Butter: You're Hot Then You're Cold

December 15, 2015

The holidays call for a boatload of butter, so we paired up with Organic Valley to share the how's, when's, and why's of butter's temperature.

Butter is like magic. You treat it right and you’ll end up with the flakiest pie crust and cakiest cookies. But butter’s sensitive. It’s like the Goldilocks and Three Bears of dairy: It can be hot, cold, and room temperature—er, sorry, we mean just right.

Which isn’t to say cold and melted butter don’t have their merits—because, as you'll see, they most certainly do—it’s just about knowing when and how to use each. Here’s the lowdown on cold, room temperature, and melted butter.

Photo by James Ransom

Cold butter

Good for: Scones, pie crust, biscuits, croissants, and puff pastry

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Why: Butter’s fat-water composition (80 percent milk fat to 16 to 17 percent water) is the reason for flaky layers in things like pie crust and biscuits. When you incorporate cold butter into dough, most recipes will tell you to cut it into the flour until the mixture resembles pea-sized pieces. Think of it like little butter pockets. When these bits of dispersed butter hit the oven, the water evaporates, creating steam that lifts and separates, leaving dough layered and light.

These almond scones want cold butter. Photo by James Ransom

How: Keep it cold cold cold. Cube butter and place it in the freezer while prepping the rest of the recipe’s ingredients.

Tip: You could also try freezing a whole stick of butter and grating the frozen butter over the flour, tossing to incorporate and coat the butter shreds. Chill your dough in between steps, too—warm butter doesn’t bode well for flakiness.

Cream butter for an airy cake. Photo by James Ransom

Room temperature butter

Good for: Cookies and cake

Why: It comes down to creaming. When you combine butter and sugar, the sugar crystals’ ragged edges penetrate and aerate the butter, transforming and doubling its size until the butter turns almost white in color (like cream!). These air pockets expand further with the addition of baking powder or soda, giving rise to and ensuring tender, fluffy cookies and cakes. With butter that’s chilled or too warm, sugar can’t do its job and will just mix into the butter, not cream it.

How: Let your butter sit out for at least an hour or so before starting. Press you finger into the butter. You should be able to make an indent, but the butter shouldn’t lose its shape and should still be cool to the touch. Also try picking up the stick: If you can bend the butter slightly without it breaking, you’re good to go.

Tip: The rest of your ingredients should be at room temperature, too. If you add, say, cold milk or eggs to room temperature butter, the butter will immediately harden, creating shards of butter and pockets of air when baked—ideal for flaky pie crust, but not for soft-crumbed cookies.

Photo by James Ransom

Melted butter

Good for: Brownies, quick breads, and muffins

Why: These kinds of baked goods rely on baking powder or soda for their leavening instead of creamed butter. Here, butter adds flavor, moisture and color (its milk fat browns with heat).

How: Cube the butter, place it in a microwave-safe bowl, and melt in 15-second increments in the microwave. You can also do this over low heat on the stove.

Tip: If you’re making cookies, but don’t want to wait for butter to come to room temperature (we’ve all been there), use melted butter like in this recipe. But be aware: the cookies will spread more and have a chewy rather than a cakey texture.

This baby uses melted butter. Photo by James Ransom

The holidays call for a boatload of butter, so we paired up with Organic Valley to share the how's, when's, and why's of butter's temperature. Organic Valley uses all organic, pasture-raised dairy in its products; see them all here.

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