Baking is one of the most unappreciated and misunderstood scientific disciplines. Disguised as an everyday occurrence, baking incorporates chemistry, thermodynamics, psychology and biology in a way that is both easy to approach for the layman and complex and puzzling for the professional. An example of this is the question of butter. What exactly happens if butter is used melted instead of softened? How exactly do a few degrees of temperature affect the final result?
As it turns out, even as small a change as a few degrees in the temperature of butter can make a world of difference in your baked goods.
Composition of Butter
American-styled butter, per USDA requirements, must be at least 80 percent butterfat. Typically, American butter is around 81 to 83 percent butterfat, while European-style butter can be as much as 88 percent butterfat. The remainder of butter is water – at roughly 15 percent of the butter’s content – and milk solids. Butterfat melts at between 82.4 degrees and 96.8 degrees Fahrenheit. As butter approaches this melting zone, some of the butterfat’s crystals start to break down, releasing the water trapped in the butter. Butter in this part-solid, part-liquid configuration is known as “softened.” This softening can be done by gentle exposure to indirect heat (such as allowing the butter to come to room temperature) or by agitation (beating the butter with a heavy object or with a mixer, for example).
Baking with Softened Butter
Softened butter will retain its structure and integrity during mixing and during the early stages of baking. This makes softened butter essential for many cake and cookie recipes that call for an airy, light crumb. The softened butter can be whipped, creating air bubbles that will expand during baking. In addition, the butter’s water is still in suspension – unable to mix with the batter’s flour and create gluten. This keeps the water available to make steam to raise the product during baking. Baked goods made with softened butter will have a light crumb, little spread and a tender crumb; but, do run the risk of being too dry.
Baking with Melted Butter
But, what if you don’t want light and fluffy? What if you want your crumb to be moist and dense, like, for instance, with a brownie, or a devil's food cake? In that case, you need melted butter. Melted butter’s water is free, so it can quickly mingle with the available flour and form gluten. Gluten development, however, would be retarded by the butterfat – which coats the gluten fibers and prevents growth and entanglement. So, the crumb of a product made with melted butter will be chewier than one made with softened butter, but will be more tender than a bread product. In addition, the free water will contribute to spread.
Comparing Melted and Softened Butter
So, to compare, let’s consider chocolate-chip cookies. If you want a fluffy, soft cookie with lots of height, use softened butter. However, if you want a crispy, chewy flat cookie, use melted butter.
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