s all about striking the perfect balance!

With so much to keep focussed on when you’re baking, it’s really useful to have knowledge and tools on hand to help take the guesswork out of the equation.

That’s why Fisher & Paykel have created a range of intuitive ovens with pre-set functions, which eliminates most of the guesswork when it comes to setting the temperature. This means that the oven sets the most common temperature for whatever you’re cooking –  It’s crazy how clever it is! These ovens come with a recipe menu and digital temperature control so you have exactly what you need to get perfect results every time.

To help Kiwi bakers and cooks get the most out of their time in the kitchen, Fisher & Paykel have created eight different cooking styles – if you know why you cook the way you do, you’re more likely to get the best results. Pop over to the Fisher & Paykel website and do their ‘What’s Your Cooking Style’ quiz – you might be surprised!

Now that you know the science behind baking with butter, it’s time to make the perfect buttercream. Here’s my absolute favourite recipe – I hope you like it!

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Perfect buttercream

Ingredients

  • 200g butter, room temperature
  • 3 – 3 ½ cups icing sugar, sifted
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 1-2 Tbsp milk, room temperature, to thin

Method

  1. Cube butter and place in a large mixing bowl. Beat with a paddle attachment until smooth, pale and creamy (approx. five minutes)
  2. Add 3 cups icing sugar and 1 Tbsp milk. Mix on low until just combined, then increase to medium and mix for a further 1-2 minutes until well combined.
  3. Add vanilla bean paste and mix for a further 1 minute.
  4. If icing is too thick, add 1 Tbsp milk. If icing is too thin, add additional ½ cup icing sugar.

This post was made possible thanks to Fisher & Paykel. All words and images are, and always will be, my own.



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