This Simple Butter Tip Will Make Your Thanksgiving So Much Better

published Nov 22, 2022
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butter in the bell jar with lid near it
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Brett Regot

I always have plenty of soft, room-temperature butter on hand when I cook Thanksgiving dinner, and not just for slathering on fluffy bread rolls. When I was a student in culinary school, my strict French chef had a rule. (Well, actually he had a lot of rules, but this one was especially enforced.) “Never add cold butter to a sauce,” he’d warn as he strolled by our stovetops, watching us whisk together a steak sauce or peppercorn sauce. Once I understood the reason for this rule, I realized there were so many other cooking tasks that are better with soft butter — and many of them happen during Thanksgiving dinner prep. 

When and Why Do You Need Soft Butter for Cooking?

Sauces

Back to my culinary school rules: Adding soft butter to a pan of sauce will help it emulsify and thicken quicker. In contrast, adding cold butter to a hot pan of drippings, stock, and seasonings, can cause it to break and look oily. The extreme temperature change from fridge-cold to stovetop-hot doesn’t work well when you’re trying to make a creamy, silky sauce or gravy. (Side note, if you aren’t adding a dollop or two of butter to your gravy, I highly recommend doing so.) 

Mashed Potatoes

But even if you don’t plan on making sauces for Thanksgiving dinner, soft butter is essential for some other crucial Turkey Day recipes. I recently read an article right here on Kitchn that recommended adding a little half-and-half to your mashed potatoes to make them extra creamy. So smart. Soft butter is also helpful here! It will melt into the potatoes more uniformly as you mash or whip them, so you get super-smooth results. Fridge-cold butter can work, but you have to make sure your spuds are very hot. I’ve also eaten a lot of mashed potatoes made both ways, and can offer ample anecdotal evidence that room-temp is best. If you want to take it one step further, heat the butter and other dairy before adding it to your mashed potatoes.)

Baking

Room-temperature butter is also a must for some baking recipes; namely the ones that call for creaming butter with sugar, like in sugar cookies. This allows the ingredients to whip together into a fluffy texture that creates tender, cakey baked goods. 


Greasing Casserole Dishes and Baking Pans

Soft butter is also so helpful for preparing casserole dishes and baking pans so food doesn’t stick. Just dab a little on a square of parchment paper or wax paper and smear it in — it’s so much more efficient at getting in the corners than cold butter, and won’t get greasy the way too much cooking spray can. Fun cooking hack: You can also just use the butter wrapper in place of parchment after the butter’s finished.

What’s the Best Way to Store Butter on the Counter?

You can definitely just keep your butter on the counter in its original wrapper. In fact, that’s what I do for a few days leading up to Thanksgiving. (Depending on how many people I’m cooking for, I keep four to six sticks ready to go.) There’s no need to transfer your butter to a fancy serving container if you’re just going to plop it in a pan of potatoes.

But because room-temperature butter is key for spreading on bread, you’ll want an extra stash of the soft stuff in a pretty dish. For Thanksgiving, Christmas dinner, and other special occasions, I love this hammered copper butter cloche from Williams Sonoma. If you prefer rectangular butter dishes that can hold a whole stick of butter, this butter dish from Le Creuset is very pretty. For everyday soft butter (think: morning toast), a French-style butter crock gets the job done and keeps it fresh for longer.

How Long Does Butter Last on the Counter?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, butter is safe to store at room temperature. The USDA does caution that butter goes rancid more quickly on the counter than in the fridge, so they recommend storing it on the counter for “a day or two.”

Your nose will tell you if the butter’s off. You can also look for signs of weeping, which is the fat separating from the milk solids. It’s unlikely that mold will develop on butter left on the counter for half a week, but of course visible mold means you should toss it.

If you have a consistently balmy kitchen (over 70 degrees), the butter will spoil quicker. But unless you’ve had those sticks of butter on your counter for a month leading up to Thanksgiving, it will likely be just fine. Salted butter will last longer than unsalted — salt is a natural preservative.

How Do You Soften Butter Quickly?

If you’re in a pinch and only have cold butter, you can soften it quickly. Using a microwave isn’t ideal, because it’s tricky to nail the time and temperature. Microwaved butter will usually melt around the edges and remain hard in the middle, even with a vigilant eye. Instead, try this other trick approved by my French culinary instructor: pounding it with a rolling pin until it’s soft. Learn more about that technique and other tricks for softening butter quickly.

When Do You Need Cold Butter?

In addition to room-temp butter, I keep my fridge stocked with butter, too. Cold butter is essential for making pie dough with flaky layers