In Baking Hows, Whys, and WTFs, food editor Shilpa Uskokovic will answer your burning baking questions and share her tips and tricks for perfect sweets. Today, how can you soften butter, quickly?
I am many things but a careful planner is not one of them. Few situations test my chaotic energy more than when a baking recipe calls for room-temperature ingredients. Room-temperature eggs? Never used them. Tepid milk? No can do. Soft butter? Uh, oops.
Eggs are forgiving of forgetfulness. But butter, not so much. While cold butter, or even frozen butter is ideal where flakiness is required—like this Actually Perfect Pie Crust—soft or room-temperature butter is vital for the success of cakes and cookies. It more effectively incorporates trapped air bubbles than cold butter when it’s beaten, and these air bubbles help aerate the final treat, making it tender and fluffy. Soft butter is also easier to incorporate into the dough or batter. Cold butter will fling aimlessly around the bowl and your baked treats will be denser.
So what’s a last-minute baker to do? Here are my three trusted ways to soften butter quickly. Pick one to suit your personality.
The Only Adult in the Room
The calmest, most practical approach is to cut hard butter into small cubes (about ½” or the size of an almond) and set it out in a single layer on a plate or the butter wrapper. Because of the increased surface area, the small chunks will soften quickly, in as little as 15 minutes (give or take, depending on ambient room temperature). If this is your preferred way, you are likely an older sibling and you file your taxes in February.
The Stress-Relief Seeker
Voted most disruptive but also most satisfying, this kitchen tip involves aggressively smacking the cold stick of butter with a rolling pin (or the back of a small skillet when times are desperate). The goal is to flatten the butter into a thin sheet (about ¼” thick) by which time it will be pliable. It usually takes less than 5 minutes. I bash the stick of butter in its wrapper and then peel away the tattered paper with gentle care. You might want to take an unwrapped stick of butter and sandwich it between squares of parchment or wax paper for a more orderly approach. Go this route if today involved too many Zoom meetings that should have been emails.
The Rule Breaker
Yeah, yeah, you’re not supposed to microwave butter, but I don’t care. To begin with, many modern microwaves have a specific “soften butter” function (usually along with “melt butter” and “soften cream cheese”). It’s true. Look for a sticker listing different functions and times somewhere along the door of the microwave. Failing which, the instructions from my old Panasonic Dimension 4 Cookbook have never let me down: Microwave 1 stick of butter, unwrapped and on a plate, on low (or 30% power) for 30–45 seconds. This yields the perfect consistency for baked goods, like these Miso Chocolate Chip Cookies. (Have an unreliable microwave and ended up with a puddle of melted butter? Plenty of cookie recipes, like these Obscenely Chocolately Chocolate Cookies or Chewy Molasses Cookies, start there.)
PS: What is room temperature, exactly?
The generally accepted range of room temperature is between 68°–72°F. Room-temperature butter is around 67° and will hold an indent of your finger when pressed into it (rather than sinking right through). Once your butter is at the correct temperature, you’re ready to make everything from luscious buttercream, airy cupcakes, jam-bellied raspberry-tahini cookies, and sticky plum upside-down cake.
Butter me up: