What “Room Temperature” Really Means (And Why it Matters)

updated Mar 11, 2024
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A stick of butter on its open wrapping with eggs and measuring cups in the background
Credit: Joe Lingeman

I don’t know about you, but if someone asked me what temperature it usually is in my kitchen, I’d be stumped. Knowing what ’room temperature’ really means, however, can be an important part of cooking. Many recipes call for ingredients to be at room temperature, which can affect how they behave in that recipe.

What Is Room Temperature?

According to Cook’s Illustrated’s The Science of Good Cooking, room temperature is an environment that is 70° Fahrenheit or 21° Celsius.

Why is Bringing Ingredients to Room Temperature Important?

Knowing standard room temperature is very useful when cooking. If you know the actual temperature in your kitchen, you can compare it against standard room temperature and make any necessary adjustments.

For example, you can move things that will melt or be jeopardized by too-warm temperatures (like pie dough) to cooler locations, or refrigerate or freeze briefly first before working with them. Conversely, you can find warmer spots if you need to let dough rise or food to stay warm. 

Using ingredients at room temperature can have distinct advantages, especially in baking recipes. Eggs and butter are easier to incorporate into doughs and batters when they’re not straight out of the fridge. Cold milk or water can slow down the yeast in doughs. Taking the extra step to get ingredients to the temperature called for in a recipe can help you get the desired results.

Tips for Bringing Common Ingredients to Room Temperature Quickly

You won’t always have the time to wait for refrigerated ingredients to come up to room temperature. I, for instance, almost never remember to take butter out before baking. Never fear, we’ve compiled a few methods for warming ingredients up fast, so you can get cooking.

  • Eggs: To bring cold eggs up to room temperature, put them in a bowl and cover them with warm tap water. Do this first thing when you walk into the kitchen and the eggs are at a perfect temperature by the time we finish gathering the rest of the ingredients.
  • Butter: There are many different methods for getting butter to room temperature, but if you’re in a hurry pour some boiling water into a heat-proof glass, dump it out, and then invert the glass over the butter and let it sit for a few minutes. 
  • Milk, Cream, or Buttermilk: A quick trip to the microwave at a low setting is an easy way to warm up milk (or other dairy). If your microwave doesn’t have temperature controls, heat in short bursts of 15 to 30 seconds and keep a close eye. You can also quickly heat milk on the stovetop in a saucepan over low heat, just be careful it doesn’t scald.
  • Cream Cheese: This ingredient can be softened quickly in the microwave at a low temperature setting, but you run the risk of melting it completely, so heat in short bursts and watch it carefully. If you have a little extra time, you can cut the cream cheese into small pieces and spread them out on a plate or cutting board, which will help it soften faster than in a large block.