Butter is a vital ingredient in many baked items, from cookies to cakes. It is rich, creamy and contributes a one-of-a-kind flavor to everything from sauces to cakes. In baking, it adds flavor, texture and moisture, and can improve freshness. Butter is by far the preferred fat when it comes to baking, but there are a few decent substitutes which have become more common in the past ten years or so.
Composition of Butter
Most butter available in stores today is produced from cow’s milk, although butter from goats, camels and buffalo is also made around the world. Butter typically contains about 80 percent fat, no more than 16 percent water and 2 percent milk solids. The color of butter varies from creamy white to yellow, and often depends on the diet of the animal that produced it. Many manufacturers add a coloring agent to butter to maintain a consistent yellow color. Sometimes salt is also added.
Choosing the Right Butter
Butter is available salted or unsalted. Salt is a preservative, and salted butter will thereby last up to five months in the refrigerator. Unsalted butter, also called sweet butter, has no preservatives, and its shelf life is about three months. Unsalted butter is preferred in baking, since the presence of salt in a recipe that does not call for salt can toughen the gluten in the flour, resulting in a less-than-tender consistency in your baked goods. If you do use salted butter, it is important to omit the extra salt listed in the recipe. Salt can sometimes mask the butter’s sweet flavor, so be aware of this when baking delicate recipes like angel food cake or sugar cookies.
Butter at Different Temperatures
The temperature of butter is usually noted in a recipe, as the temperature has a huge impact on the consistency of the dough or batter you make.
Melting butter is usually reserved for cooking sauces or pan-frying meats, although sometimes melted butter is used in baking recipes, too. Melted butter is helpful for adding small amounts of flavorful moisture to dry ingredients, such as when making a cookie or graham cracker crust.
Room temperature butter.
Recipes call for room temperature butter when the recipe requires creaming butter and sugar. Creaming butter with sugar incorporates air to help with the rising process during baking. Room temperature butter should be between 65°F and 70°F, a temperature that allows for the maximum amount of air to be beaten into the butter during creaming. This is also known as “softened butter.”
Cold butter is used for some baking applications, specifically pie crust. Using cold butter means that the flour absorbs less of the butter to create a flaky, crusty consistency in the pie crust.
Substitutions for Butter
Nothing can come close to the rich, creamy flavor that butter can offer a recipe. However, there may be a need to replace butter with another ingredient, in which case there are a few items that can offer reasonable substitutions.
Whipped butter is butter that has been manufactured with air whipped into it to increase volume. This is made for spreading, not for baking. Always use stick butter when baking.
Part of the reason butter is so important in baking recipes is due to a single process: creaming the butter and sugar. This involves beating the butter and sugar together for three to five minutes or until fluffy. The sugar granules cut into the butter, incorporating air for a creamy texture that will rise during baking. Margarine is the closest substitute for butter, with the same ratio of fats to water, but made from vegetable oils—corn, sunflower or safflower oil—which eliminates saturated fats and may lower cholesterol. However, margarine is also usually high in trans fats, which may be even more harmful than saturated fat.
Shortening is pure fat and has no flavor, but its creaminess often makes it easier to work with than butter. However, shortening does not have the “melt-in-your-mouth” flavor that butter does, and icing made with shortening can sometimes taste overly greasy. Shortening is also pure fat, while butter is only 80 percent fat. Thus, butter inherently adds more water to the recipe, and substituting shortening might affect the outcome of the recipe.
Replacing oil for butter in baking recipes is recommended most for those recipes that include liquid forms of sugar—honey, molasses, and maple syrup, for example. This is because these recipes probably do not require “creaming” butter and sugar together. Creaming oil and sugar will not achieve the same result that creaming butter and sugar will. Oil can be used in cakes that have a liquid sweetener, a solid fat such as nuts, and an emulsifying agent such as eggs or egg whites. This helps the ingredients bind together and fosters a better rise during baking.
Butter should be stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator if possible, although many people store their butter in a compartment in the refrigerator door. Cold temperatures help keep the butter fresher longer. Be sure to store the butter in well-wrapped foil, which protects it from light and air which can cause it to go bad more quickly. For reference, fresh butter is the same color on the outside as it is on the inside. Darker colors on the outside mean the butter has oxidized and is no longer fresh. Butter also needs to be stored far from odorous foods like onions and garlic. Butter can easily absorb these smells, which will ruin a stick of butter meant for baking a cake. Butter can be frozen to preserve it even longer, but freezing and then thawing butter is not ideal for use in baking, since the consistency can be negatively affected by the extreme temperature change.