One thing I love about cooking/baking is that it’s a skill, meaning that everyone and anyone can become good at it (yes, even those who say they can’t bake cookies out of a plastic package). My issue with most recipes is they don’t explain WHY you’re doing what you’re doing, and if you can understand what’s going on in your recipe, you will make better food and things will be less likely to go wrong. If you make cookies, cakes, muffins, or quick breads, you’re typically baking by the creaming method. Have you noticed that many of these recipes just say “cream the butter and sugar together until smooth?” Yeah, not very helpful, and there’s more to it than that. There are proper ways of using this technique, and my goal with this post is to help you understand the creaming method and avoid common mistakes, like undercreaming your butter and sugar (you need those air bubbles!)
First of all, you want to start out with softened 65-70 degree F butter (no hint of melting) because you need the butter to spread around the bowl easily. The best way to cream is with a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, letting the mixer spread the butter around for a minute on low before adding the sugar (don’t just throw the sugar and butter in the machine and turn it on). You want to add the sugar in slowly while the machine is running to allow the abrasiveness of the sugar to create millions of tiny but important air bubbles in the butter. This is the main goal of creaming, creating air. Chemical leaveners like baking soda do not create bubbles, they only provide the gases to blow those bubbles up. These bubbles are going to give you the texture you want in the end.
A common mistake that people make is undercreaming (but don’t mix it to death because you can overcream too). You want to stop when you can no longer see the sugar granules, but when you rub some of the sugar butter in between two fingers, you can still feel them. It should look smooth, and if it ever starts to look like cottage cheesy curdled milk, you’ve creamed too much.
After the sugar and butter are creamed, you usually add eggs. A lot of recipes say to add the eggs in one at a time, but the eggs will actually have a harder time getting absorbed this way than if you just lightly whisk the eggs ahead of time to emulsify the egg yolks and the egg whites, and pour it in steadily.
When the eggs are absorbed, you may add other little flavorings like vanilla or liqueur, but at the end comes the dry ingredients. They should always be sifted together ahead of time, and you should add your dry ingredients in slowly with the mixer on low. Bits and pieces like chocolate chips or nuts should be mixed in at the end, and I always like to stop mixing right before the flour disappears and finish mixing by hand, so there is no chance of overmixing (overmixing=tough baked goods=yucky).
Did you learn a few things about creaming? I hope so! Now when you make cookies, cakes, or muffins, you will understand the purpose of the things you’re doing. If you have any questions or comments, please post below! For more reading on creaming, see Alton Brown’s amazing baking book I’m Just Here For More Food. Many thanks to Alton for helping me understand creaming =)