Here’s When You Really Need to Soften Oil

There is no more frustrating baking experience than the realization that you forgot to soften the butter. If you want to eat the cake as soon as possible, you may be wondering: does this butter really need to be at room temperature, and if not, can I just melt it?

First things first: never bake in ghee unless a recipe requires it. Although we think of it as pure and tasty fat, butter is actually an emulsion of fat, milk solids (protein), and water. It mixes evenly with dough and batter only if it is completely emulsified, and melting breaks this emulsion. This is why replacing fried butter with softened butter can result in flat, greasy baked goods. It’s like using vinaigrette instead of mayonnaise and wondering why your spinach and artichoke sauce is so greasy.

So there is no ghee, but cold butter is actually fine for at least some applications. It depends on what you combine it with and how. For a standard butter and sugar base, I usually add the refrigerated butter directly to the mixer and beat for a couple of minutes to heat up. When it’s soft and tender, I add sugar and start the recipe. (The same strategy works with food processors and hand mixers, although the latter may take a little longer.) But adding cold butter to softer, softer ingredients like brioche dough, cream cheese, or meringue doesn’t work at all. This will end up with tiny balls of solid butter that will not disperse without mixing.

A basic rule of thumb: If the recipe starts with butter and sugar, cold is fine – just be sure to beat the butter a little to keep it warm. If you add oil to anything else, it should be at room temperature. However, this shouldn’t interfere with your baking schedule. I soften the butter by heating whole sticks in the microwave for 5-10 seconds on each side; it works great and takes less than a minute. Or, simply cut the butter into slices and set aside. It will be ready in 10-20 minutes, depending on the temperature in your kitchen, which is enough to get the rest of your scraps together .

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