Carla Hall Rescues Over-Softened Butter With A Simple Hack

One of the reasons baked goods are so irresistible is in large part due to butter. Whether you're making cookies, pie crust, scones, or croissants, sweet cream butter not only flavors the dough but impacts the treat's overall texture and mouthfeel.

Baking is an exact science, and butter's temperature is a critical element. Most recipes call for room-temperature butter, but that's a subjective qualifier since the ambient temperature in a kitchen fluctuates based on the house and season. If butter is too cold for the recipe, it's hard to work with and won't blend well with the other ingredients. Throw it in the microwave a second too long, and quickly the butter is over-softened, leaving pie crust less flaky and cakes dense.

When chef Carla Hall prepares her famous buttermilk biscuit recipe from her cookbook, "Carla Hall's Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration," she prevents the butter from over-softening using a take on the popular 1970s fire safety PSA "Stop, Drop, and Roll." 

When the butter seems too soft, Hall stops handling it, drops it into flour, and rolls it in flour to prevent her warm hands from melting it further. When the butter feels firm enough to handle again, Hall continues the recipe. And, rather than wait for butter to reach room temperature, Hall has another genius tip — she grates it. 

How to grate butter, Carla Hall style

When you've forgotten to pull the butter out of the fridge on time or feel like baking spontaneously, you may not have the patience to wait for it to reach the right temperature. Room temperature butter, between 68 degrees and 72 degrees Fahrenheit, is soft enough to work with but holds its shape when pressed, referred to as the "plastic state" by many bakers.

There are many hacks for reaching this desired room temperature: microwave it or dunk it in a hot drinking glass, which you have to monitor. Even leaving a stick overnight on the counter can result in over-softened butter if your kitchen is too warm, the sun is shining, or you've been using your oven all day. Grating frozen butter eliminates these risks and delivers the consistent results Carla Hall relies on for her tender buttermilk biscuits.

Butter can be grated using a box grater or the food processor's grating attachment. Remove the wrapper and coat the butter in flour. Place some flour on the grater, too. As quickly as possible, grate the stick directly into the flour mixture, occasionally tossing shards with flour as you grate. If the butter sticks, it's too warm and should be chilled in the refrigerator before proceeding. When the butter nob gets too warm and difficult to grate, toss it into the flour and roll it around. 

Use grated butter in these recipes

While flour's gluten content is needed for structure, too much gluten development leads to a tough bite, not the description you want for biscuits. To keep them tender, bakers coat flour with softened butter, creating a force field around the flour, which prevents it from absorbing too much liquid and activating the gluten.

When used for buttermilk biscuits, grated butter creates flaky layers in the finished product. Similarly, scone recipes for tea parties or otherwise can benefit from this technique, leaving layers of solid butter throughout the dough. When baked, the heat evaporates the water content and releases steam, making the dough rise. Grating butter into small curls allows you to distribute the fat evenly throughout the dough as well, resulting in the ideal texture and loftiness.

For recipes like shortbread and pie crust, where you want a tender, crumbly texture, grating butter prevents you from overworking the dough. Traditionally done by cutting the butter into the flour, grated pieces are small enough that you don't have to handle the dough as much, which also activates the gluten protein.

If you bake often, keeping a stick or two in the freezer is not a bad idea. Salted butter will last one year and unsalted for six months in the freezer. And with these handy tricks, you'll be able to use it in no time when you're ready to bake.