Recipes for baked goods, such as cookies, cakes, and quick breads, tend to use softened butter because it mixes much easier with flour and sugar in batters or cookie dough than hard, cold butter or even melted butter. Softened butter should still hold its shape but dent when pressed. No part of it should be melted. Use these softening methods for both salted and unsalted butter.
Softening Butter at Room Temperature
The easiest way to soften butter is to remove a cold stick from the refrigerator and let it stand at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes until it becomes room temperature or until just spreadable. The timing will vary depending on the room temperature and how cold the butter is to start with. If the butter starts getting quite soft but is not yet melted, place it back in the refrigerator for a few minutes to keep it from melting before you are ready to use it.
Cut Up the Butter: If you cut a stick of butter into smaller chunks or slices, it will soften more rapidly at room temperature. If you need a specific measurement of butter, measure it while the butter is whole, using the measurements on the wrapper as a guide.
Pound It: To shorten softening time, place the wrapped stick of butter between two pieces of parchment or waxed paper and pound it several times on each side with a rolling pin to partially flatten.
Beat It: Some recipes call for softened butter that is then beaten with electric mixer along with other ingredients. For these recipes, you can cut the cold butter into small chunks and beat it by itself with the electric mixer until it softens before adding the additional ingredients.
Microwave It: This method works best for softening butter to use as a spread. If using this method for baking, make sure the butter does not start to melt, since this would be too soft for baking recipes that call for softened butter. To microwave, place the butter in a microwave-safe dish and microwave on 30 percent power (defrost) for 15 seconds. Check the consistency of the butter and repeat, if necessary.
Tip: If the butter you are softening for cookie dough melts, use it for another purpose and soften new butter for your cookies. Once melted, the butter reacts differently with the dough and will give your cookies a different consistency.