Saturday, February 25, 2012

Technique: Creaming

Knowing what creaming is (and being able to say it without giggling) is a sure sign that you are moving up in the baking ranks out of the novice category.   While creaming is called for in most cake and cookie recipes, the process of creaming itself is often left out under the assumption that you already know the technique.   So, pretty much every person who has tried to learn how to bake has at one point made greasy, flat cookies and wondered where they went wrong.    The secret is proper creaming, my friends. 

Creaming is the process of mixing a solid fat (normally butter but shortening can be used too) with a dry sugar (white sugar or brown sugar most of the time) for the purpose of incorporating tiny air bubbles held in by the fat.   These air bubbles act as a leavening, expanding in the heat of the oven during the baking process and giving your dessert a light, airy texture.  Without these air bubbles the texture of your cake or cookies will not be ideal.  

The process can be done with a stand mixer, a hand mixer or by hand if you really hate yourself.   I think the easiest way is to do it with a hand mixer in a heavy bowl, but you can save yourself the forearm workout and use a stand mixer if you want.  I often end up doing this step by hand, but it takes quite a while and is pretty exhausting. 

You need to start with soft butter.  Most websites and cookbooks will tell you "room temperature" butter, but what they really mean is softened butter that is between 65 and 70 degrees (Fahrenheit, about 18 degrees Celsius).   It should not be greasy or melty, and good god please don't put it in the microwave.  If you are microwaving your butter you've probably already messed it up.    Why am I spazzing out about the temperature of the butter?  Because neither cold butter or melted butter will work for this.   Cold butter will just take longer because you will have to beat it until it warms up enough.   On the other hand, if the butter gets to warm and starts melting the fat starts to break down and release the air bubbles.  The milk solids will separate and air bubbles can't be formed.   I recommend cutting your butter into small chunks and leaving it out for about 20 minutes to soften. 

At this point, if you are using a stand mixer or a hand mixer you will want to beat your butter for a minute or two to get it creamy and then start slowly adding the sugar into the bowl as you continue beating.  A few minutes into the process you will need to scrape off the beaters and the edges of the bowl to ensure that all of it gets well mixed.   Use a low-medium setting on your mixer (the high setting will be to fast and create to much heat).  If you are doing this process by hand use a wooden spoon and basically the same technique of gradually adding the sugar.   With an electric mixer the whole creaming process can take up to 10 solid minutes of beating.  One of the most common mistakes is giving up to soon.  How long does it take by hand?  That really depends on your own mixing fortitude. But it will take a while.  

The most difficult part of the creaming process is knowing when you are done.  An under creamed mixture won't have enough air bubbles, and an over creamed mixture will start melt and break down.   The creaming is finished when the mixture has noticeably increased in volume (from the added air bubbles), the color should be creamy pale yellow, and the mixture should be sticking to the sides of the bowl.   The butter should have retained its plasticity and will form ridges. 

For more details I recommend you check out Baking 911.  Those ladies know everything!