Cooking Tips

Ingredient temperatures – another culinary myth or not?

If you have been reading my Cooking Tips for any amount of time, you will know that I don’t follow kitchen “rules” just because someone says that I should. I want to know if that “rule” is just one more culinary myth or if there is a verified reason for it. In baking, recipes will no doubt tell you that certain ingredients should be at certain temperatures before using them. Have you ever wondered if there was some rationale for that advice? As it turns out, there are good reasons for following the temperature recommendations. In this Cooking Tip, we will delve into the rationale behind this advice.

When we are talking about the temperature of ingredients, we will most likely be talking about baking. The typical ingredients where temperature is of concern are items such as butter, eggs and dairy products. There are times when you are going to want these ingredients cold and at other times, you will want them at room temperature. Dry ingredients like sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt are normally going to be used at room temperature.

I like how this topic is addressed in The Cake Blog. The author mentions three reasons why temperature matters.

  • Ingredient fluidity – Just think of the difference in hardness between cold butter and softened butter. Cold butter will not be able to easily distribute throughout the batter and therefore, not properly coat the proteins in flour or generate great air pockets.
  • Emulsification – This is the process whereby ingredients that do not normally combine (fats and liquids) are encouraged to become one. This is the process you use to make your own vinaigrettes. It also happens in baking when you are trying to mix in butter and/or eggs with the liquid ingredients. Again, cold butter/eggs do not emulsify well.
  • Dissolving of ingredients – Most baking involves dissolving sugar in the other ingredients so your end result is not grainy. If the ingredients are too cold, the sugar does not dissolve well. If too warm, it may dissolve too much.

The Cake Blog summarizes the results in the following way as it applies to cake. However, the same can be said of other baked items.

  • Cold ingredients lead to a coarse and heavy textured cake.
  • Room temperature ingredients allow for a fine texture and light mouthfeel.
  • Warm ingredients cause the cake to be coarser in texture but retain the light feel.

Generally, you will want to use cold ingredients when you are making something in which you desire a flakiness to the end product. For example, pie crusts, biscuits, scones, etc. In these cases, the fat needs to be in a solid state as it goes into the oven. When these are heated, the butter melts and produces steam, which is what gives you the flaky layers.

When you are not trying to achieve the flaky character and you are making something with a more compact dough or batter, the ingredients should be at room temperature. Examples of this are cakes and cookies. Many of these recipes use the creaming method, which involves beating together room temperature butter and sugar. The sugar will cut through the butter, creating air bubbles, which will expand in the oven. Also, the mechanical incorporation of air by the mixing process helps to produce a light result. This creaming of the butter and sugar together will not work well if the butter is either too cold or too warm. The former produces a clumpy result. The additional mixing necessary to incorporate cold ingredients may also negatively affect the final texture of the baked good. If ingredients are too warm, it can lead to a curdled batter. Also, the butter will not hold air well, resulting in flat cookies or cakes.

After creaming the butter and sugar together, the recipe will often call for adding eggs and dairy products. You will get a better result if those are also at room temperature. If they are too cold, they could break the nice emulsion you have created. They also are incorporated more easily and evenly if at room temperature.

What if you forget to take your ingredients out of the refrigerator to warm up? Here are some tips that will help hurry up this process.

  • Butter – Cut your butter into small pieces for faster softening. If you are really in a hurry, put the butter cubes in a bowl and wrap the bowl in a warm, damp kitchen towel. Trying to soften butter in the microwave often leads to melted and unevenly softened butter and so, is not recommended.
  • Eggs – Put your eggs in a bowl of warm water for 5-10 minutes while you are getting everything else ready for your recipe. Do not use very hot water or you might accidentally cook your eggs.
  • Milk, cream or buttermilk – Gently heat in the microwave. Use 20% power in 10-second intervals Alternately, heat in a small saucepan over medium-low heat for a minute, swirling frequently to prevent over-heating.
  • Crème fraîche, sour cream, and yogurt – Use caution if using the microwave as these items can give off an unpleasant aroma when heated in the microwave. You may also heat these ingredients in a double boiler over very gentle heat, whisking continuously for about a minute.

Some people question what room temperature or “softened” means. Cooks Illustrated has a helpful chart for butter, which is the main (but not only) ingredient where these terms are of concern.

  • Chilled
    • Temperature – about 35°F
    • Tactile Clue – Unyielding when pressed with a finger and cold to the touch
    • Common Application – Pie dough
    • Method – Cut into small pieces and freeze until very firm, 10 to 15 minutes.
    • Result – Cold butter melts during baking, leaving behind small pockets that create flaky layers
  • Softened
    • Temperature – 65° to 67°F
    • Tactile Clue – Easily bends without breaking and gives slightly when pressed
    • Common Application – Cake
    • Method – Let refrigerated butter sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes
    • Result – Properly softened butter is flexible enough to be whipped but firm enough that it retains the air incorporated during creaming
  • Melted and cooled
    • Temperature – 85° to 90°F
    • Tactile Clue – Fluid and slightly warm to the touch
    • Common Application – Cookies and bars
    • Method – Melt in small saucepan or microwave-safe bowl and cool about 5 minutes
    • Result – Melted butter is the key to chewy cookies and bars

So, there you are. Asking that your ingredients be at certain temperatures is not just one more culinary myth. There are very good scientific reasons for doing so. I hope this Tip helps you to achieve the results you want!