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.



Pink grapefruit cupcakes

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Regardless of the time of year I’m a huge grapefruit fan – I nearly die with excitement when I spot a grapefruit Fuju in summer and always have a bottle of fresh grapefruit juice on hand during the winter months. And baked pink grapefruit for dessert? Always a good idea.

But despite being a big grapefruit eater I’ve never actually baked with the stuff, which when you think about it is pretty silly. After all, lemon cake, cupcakes and slice are all totally delicious, right? So armed with a couple of fresh pink grapefruits I decided to set things right and bake a tangy, citrus cupcake packed with all the beautiful flavour of pink grapefruit.

And just like that, these pink grapefruit cupcakes with tangy Swiss meringue buttercream were born.

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Pink Lemonade Cupcakes

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When we headed to America at the start of last year I had a list of foods and drinks I was really excited to try – think soft pretzels, crack pie and anything peanut butter. But I didn’t expect to come across what would become one of my absolute favourite drinks in the world – pink lemonade.

While I’d always read about it in books, seen it in movies and occasionally spotted a can in-store I’d never actually tried it. Sure, I love pink, but I just imagined pink lemonade to be coloured sprite. So. Wrong.

After realising how much I loved pink lemonade early on in the trip I spent the next couple of weeks drinking as much Minute Maid pink lemonade as I could lay my hands on. Then at Easter this year our good friends gave Kevin and I an amazing gift – a great big tub of pink lemonade powder…YUM!

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Passionfruit Cupcakes

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Baking in winter is a funny thing. Sometimes all you want to do is bake something warm and comforting, packed with flavours synonymous with cold winter nights – like chocolate, warm apples and cinnamon.

Then there are times when you just need something fresh and summery – something to boost your spirits and remind you that summer is in fact just a few months away. For me, this often means baking something packed with passionfruit.

Passionfruit is one of my absolute favourite summer flavours – there something about it that screams sunshine, long days and warmth – making it the perfect thing to bake with on a gloomy, wet winter afternoon.

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Vanilla bean buttercream

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Makes enough to fill and decorate a 9″ cake

Ingredients

  • 200g butter, softened
  • 3 – 4 cups icing sugar, sifted
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 1 – 3 Tbsp milk to thin

Method

  1. Beat butter with paddle attachment or wooden spoon until smooth.
  2. Add 3 cups of icing sugar, one cup at a time. Mix until well combined and smooth.
  • If icing is too thin, incrementally add remaining icing sugar until reach desired consistency.
  • If icing is too thick, add milk by the tablespoon until reach desired consistency
  1. Once happy with the consistency, scoop out approx. ½ cup of buttercream and place in small bowl. Add vanilla bean paste and mix until well combined. Spread across bottom cake before sandwiching them together.
  2. Tint the remaining buttercream to your desired shade, then decorate cake as desired.

Milk chocolate buttercream

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Ingredients

  • 100g butter, softened
  • 200g milk chocolate
  • 2/12 – 3 cups icing sugar, sifted

Method

  1. Break chocolate into pieces and melt in microwave in 30 second bursts, mixing between each.
  2. Place butter in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat until pale and creamy. Add 2 cups of icing sugar and beat until smooth.
  3. Add melted chocolate and mix until well combined. Add more icing sugar until you reach your desired consistency. Beat until light and fluffy.

Refreshing Lime Cupcakes

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I’m going to be honest – I had a bit of trouble coming up with the idea for this blog post. No matter what I did, I just couldn’t come up with something I wanted to bake, something that got me excited and itching to get the ball rolling.

I stared into the cupboard aimlessly, poured through cookbooks fruitlessly and went on a massive Pinterest trawl, all to no avail. I came to the conclusion that I’d never come up with an idea good enough to share, so decided to grab a drink from the fridge and give my overworked brain a break.

Then I spotted a pouch of fresh lime juice perched in the door of the fridge and a million ideas popped into my head. I scurried to the pantry and dug around for a jar of lime and passionfruit curd I picked up at a market in the Hawkes Bay a few months ago. As I lay my hand on the jar, it all came together – time to make some refreshing, tangy lime cupcakes.

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Manuka honey cupcakes with brown sugar buttercream

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New Zealand is a pretty awesome little place. No matter where you live you’re never very far from something amazing – beaches, bush walks, mountains, lakes; the lot! Just look at Auckland; within the confines of a single city you have everything from volcanic cones and sandy beaches to bush walks and predator-free islands.

But it takes a lot to keep these wonderful places looking just that – wonderful. A lot of the work is done by the wonderful people at the Department of Conservation, who work tirelessly to keep everything looking as pristine as possible. No easy feat!

Today marks the start of Conservation Week – the week where we celebrate the unique environments and creatures of this little country, work out how we can help do our part to improve our environment and (of course) get out and enjoy it! To celebrate I decided to make some uniquely New Zealand cupcakes – Manuka Honey cupcakes with brown sugar buttercream.

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