Without a doubt, using butter as the fat in cookies produces the best product. Most vegetable oils can’t offer the impressive qualities of flavor, creaming, and emulsifying that butter can.
Basically, butter is an emulsion of water in fat, with some dairy solids that help hold them together. When you cream or beat butter, you’re not just softening it or creating unity with the sugar; you’re creating air pockets. Sure, adding baking soda or baking powder helps expand the dough as it bakes, but only via the air pockets you’ve made by creaming the butter.
But what if you’re ready to bake and facing a stick of butter that’s frozen hard? Here are five important butter-softening do’s and don’ts.
Many baking novices are tempted to toss the butter in the microwave. Stop! Butter won’t cream properly once it’s warmer than 68 degrees. Once it starts to melt, the emulsion breaks, never to return.
Why? See above. Plus, butter will start to melt on the edges in the oven while staying cold in the center. This won’t help get the cookie-making started.
Martha Stewart swears that grating ice-cold butter into a bowl will give it just enough softness for creaming. And she’s usually right. Use the large holes on a box grater, not the tiny ones on a microplane.
No box grater? Get a nice sharp paring knife and slice that ice-cold butter into small slivers. Both techniques warm up the butter in two ways: by touching your hands, and by exposing more butter surface to room temperature.
I admit, I’ve done this myself — which is how I know it works. Place the stick of cold butter inside a well-sealed plastic bag and stash the stick between your breasts. (Obviously, this will only work if you are female. Wearing a bra helps, too.) Not only will the butter soften in about 10 minutes, but your hands are free to do other tasks — like measuring the flour and sugar, lodging the beaters in the electric mixer, and locating the vanilla and spices. Plus, the sensation can be quite refreshing if your emotions have heated up over the course of the day.
Take your pick from methods 3, 4, or 5 to soften your butter, then make Gingerbread Molasses Cookies to load up your iron stores and satisfy your sweet tooth. And by the way, it’s definitely worth seeking out the teff flour, which makes them chewy.
A printable recipe can be found on the Cookus website.
Cynthia Lair is an assistant professor at Bastyr University, where she is the director of culinary curriculum. She can be found in print via her two cookbooks, Feeding the Whole Family and Feeding the Young Athlete, and online in the Web cooking show Cookus Interruptus. Watch her TEDx Rainier talk “How to Cut an Onion.”
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