We Softened Butter 7 Different Ways and Found an Unexpected Favorite
Softening butter is nothing to sneeze at — this crucial step can make or break your cake or cookies. If it’s not soft enough, the butter won’t cream well with the sugar (frequently the first step of baking recipes); it simply won’t get to the right light and fluffy consistency. And that could result in dense cake layers that fall flat. On the other hand, if your butter is too soft, your cookies will spread out all over your pan.
There are many celebrated methods for softening butter, most of which are meant to speed up the process. But which ones work best, and how long do they take? To find out, we scoped the internet, chose seven distinct methods, and tested them all on four brands of supermarket butter.
A Few Notes About Methodology
Softened, defined: So that “softened butter” was as objective a goal as possible, we went with the clearly defined parameters given by Cook’s Illustrated: A stick of softened butter is between 65°F and 67°F, and it “easily bends without breaking and gives slightly when pressed.”
Butter: I tested four brands of nationally available supermarket butter: Breakstone’s, Cabot, Kerrygold, and Land O’Lakes. Cabot and Kerrygold have more milk fat (12 grams per tablespoon, as opposed to 11 grams for Breakstone’s and Land O’Lakes), which will affect the rate at which they soften. In fact, Kerrygold feels pretty soft right out of the refrigerator. I used Elgin-style sticks (also know as East Coast butter), because that’s what’s available in Birmingham, Alabama, where I live. And I went with unsalted butter — because that’s what dessert recipes typically call for — and I used a whole stick of unwrapped butter each time.
Temperatures: All the butter came straight out of my fridge right before each test; a refrigerator thermometer showed that the temperature remained a steady 40°F in the fridge. Room temperature in my kitchen was a cozy 72°F. And to test the temperatures of all the butters, I used a Classic Thermapen instant-read thermometer.
Tests: I tested each method four times, using one stick of each brand of butter per test.
Ratings: I rated each softening method of a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 representing perfection. Ease of method, consistency of results, amount of cleanup, and time all factored into my ratings.
Total Time: 20 seconds
About This Method: Okay, we probably all know that trying to soften butter in the microwave is like playing with fire — and you’re likely to get burned (i.e., end up with butter that’s more melted than softened). But I liked the cautious method detailed in the butter-softening roundup from Better Homes & Gardens, which specifies using 30% power for 15 seconds, then checking the consistency, and doing it again. I placed each stick on a piece of parchment paper, set it on my microwave’s rotating plate, and proceeded tentatively.
After 15 seconds in my 1100-watt microwave, none of the butters reached peak softness. They ranged in temperature from 55°F (Kerrygold) to 60°F (Breakstone’s). With each butter, I cautiously proceeded at 5-second intervals in an attempt to reach the sweet spot of 65°F to 67°F. All but one went from under-softened to melting-at-the-edges way too quickly. Interestingly enough, I was able to get to a perfect 66°F with Cabot butter after 25 seconds total.
My Takeaway: Microwaves are too unpredictable to make this a reliable method. It’s simply too easy to go too far too quickly. And once you’ve gone too far, your butter is toast, so to speak — you’ll need to start over with a new stick.
Method: Tepid Water
Total Time: 9 to 30 minutes
About This Method: As explained in a roundup by Epicurious, you place a stick of butter in a zip-top bag, squeeze out the air and seal the bag, then submerge it in tepid water — which they define as “a little warmer than room temperature.” I settled on 85°F, which actually still feels rather cool to the touch (it’s nine degrees below body temp) but better fit the definition of “a little warmer.” Then I filled a large bowl with seven cups of water — enough that the butter wouldn’t drastically drop the temperature of the water (a tip I picked up when testing hard-boiled egg methods).
After only nine minutes, the stick of Kerrygold had reached 65°F, but it took Cabot a full 30 minutes (interesting because those are both the higher-fat butters). Regardless, with each type of butter, the outside ended up excessively soft while the core still felt a little firm. I will say, though: It was easier to get the butter out of the bag than I thought it would be, with just a little bit of clingy residue.
My Takeaway: This method does not give even results — the surface of the butter just gets too soft before the center does.
Method: Warm Bowl
Total Time: 35 to 55 minutes (this includes the time it takes to boil water)
About This Method: I started with the brief instructions in the list of softening methods by Food Network Canada, which simply say to “warm up a bowl or cup and place it over top of your butter block.” I needed more to go on so consulted Food & Wine’s exploration of this technique, in which the author specifies pouring boiling water into a glass (I used a bowl), letting it stand five minutes, pouring out the water, and inverting it over a stick of butter.
I was surprised that this method didn’t soften butter more quickly. The Kerrygold butter softened the fastest, after 25 minutes, but the rest took about 35 to 40 minutes. And as with the tepid water method, the exterior was softer than the core. This effect was not nearly as pronounced here, though. Also, keep in mind here that I was softening whole, intact sticks of butter; I am certain that if you cut the butter into pieces, this technique would soften it much faster.
My Takeaway: Since it took five minutes to boil water (in an electric kettle) and five minutes to warm up the bowl, you’re already at 10 minutes before you’ve even unwrapped your butter. This technique is supposed to speed things up — and, granted, it is faster than softening butter at room temperature — but it’s not fast enough to justify the effort involved.
Method: Waiting/Room Temperature
Total Time: 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours
About This Method: We all know this method: Leave the butter out on your counter at room temperature until it’s softened. I placed each unwrapped stick on a piece of parchment paper on a large wooden cutting board. As mentioned in the methodology section, room temperature in my kitchen was 72°F. (In the summertime, with a warmer room temperature, butter will of course soften more quickly.)
The stick of Cabot reached 65°F first, after an hour. Kerrygold was fast on its heels, taking only five minutes longer. Land O’Lakes came next, at an hour and 20 minutes, and Breakstone’s took 1 1/2 hours. This method produced the most even softening of all the whole-stick techniques.
My Takeaway: If you can think ahead to set the butter out (I know, I know — we all forget sometimes. Or most of the time!), this is a foolproof, hands-off method with very little cleanup.
Rating: 7.5/10 (it would get a higher ranking if it didn’t take so long. And if it didn’t completely rely on some good forethought.)
Total Time: 5 minutes
About This Method: I followed Fine Cooking’s method and helpful video, which instruct you to simply take a cold stick of butter and grate it on the large holes of a box grater, then spread the shreds onto a sheet of wax paper or a plate (I opted for the former for easier cleanup) while you gather the rest of your ingredients.
Although I have read about and seen this method demonstrated countless times, I had never tried it before, thinking it would produce too big of a mess. Surprisingly, it didn’t. I used the wrapper to hold the butter as I grated it, and a silicone spatula easily scraped down any shreds that stuck to the grater. After about four minutes, each pile of fluffy butter shreds had reached the perfect temperature.
My Takeaway: Even though the butter needed to sit for a few minutes to reach a minimum of 65°F, it still took only five minutes total (including grating time). This technique is fast and easy and requires just a little cleanup.
Method: Stand Mixer
Total Time: 5 to 7 minutes
About This Method
For this technique, I looked again to the roundup by Epicurious: Cut a stick of butter into pieces (I cut mine into eight pieces, each one-tablespoon big), and place them in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium-low speed for two to three minutes, stop to scrape the sides of the bowl, and beat at medium-low speed for two to three more minutes.
This worked well with each type of butter I used, producing a fluffy, light, softened result. When I took the temperature of the butter, each was just a few degrees shy of the ideal temperature. Kerrygold softened the fastest, taking only five minutes total. The rest took 7 minutes.
My Takeaway: While the butter might not have gotten to the magic temperature of 65°F to 67°F, each was malleable and creamy and seemed softened enough — and already in the mixer, ready to go.
Total Time: 12 minutes
About This Method: Food52’s detailed breakdown of this method goes something like this: Place a stick of (unwrapped) butter between two pieces of plastic wrap, place it on a cool surface (I used a marble board), and beat it with a rolling pin to flatten it. Flip the butter over (still in the plastic wrap) and whack it until it’s 1/2-inch thick. Uncover and fold the butter into halves or thirds, recover, and beat it again until it’s pliable. Then roll it (still between plastic wrap) to a thickness of 1/4 inch. Let the butter rest for five minutes, then flip it over and move it to a different spot on the surface and let rest another five minutes. Then peel away the plastic wrap and proceed.
Each type of butter was magically — and perfectly — at 65°F or 66°F after following these steps, which are simpler than they seem and fun to follow. Cleanup was a breeze, as the plastic wrap easily released off the butter.
My Takeaway: I loved this method for two reasons. First, it produced perfect results — each time, the butter was at exactly the right temperature and texture. Second, it was really fun and, as corny as this may sound, made me feel really involved. Even though I often prize techniques that are hands-off, I loved this one because it wasn’t. I was intimately involved in the process because I felt the butter changing under my hand with each cathartic whack of the rolling pin. It was very, very satisfying.