Butter is a magical ingredient in the kitchen. This block of gold is literally worth its weight in gold when it comes to texture and flavour.
However, one size does not fit all when baking with butter. The temperature and texture of butter makes a huge difference in how your baking turns out.
Today’s post is covering all you need to know when baking with butter.
Baking with butter
How Butter is Made
To make butter, first you need cream. Cream is the fattiest component of milk. If you leave non-homogenised milk to stand undisturbed, cream will rise to the top and form a layer. From there it can be skimmed off and used separately. In the supermarkets, the milk usually sold there is homogenised. Homogenised milk goes through a process of emulsion, where this separation no longer occurs.
Full cream should contain at least 36% milk fat. From this cream, butter can be made by churning the cream so that the butterfat in the cream separates away, leaving behind a liquid called buttermilk. The fat that has separated is what forms the butter, along with milk proteins and water. Butter is an emulsion of fat, protein and water that stays solid when chilled, but softens at room temperature.
The amount of butterfat in a block of butter can change. A standard block of butter at the supermarket contains around 80% butterfat, while a European butter can contain up to 85% butterfat. The more butterfat, the less liquid. In cakes and cookies, the difference between these butterfat percentages is negligible, but this extra butterfat can make a real difference in flaky butter pastries. For croissants and other pastry, the more butterfat, the better.
Types of Butter
The most common types of butter you will come across are; salted butter, unsalted butter, cultured butter and clarified butter.
Salted butter is made with flavour and longevity in mind. The addition of a little bit of salt to the butter helps to increase the flavour as well as the butter shelf life. How much salt is added to the butter really depends on the maker of the butter, but the salt content is usually around 1.5%.
Unsalted butter is of course, butter without this extra addition of salt. It has a shorter shelf-life than salted butter.
Using salted butter vs unsalted butter in baking
Using unsalted butter in baking gives you the most control in the salt content of your baked goods. However, if your recipe calls for unsalted butter but you only have salted, don’t worry. A baking recipe will likely have an addition of salt somewhere in the ingredients, so you can just reduce this to combat the addition of salt that the salted butter brings.
Cultured Butter (European butter)
Cultured butter, otherwise known as European butter, has cultures added to the cream first (usually through cultured sour cream, or yogurt), so that it undergoes a fermenting process. The end result has a tangier taste than traditional butter. This type of butter is delicious as is, so it is delicious enjoyed fresh, with bread. The extra butterfat in the cultured butter makes it a good choice for pastries too.
Butter that has undergone a heating process to remove the majority of water and milk solids is called clarified butter. What is left is nearly pure butterfat. Clarified butter has a higher smoke point than regular butter and is great to use in cooking.
What does butter bring to baking?
Well it brings taste, obviously, but so much more than that. Butter is responsible for texture in baked goods too. The texture is very dependant on the temperature and the handling of the butter. It depends on whether the butter has been creamed, melted, or left cold.
Butter temperature plays a huge role in the end result of your baked goods. There are three main temperatures used in baking.
Room Temperature Butter (a.k.a Softened Butter)
The term for this butter texture and temperature changes depending on what recipe you’re reading, however it’s important to understand what it means. There is a lot of room for error with these terms; what is room temperature? And how soft is too soft?
A ‘softened’ butter’ is one that sits at around 65-67 °F, (18-19 °C.) It needs to hold its shape well. If you press a finger into the block it will leave a light indent but it should still be fairly firm. This butter will usually need to be creamed in a recipe, along with sugar, which means air is whipped into it.
The butter needs to be just softened enough to cream, but firm enough to hold these pockets of air.
What does creamed butter do in baking?
Creamed butter gives a light and tender texture to cakes and cookies. When a recipe calls for creamed butter (usually alongside sugar), it’s relying on the butter being whipped until it’s pale and light, so that the mixture is airy and the sugar has been evenly dispersed. This is a crucial step that is often overlooked or just cut short.
The butter and sugar should be beaten together until the mixture is light and airy in texture, and paler in colour. This can take anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes, depending on whether you are beating by hand or with a mixer.
When a baking recipes calls for melted butter, the butter is usually gently warmed until melted then left to cool before the remaining ingredients are added.
Sometimes, the butter can be melted and cook a little further, so that the milk solids in the butter caramelise. This is called brown butter, and it adds a nutty and butterscotch taste to the butter.
What does melted butter do in baking?
Melted butter gives a chewy texture to baked goods and it’s commonly used in cookies and brownies.
When a recipe calls for cold butter, it’s really important that this step is followed. Usually pastries and scones need cold butter. A recipe like this that requires cannot have the butter melt into the dough, or the texture will be ruined.
What does cold butter do in baking?
Cold butter is responsible for creating light and flaky baked goods such as scones and pastry. When cold butter in a dough meets the heat of an oven, the water in the butter evaporates and creates a leavening effect.
In scones or short crust pastry, cold butter is cut or grated into the flour so it stays in small bread-crumb sized pieces.
In puff pastry or croissant dough, the dough is laminated. This means cool butter is rolled in between layers of dough until it’s evenly distributed. The butter while it is being rolled needs to be cool but still pliable to do this. Laminating dough takes a bit of practice because it’s getting the right balance of pliability in the butter so that it can roll without shattering, but still cool so that it cannot melt into the dough. It needs to sit in a super thin layers between the dough.
As it heats in the oven, the evaporating water from the butter creates steam to lift these layers.