You need softened butter — and you need it now. Do you risk it all and microwave it? Do you rearrange your schedule and wait hours for it to come to room temperature on the counter? Or do you try another hack: a hot water bath or a DIY butter sauna or more?
Countless tips, tricks, and techniques abound to soften butter fast. Some are worth it, and some aren’t. We tested them all to find the best way to soften butter quickly. But first …
How to tell if butter is softened
The best way to tell if butter is perfectly soft is by pressing your finger into it. It should feel like clay — you’re easily able to press an indent, but it has some resistance. The butter should not be greasy, and your finger shouldn’t be able to press all the way through the butter to the surface underneath — if that’s the case, it’s too hot.
Why do you need to use softened butter?
Butter typically needs to be soft when creaming with sugar. During this step, sugar is whipped into the butter, creating little pockets of air from the sugar crystals that lighten and aerate the butter. This translates to pockets of air in the final baked good, which results in fluffier, taller bakes.
If the butter is too cold while creaming, the sugar won’t be able to create air pockets effectively and baked goods will be more dense; if the butter is too hot (and thus too soft), it will not hold its shape and be able to support a network of air pockets from the sugar, again making the baked good dense.
Butter also needs to be soft for other baking steps, like coating flour in a cake made using the reverse-creaming method. If the butter is too hard, it won’t be able to blend into the flour; too soft and it will make the flour mixture greasy. Similar principles apply to making buttercreams or enriched breads, in which you need to beat soft butter into a mixture. It has to hold its shape but blend easily and emulsify into the mixture.
The butter-softening methods
All tests were done using Land O Lakes unsalted butter in a 73°F kitchen. Note that different temperatures and butters with different water content will result in slightly varied time ranges for each of these methods.
First, the classic method, used here as a control:
Left out on the counter
- Method: Leave a stick of butter out on the counter
- Total time: 2 to 5 hours, depending on the temperature in your kitchen
- Verdict: It’s hard to mess up and get your butter too soft (unless your kitchen is very hot) and doesn’t require any active work. However, this method takes a long time and requires planning ahead, limiting spontaneous baking.
- Rating: 6.5/10
To speed up softening on the countertop, some bakers recommend slicing your butter to expose more surface area and bring it to room temperature more quickly:
Sliced and left out on the counter
- Method: Slice the butter, then leave out on a plate
- Total time: 30 minutes
- Verdict: While this is quicker than leaving out a full stick of butter on the counter, it still involves some waiting. However, it’s hard to overdo it and get your butter too soft, which is a benefit.
- Rating: 7.5/10
Other bakers laud different hacks that create a warm environment for butter to quickly soften. We tried those out:
Hot water bowl
- Method: Pour hot water from a kettle into a bowl, let sit for roughly two minutes, then dump out the water and place the overturned bowl over the butter for approximately 10 minutes
- Total time: 12 minutes
- Verdict: This method did not thoroughly soften the butter — the interior was still hard and cold. It’s clunky to have to set two timers (wait for the water in the bowl, then the bowl over the butter), and 12 minutes is still a while to wait.
- Rating: 4/10
Hot water bath
- Method: Place wrapped stick in a bowl of barely warm tap water for 10 to 15 minutes
- Total time: 10 to 15 minutes
- Verdict: This method is surprisingly hard to nail — if the water is slightly too hot, the butter can easily get overly soft and greasy. What’s more, the stick of butter inconsistently softened — it was warm and extremely soft on the outside, and still cool and firm on the inside.
- Rating: 5/10
- Method: Microwave a cup of water for two minutes until very hot, then place sliced butter in the empty, turned off microwave for 10 minutes
- Total time: 12 minutes
- Verdict: Butter was reasonably soft. The two-step process is a little clunky, and 12 minutes is still a while to wait.
- Rating: 6.5/10
And then there’s the microwave. Everyone says you shouldn’t microwave your butter to soften it, but are they just being dramatic?
- Method: Place the stick of butter horizontally on a plate, and microwave in 5-second intervals, rotating a quarter turn each time
- Total time: Roughly 20 seconds
- Verdict: Butter was unevenly softened — some patches were greasy, others slightly too hard. It’s very easy to overdo it and get your butter too soft.
- Rating: 5.5/10
- Method: Stand a stick of butter on its end (so it’s vertical) on a plate and microwave for 8 seconds; flip so it’s standing on its other end, then microwave 8 more seconds
- Total time: 16 seconds
- Verdict: Completely and evenly softened, without any greasy sections or cold, hard sections. Mine got a little too soft; next time, I’ll try 7 seconds on each side.
- Rating: 9/10
The best way to soften butter quickly involves your microwave (shocker!)
That’s right: After testing, our favorite method involves microwaving butter, but in a very specific way. It has to be placed vertically, which exposes more surface area and results in even softening, without patches of hot and cold spots. And it all takes less than 20 seconds, so you can pick a recipe and start baking within minutes.
Note: All microwaves are different, so play around with a few seconds more or less to determine the perfect setting for your butter. These tests were conducted in a 1000-watt microwave.
If you don’t have access to a microwave, we recommend slicing butter and leaving it on the counter. You can use the 30 minutes or so it takes to soften to prepare your mise en place and get organized to bake.
And remember, if you accidentally go too far with any of these methods and end up with butter that’s halfway to melting, we have several recipes that call for melted butter. Try Melted Butter Pie Crust, Crumpets, or Rye Chocolate Chip Cookies. And if your plans change and you’re wondering if you can put softened butter back in the fridge — we’ve got the answer here.
Cover photo by Rick Holbrook; food styling by Kaitlin Wayne.