We are all impatient, especially when something seems nonsensical. In my early baking days, I used to think all the extra steps mentioned in a recipe seemed like a waste of time….things like sifting flour and waiting for eggs, butter and milk to come to room temperature before combining them. Why can’t I use the butter or eggs when they are a little cold?
But I have found over the years…IT MAKES A BIG DIFFERENCE. Baking is a science and when you bake a cake with cold butter and eggs…you get a pancake. This is why room temperature butter and eggs are called for, another frustrating concept as room temperature varies from home to home, season and location.
It’s always nice to know “why” we are doing something to get the result we want. So, when it comes to the butter, one of the things that distinguishes it from liquid fats like oil is that butter has the ability to hold air. Recipe directions often say, “to beat the butter into the sugar until light and fluffy”. This creates air bubbles and takes a good 2-3 minutes. The more bubbles you have, the higher your cake will rise. If your butter is too cold, the fat and sugar won’t mix and you will have a flat cake. Butter that is too warm is not good either (don’t soften it in the microwave), it will melt and the bubbles do not have the support they need and will disappear.
The best temperature for butter is about 65o F, slightly cooler than room temperature in many homes. So, to see if your butter is the right temperature, press your thumb firmly into a wrapped stick of butter, there should be a slight indentation, meaning the butter is slightly firm, rather than room temperature. Slightly firm butter is not good for making a pie where the butter needs to be cold to ensure a flaky crust.
As far as the eggs go, they are also important in giving baked goods a lofty rise. An egg white is 90% water and 10% protein, when you beat an egg, it’s the protein that traps the air bubbles. These are the bubbles that expand in the heat of the oven. This is why eggs whites can be whipped to eight times their volume, but they have to be warm to be able to do this. If you incorporate cold eggs to a warm butter-sugar mixture, you end up hardening the fat in the butter, destroying the whole point of creaming them in the first place. However, if your recipe calls for separating the eggs, do it while the eggs are cold, as they will separate better.
So, next time you want to bake, let the science slow you down, as well as the want of tender, less dense baked goods. It’s worth the wait.