Baking Basics - How Butter Affects Baking
Have you ever wondered why the same recipe can give you different results? Quite often, it's the result of the ingredients being used. In today's tip Thursday, we will discuss how butter affects baking. I have a few tips that I know will help you with all your future baking.
- Have you ever decided to bake cookies at the last minute?
Then you realize the butter is too hard. So, you stick it in the microwave but instead of putting it in for 10 or 15 seconds you put it in for 30 seconds. Then, you realize that part of the butter is way too melted and some of it is still quite firm? Me too!! More often than I'd like to admit.
- Have you ever made a cookie recipe that was not supposed to spread and yet the cookies spread too much? Or cookies that are too dry and crumbly?
Did you know that quite often your butter is the main culprit?
- Do you wonder why we use butter in cakes? What butter does to cakes or cupcakes?
I started baking at a very young age and have learned a lot in baking by trial and error as well as my fair share of failures. Lucky for me, I am a person who questions and learns from my mistakes. That is why every time I fail, instead of blaming the recipe, I look for things that could be wrong with the ingredients. For example, my macarons have the same ingredients and same measure every single time, and yet there have been times when I've never got the results I was expecting.
Speaking of my trials, errors, and failures, I can tell you that I have learned so much over the years. So, today I want to help you understand how your ingredients affect your baking. Today's tip Thursday is dedicated to the topic - How butter affects baking - especially cookies.
How butter affects baking (Save/Pin)
Butter is made from cream. You can make homemade butter by simply churning cream until it separates into liquid and solid. The liquid is buttermilk while the solid is butter. Butter is naturally unsalted and the salt is added later for preservation. The churning decides how much liquid you keep in the butter. Often, homemade butter has less fat content and more liquid, so it's best to use on toast or for simple cakes. Store-bought butter with high-fat content has a longer shelf-life than homemade butter. For the best-baked good, choose as much high-fat content as possible.
Butter vs. shortening or margarine
Butter adds flavor to cookies. That is why we always prefer butter over margarine or vegetable shortening, etc. But butter has a lower melting point than shortening or margarine. That is why butter cookies spread a lot more than cookies made with shortening. So, if you want a thin spread-out cookie, definitely go with butter. But if you are looking for a firm crisp cookie, try shorting or even margarine.
Different types of butter
You may have noticed that even the type of butter you use can affect your baking. For example, a tender, flaky pie crust or buttery cookies.
That is because some premium kinds of butter have a higher fat content, with less moisture than regular supermarket type butter. These cookies with less-fat content butter will usually be thinner because they spread out more. They will also be more buttery, crisp and crumbly.
If you are making homemade puff pastry, croissant or laminated dough, it is very important to use good European butter because of it's high-fat content. Otherwise, when the butter is spreading during the process you will know the difference. In fact, some European kinds of butter, are already cultured with flour added in them, so you can use them for laminated dough easily.
Salted and unsalted butter
You will notice that most baking recipes will say use unsalted butter. That's because most manufacturers add different quantities of salt, making it hard to decide how much more salt you need. So, the best practice with baking cookies, or any dessert for that matter, is to use unsalted butter. This keeps you in control of how much salt is in there.
Let's talk about the two common non-butter ingredients
Butter and margarine my have similarities and even look alike but they are completely different. Butter is a dairy product while margarine is not.
Margarine is made from an emulsion of vegetable or animal oil. So it mostly oil, water, salt, and a few other emulsifiers. It can be found in many flavors. It is not recommended in baking because it has as little as 35% fat and the rest is water. You can find some brands with higher fats.
Butter has cholesterol and saturated fat while margarine has polyunsaturated, monosaturated, and trans fats. That is why butter is firmer at room temperature than margarine. But most importantly it is the saturated fat in butter that keeps the bonds tightly when the heat is applied. This is desirable when baking.
- Baked goods with margarine are softer than made with butter.
- Frosting made with margarine is greasier because the oil separates as the emulsification breaks down.
- Sauces curdle easily as the emulsification breaks when heated.
- Cakes can sink due to the high water content (remember margarine is only 35% fat - the rest is water)
Shortening such as Crisco is mostly all oil made from soybeans, palm oil, etc. It is 100% hydrogenated oil which is why it is solid at room temperature.
Butter and shortening are often used interchangeably but they can produce completely different baked goods. Butter has a low melting point compared to shortening. For example,
- Cookies can be dense and heavy but also crispier.
- Cakes can be less light and airy compared to butter. Mostly because creamed butter and sugar creates steam when baking shortening doesn't.
- Buttercream works better with shortening compared to butter in hot weather because of its low melting point.
While often you can use butter and shortening it is only recommended to use in recipes that have been tested and tired with shortening.
Butter in Recipes
Flavor and moisture are the two most common effects of butter on our baked goods for cakes, cookies, pastries. When using butter for other foods like meat and starches, butter does a great job of coating and adding crispness too.
When making cakes and cookies, creaming butter with sugar means the small grains of sugar cut into the fat in butter. Air is incorporated in the creaming process which gives us our leavening. This creaming process results in steam created by the hot air in the baked goods when baking.
Having said that, even when you do not cream the butter and sugar, butter creates steam in the oven because it has both fat and moisture. This has a wonderful effect on our puff pastry, croissant, and other similar baked goods.
So, you see that steam works differently in different baked goods.
Why should we use butter in baking?
Quite simply, butter provides a richer flavor. It has a higher fat content compared to margarine or oil. Remember margarine is vegetable fat and contains more moisture than butter.
What type of butter to use?
As we discussed above there are different types of butter. Some with more fat content, more moisture, and so forth. While regular butter is great for everyday baking, try using European butter with high-fat content and less moisture for things likes, pies, tarts, and pastries like puff pastry, croissants, and danishes. While the flavor is superior, it is also easier to work with. Avoid salted butter when baking because no one likes extra salt in their baked goods.
Why butter temperature matters?
- Creaming butter with other ingredients creates steam in batters and doughs. This creaming works best when the butter is room temperature.
- Similarly, cold butter works best when making pies, shortcrust pastry, and tarts. The butter cuts into the flour creating a flakier crust.
What is the right temperature for butter?
- What is firm room temperature?
It’s soft but still holds its shape. When you indent your finger in it – it will make a hole but not spread.
- What is soft room temperature?
Typically happens quicky in places with high humidity. The butter has softened to almost to a melt. If you indent your finger in it will spread. This should not be used.
Typically, butter should be still cold but not hard. If you press your finger in it it should indent the butter. Butter takes about 30 to 40 minutes to come to room temperature in most kitchens.
How to soften butter quicky?
Here's how I soften my butter quickly and easily.
- Fill a glass bowl with hot water and let sit for 3 to 5 minutes ( I use water from my water boiler)
- Roughly cut the block of butter into small cubes - still on its paper or plate.
- Pour the hot water out.
- Invert the hot bowl over the butter
- Let sit for 5 minutes - or until the bowl cools
- This usually does the job unless your pile of butter is too much.
- If necessary do this again. ( you can have a second bowl of water ready while the first is being use)
Tips for baking cookies with butter
- Always, soften butter to room temperature – The butter must be firm room temperature, not soft room temperature.
When creaming firm room temperature butter – it will start slow but it will cream beautifully.
You must cream it for about 2 to 3 minutes.
- When creaming soft room temperature butter, it will cream very fast into a sloppy mixture, struggling to combine the sugar. Cookies with this mixture will spread more easily. Furthermore, if you cream this for 2 to 3 minutes you will most definitely have flat spread-out cookies.
- Cookies with soft butter will be chewier.
- Dry and crumbly cookies most often can be the result of not creaming your butter and sugar. This results in sugar granules that melt in the cookie making them crumbly and eventually dry.
- A good practice is to chill your cookies before you bake them (this is for most cookies unless the recipe states otherwise).
This helps the cookies hold their shape better as the butter firms up and the flours absorb the moisture in the cookie. Thus giving you a better texture in the cookies.
Tips for baking cakes with Butter
- Use good quality butter for superior flavor
- Make sure the butter is at the right temperature - mostly room temperature.
- Don't skip on the process of creaming the butter. It is an important part of leavening.
- Ensure eggs are room temperature when added to the batter. Cold eggs can cause the butter to curdle
- Add eggs one at a time so each egg is well combined - this also prevents curding and helps keep that volume.
- Always scrape the sides of the bowl so you don't have blocks of butter in the final batter.
- Add flour and liquid in three batches and simultaneously so it does not break down the butter causing all the incorporated air to be lost.
- Butter and flour your baking pans - don't skip on the flour. The flour helps the butter create that non-stick surface which helps the batter rise evenly.
- Butter cakes are done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes clean.
- Most butter-based cakes also leave the sides of the pan when baked.
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