Note: Please welcome our new columnist Kumiko Mitarai of the blog Recipe, interrupted. Every week she'll put together a slideshow demo on a technique that seems easy-peasy but is hardly ever explained. Each step-by-step lesson will feature a corresponding recipe so you can put that technique into practice. Show us how it's done, Kumiko! —The Mgmt.
Since I was a kid baking cookies, this recipe instruction would always stump me: "Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy."
I did my best with our family's old hand mixer but always wondered, do they really mean light and fluffy? How could a stick of butter and some sugar ever be anything but thick and heavy?
But skip ahead a few years to culinary school, where I was coached through the technique and finally got it. The butter and sugar will never transform into cotton candy, but if the butter starts at room temperature and is beaten long enough (which can take several minutes with a hand mixer), tiny pockets of air will form and help give the cookies or cake a little extra lift.
Creaming is usually the first step in baking but is rarely ever explained
Don't be ashamed if you need a little extra creaming coaching. Here we'll show you how to get the maximum number of air bubbles in there so your recipe turns out light and fluffy in the oven. Under- or overcreaming results in flat, dense, flavorless baked goods—so click ahead to avoid that sad situation!
Start with butter at room temperature
It should feel like a ripe peach—soft enough that you could break a stick of it in half without a big snap. If the butter is mushy and shiny, put it back in the fridge for a bit. If it's hard and cold, cut it into pieces and let soften more. You can also cut it into pieces and give it a few turns in the mixer to speed up the process.
Use a cool bowl
If your butter seems just a little too warm or if the room is very warm, wrap a cold gel-pack (the kind designed for icing sore knees) around the bowl for the first minute or so of mixing.
Add the sugar then start the mixer at low speed. When the sugar is incorporated, increase the speed (to medium-high on a stand mixer, high on a hand mixer).
After one minute, it should be well-combined but dense
Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula every minute or so to ensure even creaming. You can increase the speed again now. (If you are creaming a small amount, keep the speed at medium-high to avoid smearing everything on the sides.)
After two minutes, it's getting lighter
If you look closely at the little darker bit stuck on the middle of the beater (the bit that I missed in my scrape-down), you can see that the mixture has lightened in color.
After three minutes
It's getting closer, but when scraping down, it may still remind you of wet sand or cement mix, kind of heavy and dense.
After almost four minutes
The mixture is looking full, almost puffy, on the sides of the bowl. It's very close to being done but will still be a bit heavy when you scrape it down.
After four to five minutes, it's creamed
Now when scraping down the sides, your mixture shouldn't feel as dense. This is what the cookbooks mean by "lighter in color and texture."
The amount of time this process takes varies depending on the speed of the mixer, the temperature of the butter, and the volume you are working with. If your recipe calls for an egg after the "creaming butter" step, the mixture will fluff up even more.
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