You might have noticed that when a recipe needs butter to be creamed, I always write that it has to be “softened” rather than the conventional “at room temperature.” In fact, I always scoff inwardly when I read baking recipes that call for all the ingredients to be at room temperature. So what is this mysterious room whose magical temperature we all need to bake at?
Wikipedia says that room temperature is around 25°C (77°F). My kitchen will never be at that temperature unless the air-conditioning is turned on. Where I live, the temperature almost never dips below 28°C (82°F). Maybe unless it’s the dead of the night. And it’s windy. And it’s been raining heavily. For several days and nights.
We have another problem for us tropical bakers. Butter begins melting at 32°C, which is the average temperature during the day here. If you let butter sit until it’s on the verge of turning into a puddle of molten fat, you’ll never be able to cream properly. It’s not a devastating consequence, but your cakes will never be as light or tender as they could’ve been. They might even sink a little in the middle.
And don’t get me started on buttercream icings. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to scream in frustration when icing begins to slide off the sides of my cake.
You could try replacing butter with shortening, which melts at 37°C (98°F), so it’s definitely going to stay solid for longer. That works out well for buttercream icings. The problem is, shortening tastes nothing like butter. All-shortening icings look great and are easy to work with, but they just lack in the flavour department. You can substitute up to half of the butter in an icing recipe for shortening to get the best of both worlds.
But what about recipes where only butter will do? I suppose you could turn on the air-conditioning, but that’s rather extravagant. The trick is to catch the butter at the moment when it’s had enough time out of the fridge for creaming with sugar.
That’s why I prefer using the word “softened.” It gives you the impression that your pack of butter should not be a hard frozen brick, but just give way when you give it a gentle squeeze. And that’s when butter will be perfect for most cake recipes. If it collapses too easily under finger-pressure, you might have let it sit outside for too long, so pop it back in the fridge for about 10 minutes.
What about recipes that call for cold butter, like pastries and cut-out cookies? It can be a nightmare working with dough heavy in butter because trying to pick it up in a warm kitchen can make it disintegrate faster than a shirt living in a moth colony. What can you do? I think I’ll save that for another Basics post because this one’s getting too long.