As someone constantly in need of softened butter, whether it’s to bake chocolate chip cookies or make a herb butter—or just for easier spreading on toast (more on that later)—there are usually two options. You can either leave the stick on the counter and wait, which I never have the foresight to do ahead of time, or you can stick it in the microwave and end up with melted butter instead, which could give cakes, for instance, a completely different texture than you want.
As it turns out though, there is a better, faster way.
All you need is a rolling pin and a smooth, cool counter or slab—think marble, granite, or Corian (wood works as well, but it will take longer), to end up with pliable cold butter in less than 1 minute or soft butter at room temperature (or anything in between) in less than 15.
Set an unwrapped stick of cold butter on a piece of plastic wrap on the counter or slab. Cover the butter with a second piece of plastic and start whacking it with a rolling pin to flatten it somewhat. Flip the butter over and repeat the whacking until the butter is about 1/2 inch thick all over. (Bonus: All that whacking is cathartic.)
Uncover the butter 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 (enough to be squished between your forefinger and thumb). It should also still be quite cool. (If all you need is pliable but chilled butter, you can stop after Step 2. For softened butter at room temperature, continue with Step 3, but don't forget to read the fine print below.)
Roll the butter—already down to a 1/2-inch thickness—gently with the rolling pin to make it flat on both sides and slightly thinner, down to 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. Finally, you should transfer the butter into a mixing bowl. If it's not quite at room temperature yet, it will be in a matter of minutes. (Remember, if you were to leave it on the counter, it would get too warm.)
The Fine Print:
Cold, room temperature, and melted butter all have their merits—it’s just about knowing the how, when and why of butter temperature.
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.
(Oh, and if you want soft butter for spreading on toast rather than for baking, it just may be time for a Japanese butter knife)
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What methods have you used to soften butter in a hurry? Tell us in the comments below!
My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on Craftsy.com, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).