What Does Butter Do in Baking?

As much as I always try to keep my ingredients cost at a minimum, butter is the one thing I know I can never be stingy about in baking. 

In baking, butter adds flavor, softness, moisture to baked treats. It also helps baked goods rise and last longer. When it comes to baking any kind of pastries, cakes, cookies, or brownies, a quality stick of butter can really make all the difference!

I’m Angie, I am a baking enthusiast, I’ve been baking for over ten years and I’ve started a small baking business from home. Growing up in China where butter is not considered a staple, it was not only hard to get my hands on butter but I was also so clueless about how butter really works. 

Not knowing what butter does in baking and the effects it has on my baked treats resulted in some pretty disastrous bakes of mine. But don’t worry, this is why you’re here — so you don’t make the same mistakes I made.

In this article, I will explain to you exactly what butter does in baking, how it does what it does and at different temperatures and answer some commonly asked questions about this topic.

We butter get started! 😉

What is Butter?

Put simply, butter is a concentrated fat produced from churning cow’s milk or cream. When milk is churned, meaning stirred or beat in high intensity, the solid and liquid components within it split. The solid part that you get as a result of this process, is butter, and the liquid that is left is called buttermilk. 

While butter is considered fat, it’s important to know that it isn’t completely fat. Commercial butter that we commonly use in baking generally has over 80% fat with the rest being water that’s emulsified into the fat.

What Does Butter Do in Baking?

Now let’s take a look at the different functions of butter in baking. 

1. Adds Flavor

Like most fats, butter doesn’t actually taste like much. It has a faint creamy and rich flavor with a hint of milkiness that comes from the milk solids in it. 

But as humans, our bodies sense fat and are drawn to it because fat is a key to survival and gives us a sense of satisfaction. 

This is why butter is so inherently tasty to most of us. To learn more about the science behind this, read this article.

What also makes butter “flavorful” is its high-fat content which allows different flavors to dissolve into it and helps bind them together smoothly. It brings out the deliciousness of other ingredients that it’s combined with which turns up the overall flavor. 

2. Adds Softness

Butter helps make cakes and muffins softer and more tender. To achieve this effect, butter is creamed/emulsified with sugar until the mixture looks completely homogeneous, pale with a slight increase in volume. 

The emulsification incorporates air into the batter. As your cakes bake, the trapped air bubbles expand and help your cake rise. The result? A fluffier and spongier cake that will not shrink.

Butter is also added to bread dough to make bread more tender. Take the French baguette as an example, the lack of fat in it makes it a relatively dry and crusty bread. On the other hand, bread that is butter enriched such as burger buns and brioche has a much softer texture.

3. Adds Moisture

In breadmaking, adding butter can help your dough retain moisture more easily, keeping it soft for longer. This is evident in bread that is high in fat content such as a loaf of brioche. 

When it comes to cakes and muffins, beating your flour and butter together helps the flour gets coated in fat which is what creates the individual crumbs and adds moisture to your cakes. 

4. Aids in Leavening

Butter plays a critical role in the leavening of baked goods. As mentioned, butter is about 80% fat and 15% water. The water portion of butter evaporates during the baking process and becomes steam. The steam raises the dough or batter which makes them rise. 

In pastries like croissants, butter is laminated in each individual layer of the dough which gives them their classic flaky texture.

5. Lengthens Shelf Life 

Going back to the baguette vs. brioche example, the lack of moisture and the harder texture of lean bread also make them go stale a lot quicker. 

From my experience, baguettes can hardly last two days. Butter enriched bread, on the other hand, will stay soft for up to four days at room temperature. 

Butter at Different Temperature

Used at different temperatures, butter can have a completely different effect on your baked goods. Below I will explain how. 

Cold Butter

Cold butter is most often used in pastries and biscuits. When the little chunks of butter that are infused in your dough get exposed to heat, they melt and the water in the butter evaporates. As the water evaporates, it lifts the pastry, creates layers in the dough, and makes it flaky. 

Using cold butter makes sure that the butter is not completely incorporated with the rest of your ingredients or becoming a homogenous mixture, because only then can you get the separate layers in your pastries. I like to use cold butter for my chocolate chip cookies because I like my cookies nice and thick and with a lot of texture.

Softened Butter

Room temperature or softened butter is best for making cakes. You want to leave your butter at room temperature until it is soft but not too soft, at just under 70°F yielding slightly to your touch. 

Butter that is at this state emulsifies with sugar easily and allows air to be incorporated into the batter. The air bubbles in your butter help your baked goods expand when baked and keep your cakes light, tender and soft. It also ensures that your cakes don’t shrink too much after they leave the oven. 

Melted Butter

Unlike softened or cold butter, melted aka liquified butter doesn’t have the ability to aerate. This gives the result a denser chewier texture. We see melted butter being used in brownie making and in chocolate cakes a lot because it also helps to bind other ingredients together more easily.

Some also like to take this one step further and actually cook the butter until it is brown. The browning of the butter brings even more flavor to it and will transform anything it is cooked with, giving it much more depth and complexity.

FAQs

The following are some commonly asked questions regarding the butter in baking. 

Do you need butter for baking?

This depends on what it is you’re baking. In most cases, unless you’re really precious about authenticity, butter can be easily replaced with other fats such as oil and margarine.

What butter should I use for baking?

Most bakers opt for unsalted butter because that way we can better control how much salt we want in our baked goods. You can easily find that in the dairy section of any supermarket. 

Is butter or margarine better for baking?

While the answer to this question depends slightly on what you are baking, I’d say you’ll never go wrong using butter over margarine in baking. 

Is butter a carb?

To all the Mean Girls fans out there, myself included, the answer to this iconic question is that butter is NOT a carb. Butter is considered fat. 

Final Thoughts

Butter really is the magic ingredient in baking. When you use butter the right way, people can taste the difference. Now that you know all about what butter does in baking, I hope you can use butter to transform all of your recipes and experiment with it more.

If you have any other questions regarding the role of butter in baking, just comment down below and I’ll try to answer it as soon as I can!

About Angie
I am a self-taught baker. I’ve been baking for over 10 years and started my own home baking business as a side hustle. I was born in Hong Kong and spent a pretty big chunk of my life in Canada. If you’re ever looking for me, I am probably there whisking vigorously away in the kitchen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *