Many of us have a go-to move for softening butter, whether it’s letting the butter sit out on the kitchen counter, whacking it with a rolling pin, or shredding it on a box grater. I have a soft spot (sorry, pun very much intended) for nuking butter in the microwave, but the results can vary, sometimes producing over-softened sticks, or, worse, half-melted ones. Over the years, I’ve at times gotten lazy, or just rushed, and sacrificed consistency for the sake of expediency, and I’ve made dense cakes and flat cookies as a result.
So I’ve long been curious about how the various methods for softening butter measure up. I hoped to determine the best way, one that’s the least error prone, the most consistent, and, if possible, relatively quick. I tested five methods: leaving a stick of butter and cubed butter out on the counter, microwaving a stick of butter and cubed butter, and beating butter in a stand mixer. If you want to learn more about softening butter and understand why letting a stick of butter come to temperature on the counter works best, I explain the details below.
Why Soften Butter?
“Unless you’re using chilled butter for biscuits or pie dough, most [baking] recipes will require butter to be softened to a degree,” Stella Parks, our former pastry wizard, says. Softened butter is a must for many baking tasks, including, but not limited to, mixing into enriched doughs like brioche, whipping up buttercream (be it American, Italian, French, or Swiss), and creaming―the process of beating butter and sugar together to create little pockets of air that lift cookie and other doughs.
Although softening butter sounds pretty straightforward, in the world of baking, success hinges on precision and technique. It’s not as simple as simply making a hard block of butter soft—the exact temperature of your softened butter can influence how doughs and batters form and can have a make-or-break impact on the final results. It’s one of those subtle details that a recipe’s success can hinge on. Butter softened properly is key to keeping your cookies thick, helping your cakes rise up light and fluffy, and creating silky-smooth buttercreams.
So what does “softened” actually mean in terms of butter’s temperature? I define softened butter as butter that is a cool 60°F (16°C). Although 65°F (18°C) is frequently cited as the ideal temperature, Parks notes that butter’s “ability to stretch and expand during the creaming process tops out at a mere 68°F.” When coupled with sugar that’s as warm as your kitchen and friction from mechanical mixing, these actions can easily overheat the butter and push it past the point of no return. It’s therefore best to lean towards the cooler end of the 60-65°F spectrum.
Besides the temperature of the butter, what we often refer to vaguely as “room temperature” is another critical factor in how a recipe turns out. In an ideal world, your kitchen will always be a steady 70°F (21°C), a comfortable temperature that is neither too cold nor too warm. This can be a challenge when your kitchen’s temperature swings from day to day and throughout the year. If your kitchen is on the cold end, hovering below 65°F, which mine can be in the winter, you’ll be working with chilly ingredients and equipment. This can, for example, lengthen the creaming process as it will take longer for the butter to heat up through friction. The key is to remain flexible. You may need to warm your sugar (which can be done by quickly popping it in a low oven until it reaches 70°F), use slightly warmer butter, or break out a torch to heat up the outside of the mixing bowl.
“The key is to remain flexible.”
Conversely, baking in hot weather poses a different set of problems. When the temperature in your kitchen climbs above 73°F (23°C), you may need to make adjustments in the opposite direction―from refrigerating your ingredients and equipment beforehand to using even cooler butter. If your butter is too warm, it won’t hold air when creamed, leading to a dense dough and collapsed cookies.
To accurately monitor your butter’s temperature, you’ll need an instant-read thermometer. If your thermometer isn’t all too reliable or if you want to check in a more hands-on fashion, examine your butter for the following signs: The butter should be pliable, cool, and evenly soft throughout. Its exterior should look waxy and not shiny―an indicator that the butter is warmer than it should be. When pressed, the butter should have some give, letting you leave an indentation.
Testing Ways to Soften Butter
There are several common ways to soften butter: leaving whole sticks or cubed butter out on the counter, relying on a microwave to handle the task, or using a stand mixer to beat the butter until it’s pliable. These are methods that are widely used and have been tested for this article.
It’s important to note that there are other ways of softening butter which I did not test—as much as everyone loves a good “trick,” some of these approaches have limited value outside of their novelty. I removed grating butter from the running because the action of grating is hard to control and often warms the butter too rapidly, plus it results in thin shreds that are difficult to get an accurate temperature reading. Pounding butter in a zipperlock bag as well as placing butter slices inside a zipperlock bag in a bowl of warm water were also eliminated from the testing because the methods are wasteful, relying on non-recyclable plastic for a one-off task that can easily be accomplished through more efficient means. I outright rejected a double-boiler setup because the risk of half-melted butter from the get-go is too high; you’re pumping too much heat into the exterior of the butter too quickly, making it almost impossible for the butter to warm evenly. Lastly, I dismissed methods that call for indirect heat―like placing butter under a warmed glass or in a pre-warmed microwave, because trapped heat will escape when you go to check the temperature, rendering the process difficult to control from one time to the next.
Throughout testing, I maintained an ambient kitchen temperature of 70°F. I used Land O’Lakes unsalted butter, a national brand that is widely available. I took note of my refrigerator temperature and the temperature of each stick of butter, which were all a chilly 37°F. In order to determine the best method, my primary objectives were: noting how long it took to prepare the butter and the length of time it took to reach 60°F; paying close attention to the butter’s final softened consistency; assessing the amount of cleanup involved; and observing the method’s overall convenience and ease of process.
- Stick of Butter Left Out on Counter: This method is the most straightforward: I unwrapped a stick of butter, placed it on a plate, and inserted a probe thermometer to monitor the temperature. It took barely any time to set up and left me with clean hands and minimal cleanup. The butter hit 60°F in one hour and the resulting butter was creamy and evenly softened, with little to no variance in temperature, steadily 60°F to 61°F when measured in different spots with an instant-read thermometer.
- Cubed Butter Left Out on Counter: I cubed a stick of butter into quarter-inch pieces and spread them out on a cutting board to soften, a task that took me three minutes and raised the temperature to 48°F. The process dirtied a knife and a cutting board, and left my hands feeling slick from handling the butter. The cubed butter took 6 minutes to reach 60°F and was pliably cool, with minimal variance in temperature.
- Stick of Butter Microwaved: We’re longtime fans of the microwave at Serious Eats and have covered its many great uses, including to toast nuts, fry garlic, and much more. However, figuring out how to soften, and not melt, butter in a microwave is tricky largely due to the number of settings offered by most microwaves and variations from one microwave model to the next. To be as thorough as possible, I tested each of the following options on my 1000-watt microwave to soften one unwrapped stick of butter: “soften/melt,” 100% power level, 70% power level, 50% power level, and 30% power level. The method itself involved little cleanup and performed well in regards to speed and convenience.
My microwave’s soften/melt function automatically set the cook time to 55 seconds for one stick of butter and yielded unevenly softened butter that was on the verge of melting, a good indication that presets are not a great option for a task as sensitive as this. When testing various power levels, I found that regardless of the power level, each took roughly 20 seconds in five-second bursts to soften one stick of butter to an average of 60°F. No matter the power level used, the resulting sticks of butter were somewhat shiny and unevenly softened, with a wide range of variance in temperature, between 58°F to 64°F. I also tried rotating the butter a quarter turn after each five-second burst, standing a stick of butter on its end so it was straight up and down, and placing butter along the edge of the plate; each technique delivered similar results―tacky butter with areas that were too soft and slick.
- Cubed Butter Microwaved: Just like the cubed butter left out on the counter, I began the process in the same way: cubing one stick of butter into quarter-inch pieces and spreading them out on a plate. I tested each of the following options with my microwave: 100% power level, 70% power level, 50% power level, and 30% power level. (I dismissed the soften/melt function because it doesn’t differentiate between whole and cubed butter, and I knew based on my whole-stick test that a 55-second cook time would liquify my cubes.)
I found that each power level took about 10 seconds in two five-second bursts to soften a plateful of cubed butter to 60°F. This method delivered more evenly softened butter, likely due to the increase in available surface area, with little difference in temperature, between 60°F to 62°F, regardless of where on the plate each butter piece was located.
- Stick of Butter in a Stand Mixer: To do this, I placed an intact stick of butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat the butter on low speed to start. After the butter transformed into a spreadable consistency, I increased the speed to medium low, then as it became creamier, I raised the speed to medium. To take its temperature, I scraped down the sides to gather a large mass of butter. From start to finish, the process took two and a half minutes to soften butter to 60°F. It’s worth emphasizing that this approach to softening butter is only efficient in recipes that require creaming butter and sugar in a stand mixer; otherwise, it’s messy and requires more washing up than the methods above.
The Results: What’s the Best Way to Soften Butter?
The best way to soften butter is leaving intact sticks out on the counter. It’s a low-effort, high-reward method that gets you evenly softened butter with almost no clean up. To remove any guesswork, you can even insert a probe thermometer and set an alert for 60°F. The only drawback is the longer amount of time it takes to soften butter using this method. However, you can use that extra time to prep other ingredients the recipe calls for, gather your equipment, and preheat your oven (if your kitchen is frigid, this will work in your favor anyway).
If you don’t have as much time, I recommend cubing butter and leaving it out on the counter. This method is a bit more hands-on and involves clean up of both hands and dishes but produces consistent results in a fraction of the time.
If you’re truly in a bind and need that butter softened immediately, I suggest pulling out a stand mixer or microwaving cubed butter. Although both methods deliver good results, each has a notable drawback. Using the stand mixer is only worthwhile if the recipe calls for it, otherwise you will devote more time to washing up mixer parts that aren’t dishwasher safe. As for the microwave method, you have to pay extra attention since microwaves vary in performance. While it took my microwave about 10 seconds (in two five-second bursts) to soften cubed butter at any power level, it could work differently in yours. My times are therefore just a ballpark estimate; you’ll need to play around with your microwave’s settings to find the ideal combination of power level and cook time.
While I had poor results when attempting to soften whole sticks of butter in the microwave, I won’t go as far as dismissing the method entirely. There is merit to this method―no prep time, almost zero cleanup, and speedy results—so if you can figure out settings that work using your microwave, it’d be a strong approach.
Can You Save Over-Softened Butter?
Sometimes you accidentally go too far and end up with over-warmed butter. I tried three methods of reversing it: placing the butter in an ice bath, spreading the butter on an aluminum baking sheet and cooling it in the freezer, and adding a couple of ice cubes to a bowl with melty butter. The first method took too long while the second cooled the butter unevenly. Adding ice cubes directly to a bowl of too-warm butter was the most effective of the trio, but you introduce icy water to the mix; this is mostly easy to remove since butterfat and water don’t easily mix, but some water will be left behind, which will affect the final structure of any baked goods made with it. Rather than rescuing the aforementioned butter, I suggest you grab a cold stick from the refrigerator and liberally spread that over-softened butter on toast.