And why you need to.

By Melanie Fincher

The holidays require a lot of planning. Whether it's coordinating travel plans, planning the perfect gift for everyone on your list, or planning a holiday feast to be remembered for years to come — you've got a lot of things on your mind. And remembering to lay out your butter ahead of time is not one of them. If you've found yourself doing some last minute holiday baking (who hasn't?) then give one of these quick and easy methods for softening butter a try. Learn how to properly soften butter to room temperature, and why it's important that you do.

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Why Softened Butter?

Often baking recipes call for butter that's been "softened to room temperature." I always assumed this was to make our lives easier, because if you've ever tried to cream cold butter — you know it's no fun. But turns out, there's actually a scientific reason for softening butter to room temperature, beyond just making it more malleable. 

As you cream butter and sugar together, the grains of sugar force their way through the fat, leaving a lot of tiny air bubbles in their wake. During baking, that trapped air expands, giving you a light and fluffy result. If the butter is too cold, it won't hold air, giving you a dense result. If the butter is too warm, the air bubbles will collapse. 

So, what is softened butter? Softened butter should still hold its shape, but easily dent when pressed. Whether you've planned ahead or you're in a pinch, learn to soften butter five ways.

How to Soften Butter the Traditional Way

Pretty much any baker will tell you, the best way to soften butter is to leave it out at room temperature before baking. The problem? This requires planning. If you do remember, you should allow the butter to sit at room temperature between 30 minutes and an hour, depending on how cold it was to start with and the room temperature. The butter should easily dent when pressed, but it shouldn't be liquid anywhere. 

If it begins to melt, pop it back in the fridge for a few minutes to firm it up before use. This method is favored for its consistency. But if you have a sudden urge to bake and not a lot of time, there are alternative methods that will suffice.

How to Soften Butter Fast

Let's just admit it — we've all popped a rock hard stick of butter in the microwave only to end up with a liquidy, buttery mess. Next time you're in a pinch, skip the microwave method (which often gives you a melted exterior and rock solid interior) and opt for one of these methods for softening butter instead. 

Cut it into cubes: If you don't have 45 minutes to soften the old-fashioned way, this method of cutting a stick of butter into cubes only takes about 10 minutes. Small chunks will soften much quicker than a whole stick, and depending on how much time you have you can either leave the cubes out a room temperature or place them near a warming stove. 

Pound it: Not only is this method great for when you're short on time, but it's also a good way to get your anger out (hey, they say baking is therapeutic, right?). To do this, place the whole stick in a plastic bag and use a rolling pin or meat pounder to flatten it like dough. The friction will warm the butter, and the larger surface area will help it to soften faster.

Grate it: If you have to soften your butter right this instant (cookies wait for no one) then this method is for you. Use the largest holes on a cheese grater to grate the butter into a heap of fluffy, shredded butter. Because the pieces are so small, they'll soften almost instantly, making them ready to use right away. 

Give it a water bath: Another way to quickly soften butter without settling for the microwave is to use a water bath. Heat water in a saucepan, just below the boiling point. Place a metal bowl nested on top with the butter inside. Allow the butter to soften, but keep a close eye on it to make sure it doesn't melt.

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