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. Alyssa

    When I’m baking a cupcake with a recipe that says cream butter and sugar my cupcakes always come out dense tasting and have the feel and texture of a very sweet biscuit what could I be doing wrong? But when I make cupcakes that require oil my cupcakes come out fluffy and moist

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Alyssa! It sounds like the butter and sugar aren’t getting quite light and fluffy enough before the other ingredients are added in. That process can take over 5 minutes and it really does make a big difference in how much air your batter will have, resulting in a lighter texture. Moisture is a result of oil so that makes sense, but if it’s both dense and dry when made with butter, there could be too much flour added to the batter. If not using a scale, we’d recommend measuring flour using the fluff, sprinkle, and scrape method shown here. We’d be happy to troubleshoot further at 855-371-BAKE (2253). Annabelle@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Najisha, over-mixing is the #1 cause of tunneling in cakes. This is because too much gluten forms in the batter, which makes it harder for the gasses inside to get out during baking. They build up pressure until they push all the way out like a volcano, leaving you with tunnels. The best solution is to just barely mix your flour and wet ingredients together enough to get everything wet, and then leave it alone. Some lumpiness is just fine! Kat@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Najisha! You’re certainly welcome to give it a try, but we’ve found that using a mixer to cream the butter and sure works the best. Happy baking! Morgan@KAF

  2. Pamela

    Wow this article is so perfect and well written. I was so close to giving up because I always watched how long/ how fast I mixed the mixture once I started adding the dry ingredients, but never imagined that gummy consistency can also be because of the butter! Mind. blown. After I cream the sugar and butter, I add the eggs one by one. Any recommendation on the speed and for how long I should mix after that? It’s a Dominican cake family recipe and it didn’t come with instructions 😬 it’s always a hit or miss for me

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Why is it that so many family recipes seem to lack details, Pamela? It’s always the case with our family recipes at least! Thankfully, if you simply add the eggs one at a time and let them completely mix in (probably about 20 to 30 seconds on a low speed) you should have a cohesive mixture that doesn’t over mix. Making sure the eggs are room temperature makes a huge difference in how easy they’ll incorporate so you may be able to add then quicker than every 20 to 30 seconds. Best of luck in experimenting! Annabelle@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We use the paddle, Kris. The whisk attachment is ideal for making meringue and whipped cream. Annabelle@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Cassie! One thing that can help eliminate air bubbles is if you carefully rap the bottom of the cake pan on the counter a few times before putting it in the oven. This will force all of the air bubbles to rise to the top and pop before baking. Annabelle@KAF

  3. Joan Guettler

    I am using granulated sugar that has a larger grain. Should the appearance of the sugar change in the creaming process?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi there, Joan! The size of the sugar granules won’t change much, some of them will dissolve but for the most part, you’ll see the little sugar crystals throughout the creaming process. If you’d like you could put the sugar in the food processor or blender before using it in a recipe to grind it up a bit so it dissolves more while being creamed with butter. Happy baking! Morgan@KAF

  4. Zoe

    Would under creaming butter and sugar prevent cookies from spreading? I’ve read conflicting articles where some argue that under creaming leads to cookies that don’t spread while other articles say that under creaming will lead to cookies that spread too much. Do you have any opinions on this?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Zoe! It would depend on the recipe, as one with more flour would have a bit more gluten structure to keep things firmer, even if you were to over cream the butter. Generally over creaming causes a fluffier cookie texture, and under creaming isn’t a frequent issue. We’d be able to help you more specifically with some additional details, so we encourage you to reach out to our free and friendly Baker’s Hotline staff to help troubleshoot at 855-371-BAKE (2253). Kindly, Annabelle@KAF

  5. Chloe

    How long would you cream them together with a hand mixer? This is the first time baking something not out of a box so I don’t have a nice mixer.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Chloe! It will take about the same time, possibly a little faster because hand mixers tend to have quicker beaters than stand mixers do. Keep an eye on the consistency and appearance rather than on the clock for best results. Annabelle@KAF

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