Whether softened or cold or room temperature, applying the right kind of butter can be surprisingly tricky
In pretty much every baking recipe, no matter the diversity of the ingredients or range of final products, you can almost guarantee one thing: If the recipe calls for butter, you’re going to be told what temperature that butter should be. In pie, butter must be refrigerator-cold. In cookies, for the purpose of creaming with sugar, butter is best at room temperature. In breads — well, that depends. The number of guises butter wears in everyday recipes is enough to make you stare longingly at a bottle of canola oil: If we only used oil for everything, life would be so much simpler. “Butter temperature is really complex,” Jesse Szewczyk, author of the cookbook Cookies: The New Classics, says, and even an experienced baker can get it wrong.
Using butter in cookies
Typically, the first step in making cookie dough is to cream butter with sugar, a process that is a real challenge with cold butter. But the recommendation that you keep butter at room temperature before beginning cookie dough (four hours is a good average metric for how long it will take to warm) is not just so the butter is soft enough to cream. “Room temp butter is able to hold onto air,” Szewczyk says. “You can mechanically shove air into it by creaming. Warm butter is not able to hold onto it, so you’re going to get a denser dough.” When using warmer or melted butter, cookies will struggle to lift and lighten, resulting in a cakier texture, like brownies. For that reason, Szewczyk warns against the common hack of first softening butter in the microwave. “It skews between melted and softened, so the butter is unable to hold as much air.”
Before baking cookies, many recipes will also recommend that you put the cookie dough in the fridge for several hours or overnight. (It’s one of the reasons that you buy cookie dough in the refrigerated aisle of the grocery store.) This, Szewczyk says, is to make sure that your cookies stay plump when baking. “Warm butter will obviously melt faster in the oven and spreads quicker.” If you’re making a cookie dough with a high fat content, it’s important to chill your dough before baking, or else the cookies may not be firm enough to keep their structure when they bake.
Though Szewczyk recommends these steps for cookies generally, his book’s recipes actually call for a lot of melted butter. “I would say 75 percent of my cookies are made with melted butter — and people often ask me why,” he says. “It’s because my personal preference is for a denser cookie.”
Using butter in pie dough
Pie dough recipes will almost always require bakers to use refrigerator-cold butter, sometimes even freezer-cold. “I was always taught to use cold butter,” Lisa Ludwinski, owner of Sister Pie bakery and author of Sister Pie: The Recipes and Stories of a Big-Hearted Bakery in Detroit, says of her pie dough process. “When the butter stays cold, it … remains in there as its own private fat structure.” Once the pie dough hits the hot oven, the butter melts and creates steam, and that’s how those delicious flaky layers are created. “I want the butter to stay intact and I want it to stay separate from the other ingredients,” Ludwinski says.
It would be natural to think that if pie dough requires cold butter, why not go the extra step and put it in the freezer? “It’s harder to work with when it’s frozen — you could potentially be elongating the process,” Ludwinski says. Some recipes ask that you freeze your butter, then grate it in with a cheese grater, making the process simpler than working with frozen butter by hand, though that leads to a slightly less flaky dough. And incorporating cold butter can be tricky. “If the flour is still kind of silky, then I know I need to continue to work it a bit longer,” Ludwinski says. “Once I feel there are tiny pieces of fat throughout all of the flour, that’s when I know [it’s ready].”
Using butter in breads
Though there are countless breads that don’t call for fat, breads that do — called “enriched breads” in the biz — include a range of instructions and requirements on how to incorporate butter into dough. Kristina Cho, author of Mooncakes & Milk Bread, says that her milk bread recipe uses room temperature butter to help get that signature cotton candy texture in the crumb. When using butter, “I have two decisions I’m making: How is the butter being incorporated and how do I want the butter to affect the final texture?”
Many brioche doughs will call for cold butter chunks to be thrown into the stand mixer while the dough is being mixed, but Cho prefers using room temperature butter for her milk bread since cold butter means you have to knead your dough for longer, which can make breads tougher and less plush. “I admit I haven’t made brioche too many times; my life has revolved around milk bread,” Cho says. “Bread tends to proof better at a warmer temperature. When you start to incorporate cold eggs, cold milk, cold butter, it brings your dough temperature down. It can affect your overall proof environment.”
And finally, a note on brown butter
No matter the baked good, it’s important to beware the siren song of browned butter. Browned butter is the byproduct of melting and cooking butter on the stove, a process that evaporates much of the water content and gives the butter a nutty, rich flavor. But while the depth of flavor may be an appealing addition to baked goods like cookies and enriched bread doughs, Szewczyk reminds bakers to be wary of using browned butter when it’s not called for. “It’s one of those TikTok hacks that doesn’t pass the test,” he says. “I see a lot of posts that are like, ‘Up your cookie game by adding brown butter.’ That’s really bad advice because the water content is gone. You’re completely changing the texture of the dough.”
If you simply can’t resist the allure of a good TikTok, Szewczyk has one pro tip: “For every stick of butter that you’re browning, try to let the butter cool down a bit and then add one tablespoon of water to the dough. It’ll get you closer to the texture of the original.”
Tiffany Jan is an illustrator and designer in Los Angeles.
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