How To: Cream Butter and Sugar
April 1, 2012 § 1 Comment
To cream butter and sugar is to beat softened butter and sugar until the mixture gets light and “fluffy”. Most cake recipes begin with this step.
But why can’t you just melt the damn butter? Why this “creaming” business that demands yet another piece of kitchen equipment?
First of all, the process aerates your butter-sugar mixture, as when you whip cream. And the effect of this aerating is a lighter cake at the end. This is why “melt-and-mix” recipes that don’t require creaming are more dense, like a brownie.
Most recipes then call for the eggs to beaten in, one at a time. Once again this is about adding air to your cake, so it doesn’t drop like a sack of potatoes when you cook it. It is also about making an emulsion* (the same process as when making mayonnaise), which will hold all the disparate ingredients of your cake together and make them play nice.
You may be adding bi-carb soda or baking powder to your cake at some point which will add bubbles to the mix. But they can’t do all the work, and too much of them will lend a bitter taste to the finished product.
So get yourself a beater if you want to make nice, fluffy cakes regularly. I have an electric hand beater, and I dream of one day having the money and bench space for a stand mixer.
The other thing you should try to do is ensure your butter really is softened, and not by shoving it in the microwave. Just leave it on your counter for a couple of hours before you start to bake, and you can speed up the process by slicing it up into smaller pieces.
Martha Stewart recommends grating your butter, but that will result in butter all over everything including your hands, gross.
UPDATE: I have been watching The Great British Bake Off on YouTube lately, obviously because I need a hobby other than watching people make food, but I picked up a pretty wicked tip from Mary Berry (who seems to be the doyenne of English baking). She says to get perfectly softened butter for creaming without the wait, slice it into cubes, and put into a bowl of tepid (i.e. room temperature) water, leave for 10 minutes. I tried this, it totally works, and all you have to do is drain off the water and you’re good to go. It doesn’t even matter if there’s a bit of water left in the bowl, as butter has water in it!
And while you’re at it, take the eggs out of the fridge too, the emulsification process works better when they are room temperature.
Put the softened butter and sugar in a bowl you can use your beater with. Best to choose one with high sides if possible, to limit spray. Turn the beater on to a medium-high level and beat for at least 5 minutes (yes, really). Scrape down sides with a spatula occasionally to ensure all the mix gets beaten. If you find the mix is getting more sandy than creamy, turning into little pebbles of butter and sugar, this is probably because your butter is too cold. Give it ten minutes. Wash some dishes or something. Return to beating. Eventually, the butter mixture will start to look creamy and the colour will slightly lighten. This is the “light and fluffy” consistency your cook book is referring to.
Add eggs one by one. Again, yes really. It’s easy: Egg, beat, egg, beat, egg, beat etc.
*This ability of eggs to emulsify when mixed with fats is also why a vegan cake, when made from natural ingredients, will rarely be fluffy. That’s not to say it will be bad, dense cakes can be amazing. They just lack the ingredients that create all this air.