Creaming is an ubiquitous step in baking and yet it is rarely ever explained well. Most people don't know what it is, why it matters and how to do it correctly. So do not be embarrassed if you need a little extra creaming 101. We are here to help!
First, you have to imagine a time prior to chemical leavening agents such as baking powder and baking soda. The way to leaven baked goods, such as cake, was through the use of mechanical leavening, i.e.. you doing the work of beating butter and sugar or whipping egg whites. It is the air trapped in the batter that would expand with the heat from the oven and create lift, lightening your baked goods.
Nowadays, with modern technology and ingredients, this simple yet important technique is easy to overlook. Your baked goods may be good enough. However, if you have never taken the time to cream properly, you may not know how good your baking can be! On the other hand, cheating on this step may be causing some of your baking woes.
When butter and sugar are creamed together, the rough sugar crystals cut into the fat, creating small, uniform air bubbles. The goal is to trap the most amount of air and have the bubbles evenly dispersed, leading to a more consistent texture in the final baked good. The fat, which is often butter, can also be shortening, margarine or lard. All have their place in baking and will cream a little differently. The sugar can be white or brown, but as you can imagine, liquid sugars like honey or molasses do not cream properly.
1. Most recipes suggest using "room temperature" butter which is an annoyingly vague concept especially by picky pastry chef standards. Room temperature to who, where and what time of year? And in most cases, actual room temperature butter, which can be 70 degrees or warmer, is too soft, greasy and not up to the task of creaming. However, since it is the norm, let's define room temperature as butter between 60-65 degrees. At this temperature, the butter should give slightly when pressed with a fingertip and be cool to the touch but warm enough to be pliable.
2. When creaming, use the paddle attachment on your stand mixer or the beaters with your hand-held electric mixer. Put the butter in the bowl and beat on low speed to first soften the butter. Then increase the mixer to medium, for approximately 1 minute, until it is smooth and pliable.
3. With the mixer still set on medium, add the sugar. You can add it all at once or slowly add the sugar throughout the creaming process. Both techniques are effective and one lets you walk from the stand mixer to do other things. After one minute, the sugar and butter will be well combined but dense and "dark" in color.
4. Continue to beat the mixture on medium speed until the mixture becomes light in color and fluffy in texture. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula frequently to ensure even creaming. You will know you are finished when the volume of the mixture has increased and when touched, it has the consistency of a thick gritty mayonnaise. The amount of time this process takes varies depending on the speed of the mixer and the volume you are working with.
Can you cream too much? Of course. At that point, the butter sugar mixture is breaking back down. It will look shiney, greasy and have lost a little of its volume. It is important to note that under or over creaming can result in flat, dense, and sometimes greasy baked goods. The next time you encounter a recipes that uses the creaming method, I hope you take the time to do it properly. You might be amazed at the results!