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.

PicMonkey Collage

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. Susan Reid

      Hi, Shawn. Overcreamed cookies tend to spread more; they’re flat and look a bit greasy and translucent. Susan

  1. Rebecca Thebeau

    Maybe you answered this already, and if so I am sorry! I have had such a hard time creaming using raw or organic sugar. Both granulated and dark brown sugar I have tried and I cannot get it past a wet sand texture. I’ve tried adding a bit of warm water to the mixture to help dissolve the sugar (a suggestion from another website), but it just seemed to make the mixture looser, not any less grainy or more fluffy. I am at a loss, as none of my family have experience with this type of sugar either. I’d love your advice!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Rebecca, organic and raw sugars tend to be of a coarser grind than your typical granulated sugar, which does make it more difficult to get a smooth texture when creaming. One thing you can try is pulsing the sugar in your food processor to make a finer grind. Just keep an eye on it to make sure you don’t cross the line into something more like powdered sugar. Mollie@KAF

  2. Jill

    I looked through most of the comments but my question is when browning butter for cookies it sounds like I need to refrigerate to get the butter harder after melting. I’m hoping that should give me better results. Thanks SO much for the tutorial! I LOVED it!!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Yes, you should either chill your browned butter or lest it rest at room temperature until it’s solid once again. If you chill it, be sure you don’t let it harden too much or else it won’t cream properly. Ideally the butter will be room temperature, so just letting it rest at room temperature is best if you have enough time. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Yes it sure can, Gail. Overmixing can happen any time you’re creaming together butter and sugar, which some cake mixes call for. Use the general time frame shown in this post any time you’re creaming together butter and sugar. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  3. Beth

    Aaaaugh! No wonder baking is so frustrating. There are so many places to go wrong. I’ve learned to weigh ingredients and have them at room temperature. Now I find out that you can cream incorrectly. Where does it end?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It ends in a beautifully delicious cake, Beth! And while we like to dive deep into the areas where things CAN go wrong, most of the time many many things go right, and when it does, it’s glorious, isn’t it? Mollie@KAF

  4. Elaine Walker

    This was so helpful. Lots of cookbooks and recipes lead you astray on this. I’ve seen recommendations to cream for 5 minutes, which on a KitchenAid Pro creates less than great results. It would be great if you could expand the instructions to be a bit clearer for different kinds of mixers etc. I see that you’ve commented on this in the comments but it would be great to see a table with the categories below.
    – by hand
    – hand mixer
    -Kitchenaid Artisan (the older style)
    – KitchenAid pro

    Hence my question: I have the pro, which looks a lot like the one on the video, but I also have an older artisan style. Should I use 2 minutes on both machines, even though they have clearly different motors?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks for your suggestion, Elaine. We don’t have an Artisan mixer in our test kitchen, so we can’t speak directly to the differences, but it sounds like you have the perfect set-up to do your own experiment. You might also try reaching out to KitchenAid directly to ask them if the RPMs are the same at any given speed. Best of luck and happy baking! Mollie@KAF

  5. Rose

    What about creaming butter and sugar when baking at high altitude. Your article says “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.”
    At high altitude those air bubbles are the enemy that can often cause your cakes to fall/sink in the middle.

    I do follow the rule for decreasing leavener and sugar at high altitude. Despite all attempts, there is no such thing as light and fluffy at high altitude:(

    BTW – I do have Susan Purdy’s “Pie In The Sky” cookbook but what if I want to try recipes from other sources?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Rose, next time you have a recipe that calls for creaming butter and sugar, try cutting back on your mixing time. Shoot for two 30 second increments, scraping down the sides of the bowl halfway through. The creamed mixture should still be light, but also have enough structure to maintain a good texture in your cake. If you haven’t already seen our High-Altitude Baking Chart, check that out as well. It might be helpful in your baking adventures, regardless of whose recipes you’re using. Kye@KAF

    2. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Nigel, it’s important to scrape down the bowl halfway through mixing because often times there’s a layer of butter on the bottom and sides that doesn’t get incorporated. Pausing to mix everything together will ensure a homogeneous texture and evenly baked cake. Kye@KAF

  6. Sally Boyd

    I use organic cane sugar in all my baking. It seems that no matter how much I beat the sugar/butter it never loses that grainy texture to get light and fluffy. Do you have any advice?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Try pulsing the organic cane sugar in a food processor slightly before adding it to the butter mixture. This should make the granules a bit finer and dissolve more easily. Give it a shot the next time you make a recipe and see if that helps. Good luck! Kye@KAF

  7. Victoria

    I just made a Victoria sponge using the “all in” method and was curious about how this method compares to the more typical creaming butter and sugar. Do you start with a softer butter? I would assume you don’t want to mix as long as you would cream, but if the butter isn’t softer than typical, it wouldn’t blend well. Any thoughts?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Great question, Victoria. (Hey, you made your namesake cake!) You’re not the first one to wonder about how cake mixing methods compare, so we actually have a full blog that will be coming out very soon (next week!) showing side-by-side comparisons and in-depth explanations of the methods. We hope you check back in a few days. Tips we can share now: your butter should be room temperature when making both kind of cakes. You’ll want to try to limit mixing time as much as possible to prevent it from becoming tough, but since the fat is added right from the start, it helps coat the flour and prevents gluten from forming as readily. The instructions in the recipe should give clues about how long to mix the batter–usually until just combined. Happy cake baking! Kye@KAF

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