Creaming Butter and Sugar: The right temperature, the right timing, the best results for your baking.

For many new bakers and a few veterans, too, cakes are some of the first baked goods we make on our own. We may start with a mix, but then when we realize how easy a cake can be, we branch out to from-scratch cakes and encounter a deceptively simple direction right off the bat.

“Cream the softened butter and sugar until light and fluffy.”

In creaming the butter and sugar together, you are using the sugar to aerate the butter and fill it with bubbles that can capture the gasses released by your leavener. The more fine bubbles you have in your network, the lighter in texture your cakes will be and the finer the crumb. This is true for your muffins as well, while it makes your cookies light and crisp instead of hard and dense.

Just like Goldilocks, we can encounter a variety of issues when dealing with this phrase. Too hard, too soft, and just right. Just what does softened butter look like? Should it be melted?How long do you beat? Should I set my mixer to low or high? How do I know when it’s RIGHT?!

We’ve assembled not only some excellent photos, but an incredibly helpful video to get you on the right track for perfectly creamed butter and sugar every time. This is one of a new series of videos with our own Gwen Adams, associate editor of Sift magazine, and a frequent blog contributor.

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The butter on the left is just right. Notice how the spreader sinks in a bit, but the butter still has structure and solidity.

It was left out a room temperature for an hour before using. Keep in mind the timing will vary depending on how warm or cool the kitchen is. Planning for 30 to 60 minutes of softening time should get you to the right spot on most baking days.

The butter at top right is too cold and firm. It came straight from the refrigerator set at 40°F. The bottom-right butter was microwaved for 30 seconds and is far too warm.

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Next, let’s explore what will happen if you cream your sugar with these butters. Up first, butter that’s too cold.

Again, the main reason you want to cream butter and sugar is to use the sugar crystals to punch little holes in the butter and have those holes capture air. Butter that is too cold won’t expand very easily and it’ll never capture much air.

The result? Heavy and dense, the creamed butter will resemble chunky, grainy spread the consistency of natural peanut butter.  There’s also little or no change in color. Properly creamed butter and sugar will be pale yellow in color, but not white (more on this later).

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If the butter is too soft or melted, the air bubbles will be created but then will collapse again. This causes a greasy, wet mixture that will result in heavy, soggy cakes. Any air bubbles you’ve managed to create will also be knocked out as soon as the eggs and flour are added.

Notice how smeared the mixture is around the edge of the bowl. This makes it much harder for it to incorporate into the other ingredients, too. You have to repeatedly scrape down the bowl as the oilier butter resists releasing from the bowl.

As a side note, this is also what happens if you try to cream oil and sugar. Leave the oil for recipes that don’t call for the creaming method.

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Now that we’ve seen both extremes, let’s check out the results when the butter is at the right temperature.

There we have it. The mixture is lightened in color, it’s visibly fluffy, and it’s not clinging to the sides of the bowl.

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Let’s look at the three results side by side. Starting on the left: too cold and the mixture sits in a lump. Too warm, and the mixture spreads out and has an oily layer. Finally, properly creamed, the mixture sits up tall and has visible fluffy peaks.

Besides looks, the feel of each mixture will be different as well. Under-creamed and your mix will feel like wet sand or damp cornmeal. Over-creamed, and your mix will have the feel of oil and sugar on your fingers, rather like a facial scrub.

Your well-creamed mix will be moist and light and the sugar will be nearly dissolved. You’ll barely feel any grit when you rub it between your fingers.

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Of course, having the softened butter is just one part of the equation, albeit a big one. Mixing at too high or too low a speed and for too short or long a time will also wreak havoc with your creaming.

With the advent of the more powerful stand mixers that we use today, gone are the days of having to whip the butter and sugar mixture on high speed for several minutes to achieve good results.

Instead, a moderate speed (typically speed 3-4 on a stand mixer) for 2 to 3 minutes is sufficient to get the aeration you’re looking for.

In the photo above, the softened butter and sugar were beaten together at high speed (10 on our KitchenAid stand mixer) for 5 minutes.  You can see it’s nearly pure white compared to the original color of the butter used. Sorry, fellow bakers, if it’s gone this far there’s no going back.

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If you’ve ever had dense, gummy streaks in your cake, this is your culprit: over-creaming.

A member of our Baker’s Hotline team, pastry chef JoAnn, recommends saving it, though, by adding some cinnamon or other favorite spice and using it for a sweet spread on your toast, pancakes, or strata.

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Not too hard, not too soft, but just, just right.

We hope you’ve found this information helpful. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, and we hope these photos and our video will help you achieve the cakes and bakes of your dreams.

MaryJane Robbins
About

MaryJane Robbins grew up in Massachusetts and moved to Vermont 20 years ago. After teaching young children for 15 years, she changed careers and joined King Arthur Flour in 2005. MaryJane began working on King Arthur Flour's baker’s hotline in 2006, and the blog team ...

comments

  1. Alayo

    I creamed my butter and sugar together on 6 speed hand mixer for close to 10 min but still my sugar did not resolve at all I can still feel the sugar on my hand then I went ahead to add my egg but to my surprise the whole thing just changed and it begin to separate it self that I can see my egg, butter separately I don’t no what is the problem please help out the cause of it.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Alayo, it sounds like perhaps you’re creaming the butter and sugar together for too long. Some brands of sugar don’t completely dissolve during the creaming process, which is okay; the sugar will melt during baking and have a smooth texture once it the cake is done baking. One thing you might want to try if you’re looking to avoid a gritty texture in the creamed butter and sugar is using Baker’s Special Sugar. It’s a superfinely ground sugar that dissolves easily when creamed. Also, try following the general timeline of creaming outlined in this video here. The total creaming process shouldn’t take longer than a few minutes with periods of scraping down the sides periodically.

      If the sugar and butter are properly creamed and the egg is at room temperature, the mixture should quickly become homogenous, especially once some of the dry ingredients are added. You can also try adding 1 tablespoon of Cake Enhancer to the mixture at this point, which will act like an emulsifier and help bring everything together. We hope this helps and happy baking! Kye@KAF

  2. Zubaidah Binte Ally

    Hi I fm Singapore n recently, I try be doing butter cake. After creaming my butter n sugar, I add 1 egg at a time but my mixture starts to curdle n I do not get enough volume. My cake is dense. Is it true that curdling occurs if the butter and sugar is under cream?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hello! Undercreaming can definitely prevent your mixture from becoming smooth and cohesive, but the other thing that can cause curdling issues is if any of the ingredients are too cold. Aim to have all of your ingredients be at room temperature; eggs, butter, etc. and in combination with creaming butter and sugar until it’s nice and light and fluffy, the next batch should be lovely. Also, it’s important to note that any recipe using lemon juice or acid will have a curdled batter until you add flour and that’s perfectly fine. Annabelle@KAF

  3. Denise

    Thank you for this information. For years, I thought that having your eggs at room temperature would prevent the gumminess from appearing in a cake. I’m baking a cake for folks I’ve never prepared a cake for and I’m anxious about how it will turn out. I’m also baking a type of cake I’ve never baked before; so, I’m even more anxious. Having read your post about not over creaming has brought back some of my confidence. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. Laurie

    Could over creaming cause flat cookies? I had not made this cookie for at least 20 years but didn’t remember the result as being flat. I made a double batch last night but I’m sure I would have done that back in the old days. I doubt that I would have measured as carefully back then and I probably didn’t let the butter soften. If the butter is very soft but not melted–from sitting on the counter too many hours–how would that affect the outcome of the cookie? Although there are many variables, I think the butter softness is most likely the biggest change I’ve made in preparation…..Today I received two more baking pans from KA. I ordered three others last month and liked them so much, I ordered more. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re glad to hear you’ve been bitten by the baking bug, especially recently, Laurie! Over creaming can definitely cause cookies to spread a lot. When you make cake, you tend to cream butter and sugar until they’re light and fluffy. With cookies, you want to cream them until they’re just combined for best results. Annabelle@KAF

  5. Eucharia Chinwendu

    I was mixing the butter and sugar anti clockwise and later change to clockwise what happens to my cake

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Eucharia — clockwise or counter-clockwise won’t make a difference, just be sure to scrape scrape scrape! Annabelle@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Claire. Castor sugar does a better job of dissolving into the butter and giving you a smoother, more cohesive mixture, but regular sugar is just fine! You just may notice a slightly grainy texture is certain baked goods. Annabelle@KAF

  6. Gail Krenz

    I don’t know if anyone else has noticed but in the past yr or so no matter what brand of butter or margarine I use it won’t soften up proper even left out over night. Also I have put butter on top of piping hot pasta or baked potato-just sits there and wont melt!! God knows what we are eating but my daughter has made the same complaint-my x-mas cookies were ruined this year and I also noticed there is no buttery flavor!! What is happening!!??? Any one else experiencing this?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Gail, it’s possible that some of the brands of butter or margarine you’re used to using have changed their formulas slightly. We recommend experimenting with different kinds until you find one that gives you the flavor, texture, and baking results you’re looking for. We use Cabot Grade AA butter in the test kitchen and find that it’s a reliable ingredient that bakes up beautifully. You might try looking for this butter to see if it helps. Kye@KAF

  7. Liz

    This was awesome, thanks. I live my Fanny Farmer cookbook so much but she doesn’t explain how to cream or what it does. This is a game changer for me! Lovely helpful article.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      If your butter and sugar mixture becomes too warm, you can simply chill it in the fridge for about 3-5 minutes until it firms up again, then try creaming again. If there’s something else that’s happening with your creamed mixture that we’re not understanding, please feel free to give the Baker’s Hotline a call at 855-371-BAKE(2253) so we can figure out how to get you headed in the right direction. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  8. Sarah Cotton

    I recently made my first Victoria Sponge Cake. I think I must have over creamed it as it came out dense in places like the picture showed above but worse.
    I used an electric hand held whisk first on the lowest speed No1 (which seemed very high to me still) then switched to the highest speed for 2-3 minutes and whisked all the ingredients at the same time together.
    Please can you advise if this is ok to use and as all the speeds seem fast including the very lowest how should I go about it in future to avoid a dense cake?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Sarah, it’s hard to give you precise times without knowing the temperature of your ingredients, the environment, and the speed of your mixer. We encourage you to give it another try and instead of focusing on the time on the clock, look at the color and texture of the butter. Have this video running by your side, if possible, and compare what you see in your bowl to the one we show in this video about how to cream butter and sugar. Use video cues to help guide your timing, knowing that sometimes mixing for slightly less time can actually produce a lighter cake. Be sure to stop and scrape down the sides of the bowl periodically; this will ensure a smooth and even foundation for a tall, fluffy cake! Kye@KAF

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