Every week, baking expert Alice Medrich will be going rogue on Food52 -- with shortcuts, hacks, and game-changing recipes.
Today: A fast, foolproof way to soften butter when spontaneous baking calls.
When you need softened butter for baking, or to make herb or garlic butter, or just for easier spreading, you can leave the stick on the counter and wait forever (it seems) or you can tempt fate in the microwave and end up with melted butter instead.
There is a better, faster way.
If you have a rolling pin and a smooth, cool marble, granite, ceramic tile, or corian counter or slab (wood is okay but will take slightly longer), you can produce marvelously pliable, chilled butter in less than 1 minute or soft butter at room temperature (or anything in between) in less than 15.
1. Set an unwrapped stick of cold butter on a piece of plastic wrap on the counter or slab. Cover the butter with another piece of plastic, and start whacking it with a rolling pin to flatten it somewhat. Flip the butter and plastic wrap over, and whack until the butter is about 1/2 inch thick all over.
If all you need is pliable butter, stop after step 2. For softened butter at room temperature, continue on through to step 3. -- but don't forget to read the fine print below.
2. Continue whacking the butter. Uncover and fold it in halves or thirds, then cover again and either knead it with your fist or continue to whack, repeating until the butter is suitably pliable. It will still be quite cool.
3. Roll the butter -- already whacked to a 1/2-inch thickness -- gently with the rolling pin to make it flat on both sides and slightly thinner, about a generous 1/4 inch. Let it rest for 5 minutes. Flip it over to a new spot on the counter and let it rest another 5 minutes. Put the butter into a mixing bowl now. If it's not quite at room temperature yet, it will be in a matter of minutes; if you were to leave it on the counter, it would get too warm.
The Fine Print
Old-fashioned pound cakes and butter cakes often call for room temperature butter (68 to 70° F) -- so that it can form a perfect emulsion with other ingredients, also at room temperature. The butter is beaten or “creamed” for several minutes with sugar before the other ingredients are added in two or three parts, alternating with each other. If the butter is too cold, it will not form an emulsion with the other ingredients and the batter will curdle. If the butter is too warm it will not be plastic enough to survive a lengthy beating without breaking down (so to speak!); the batter will not trap air and the cake will not have a beautiful crumb. In these very finicky types of recipes, both the temperature and texture of the butter are very important.
Top photo by Mark Weinberg; bottom by James Ransom