For many new bakers and a few veterans, too, cakes are some of the first baked goods we make on our own. We may start with a mix, but then when we realize how easy a cake can be, we branch out to from-scratch cakes and encounter a deceptively simple direction right off the bat.
"Cream the softened butter and sugar until light and fluffy."
In creaming the butter and sugar together, you are using the sugar to aerate the butter and fill it with bubbles that can capture the gasses released by your leavener. The more fine bubbles you have in your network, the lighter in texture your cakes will be and the finer the crumb. This is true for your muffins as well, while it makes your cookies light and crisp instead of hard and dense.
Just like Goldilocks, we can encounter a variety of issues when dealing with this phrase. Too hard, too soft, and just right. Just what does softened butter look like? Should it be melted?How long do you beat? Should I set my mixer to low or high? How do I know when it's RIGHT?!
We've assembled not only some excellent photos, but an incredibly helpful video to get you on the right track for perfectly creamed butter and sugar every time. This is one of a new series of videos with our own Gwen Adams, associate editor of Sift magazine, and a frequent blog contributor.
The butter on the left is just right. Notice how the spreader sinks in a bit, but the butter still has structure and solidity.
It was left out a room temperature for an hour before using. Keep in mind the timing will vary depending on how warm or cool the kitchen is. Planning for 30 to 60 minutes of softening time should get you to the right spot on most baking days.
The butter at top right is too cold and firm. It came straight from the refrigerator set at 40°F. The bottom-right butter was microwaved for 30 seconds and is far too warm.
Next, let's explore what will happen if you cream your sugar with these butters. Up first, butter that's too cold.
Again, the main reason you want to cream butter and sugar is to use the sugar crystals to punch little holes in the butter and have those holes capture air. Butter that is too cold won't expand very easily and it'll never capture much air.
The result? Heavy and dense, the creamed butter will resemble chunky, grainy spread the consistency of natural peanut butter. There's also little or no change in color. Properly creamed butter and sugar will be pale yellow in color, but not white (more on this later).
If the butter is too soft or melted, the air bubbles will be created but then will collapse again. This causes a greasy, wet mixture that will result in heavy, soggy cakes. Any air bubbles you've managed to create will also be knocked out as soon as the eggs and flour are added.
Notice how smeared the mixture is around the edge of the bowl. This makes it much harder for it to incorporate into the other ingredients, too. You have to repeatedly scrape down the bowl as the oilier butter resists releasing from the bowl.
As a side note, this is also what happens if you try to cream oil and sugar. Leave the oil for recipes that don't call for the creaming method.
Now that we've seen both extremes, let's check out the results when the butter is at the right temperature.
There we have it. The mixture is lightened in color, it's visibly fluffy, and it's not clinging to the sides of the bowl.
Let's look at the three results side by side. Starting on the left: too cold and the mixture sits in a lump. Too warm, and the mixture spreads out and has an oily layer. Finally, properly creamed, the mixture sits up tall and has visible fluffy peaks.
Besides looks, the feel of each mixture will be different as well. Under-creamed and your mix will feel like wet sand or damp cornmeal. Over-creamed, and your mix will have the feel of oil and sugar on your fingers, rather like a facial scrub.
Your well-creamed mix will be moist and light and the sugar will be nearly dissolved. You'll barely feel any grit when you rub it between your fingers.
Of course, having the softened butter is just one part of the equation, albeit a big one. Mixing at too high or too low a speed and for too short or long a time will also wreak havoc with your creaming.
With the advent of the more powerful stand mixers that we use today, gone are the days of having to whip the butter and sugar mixture on high speed for several minutes to achieve good results.
Instead, a moderate speed (typically speed 3-4 on a stand mixer) for 2 to 3 minutes is sufficient to get the aeration you're looking for.
In the photo above, the softened butter and sugar were beaten together at high speed (10 on our KitchenAid stand mixer) for 5 minutes. You can see it's nearly pure white compared to the original color of the butter used. Sorry, fellow bakers, if it's gone this far there's no going back.
If you've ever had dense, gummy streaks in your cake, this is your culprit: over-creaming.
A member of our Baker's Hotline team, pastry chef JoAnn, recommends saving it, though, by adding some cinnamon or other favorite spice and using it for a sweet spread on your toast, pancakes, or strata.
Not too hard, not too soft, but just, just right.
We hope you've found this information helpful. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, and we hope these photos and our video will help you achieve the cakes and bakes of your dreams.