Almost every baking recipe calls for using butter (or the really good ones, anyway). We've talked about the difference between salted and unsalted butter, but what about butter temperature? Some recipes call for cold butter, like biscuits and pie crust, but many cakes, cookies and quick breads or muffins bake up better if the butter isn't cold. Personally, I don't always plan my baking projects in advance, which means I make it several steps into the recipe and realize the butter is still hard. Which means finding a fast way how to soften butter.
First of all, yes, if the recipe says soften the butter, you definitely want to let the butter come to room temperature. It's a texture thing: You soften butter when the first step to a recipe is creaming the butter with sugar because that helps the ingredients blend more smoothly and helps trap air in the batter, both which make for a uniformly smooth and fluffy baked treat.
I know, it's so much easier to let butter soften by leaving it out on the counter for an hour. But I'm an impulse baker, so that doesn't work for me. Fortunately, there are several ways how to soften butter that don't take much time at all.
How to Soften Butter Quickly
An important note: softened butter is not melted butter. While some recipes do call for melted butter (for example, depending on what kind of chocolate chip cookie you like, you can use melted or softened butter), unless it says specifically melt the butter, don't dump your stick of butter in a bowl and put it in the microwave for a minute and expect the same perfect texture. (Ask me how I know this fact.)
Here are four easy methods to quickly soften butter.
On top of a preheating oven
Because you're only bringing the butter to room temperature, which means your finger can make an indent, not poke all the way through, an oven that is preheating provides just enough heat to warm up cold butter. To make the process faster and to soften butter evenly, cut the stick of butter up into small cubes first. If you keep your butter in the freezer, take a cheese grater or box grater and grate the butter. The trick is to increase the surface area of the butter so it warms faster.
Pound the butter
Not going to lie, this particular baking tip is as much stress relief as it is a tip on how to soften butter. Put the whole stick of butter in a zip-top bag and then use a rolling pin to pound the butter flat. It only takes a few good whacks, just enough to flatten it out is all you need to warm up the butter.
Warm water bath
You can borrow a version of the double boiler method to get to room temperature butter. Take a saucepan and fill it with hot water. Put the butter in a metal bowl and set the bowl over the saucepan, double boiler style where the bowl doesn't touch the water. The warm water will soften butter quickly; keep an eye on it so it doesn't get too warm. You can also use a large glass measuring cup instead of a saucepan, just make sure it can handle really hot water.
In a warm glass
I think this trick works best if you just need to soften a little bit of hard butter, like to use on dinner rolls instead of for baking. Put small chunks of butter on a flat plate or other surfaces. Take a glass (not a plastic glass) that will fit over the butter, fill it with hot water from the tap and let the water sit in the glass for a minute. Pour the water out and invert the glass over the butter. The ambient heat inside the glass will soften up a little bit of butter just enough to spread nicely on bread.
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