Almost in all my vegan recipes I have mentioned to use your ingredient on room temperature. Few people have told me that they really enjoy learning about the science, background, whys, and why nots in vegan baking. Why some ingredients work, why others do not. The particular methods for particular recipes and why they are used. I’m fascinated by it all too! So that’s why I’m focusing on a few new topics in my future blog posts, more in detail about vegan baking ingredients overall and in detail how to bake cakes, cupcakes etc. As much as I have baked in my life there is one thing that is 100% sure - you can’t rush baking. You can’t speed up cookie dough chilling, the chocolate setting, or the cheesecake evenly firming. You can’t rush French macarons or skip a dough proofing step. And you absolutely can’t ignore the need for room temperature ingredients by using straight-from-the-fridge instead.
Certain recipes call for ingredients like vegan yogurt, cream cheese, butter, and/or milk to be at room temperature but many people ignore this step. No! Don’t! Room temperature isn’t listed next to ingredients for fun. Recipe authors aren’t trying to make your life. There’s science and legitimate reason behind the importance of temperature. Which brings me to my top baking rule: if a recipe calls for room temperature ingredients, use room temperature ingredients. There is no way around this and if you use, say, cold vegan butter or cold plant – based milk when they should be room temperature– your recipe won’t live up to its potential. And it most certainly won’t taste the way it should.
When at room temperature, vegan butter, and other ingredients form an emulsion which traps air. While baking in the oven, that trapped air expands and produces a fluffy baked good. For example: a light-textured cake or a tender cupcake. Not only this, room temperature ingredients bond together very easily since they’re warmer, creating a seamless and evenly textured batter. A smooth batter = a uniformly textured baked good. Cold ingredients do not incorporate together as easily. Or even at all! This results in clumpy frosting, chunky cheesecake, dense cookies, flat breads and muffins, etc. In other words, complete recipe failures.
A lot of recipes start with room temperature vegan butter creamed with sugar. Creaming just means that the two are beaten together until light, white, and creamy. When you think about it, sugar is nothing but a billion little jagged-edged (and delicious!) crystals. When beaten with vegan butter, their edges dig out little air pockets in the vegan butter. If your vegan butter is too cold because you just took it out of the fridge or only gave it 10 minutes to soften, the sugar crystals can’t claw their way through the hard vegan butter texture. No trapped air, no light and airy baked good.
If the vegan butter is at its magic room temperature, the sugar effectively aerates the butter during that creaming process. The baking powder and/or soda helps expand those little air pockets the creaming process created and your finished baked good is light! Tender! Fluffy! Just as it should be because you followed the rules with the magic that is room temperature butter.
And the same goes for room temperature vegan butter in vegan buttercream frostings. How can you start a beautifully creamy and fluffy frosting with cold butter? And the same for vegan cream cheese frosting– with cold cream cheese? You can’t! The resulting frosting will be clumpy. It’s not pretty and chunks of vegan butter or cream cheese in your frosting certainly isn’t appetizing. When vegan butter is at room temperature, you should be able to press your finger into it and make an indent easily, without your finger sliding anywhere. Firm, but not cold. Lightly softened without being greasy or melty in the slightest.
How to bring butter to room temperature: no rocket science here! Simply take the butter out of the refrigerator 1 hour before beginning your recipe. No ifs, ands, or buts. Sometimes I put the butter on a plate near my oven if I’m using the oven for something else– even just a little heat helps speed it up. If you try to use the microwave to soften that butter, be extremely careful as the slightest bit of melted butter can ruin your entire creaming process. Try slicing the stick of butter into 8 equal pieces (8 Tablespoons), placing on a plate, and microwaving for 2 seconds. Stop. 2 seconds more. Stop. But I urge you to just do it the old school way. The one where patience is needed. The microwave is one risky method.
A lot of cake, cupcake, or bread recipes starting with room temperature vegan butter call for other ingredients like plant – based milk, vegan cream cheese, vegan yogurt, etc. The emulsion begins with the butter and sugar, but it doesn’t stop there. It continues with the rest of the ingredients. To keep your batter smooth and the emulsification seamless, make sure the rest of the recipe ingredients are room temperature as well. Good rule of thumb - if the recipe calls for room temperature or melted butter, the rest of the ingredients should be room temperature as well unless otherwise specified. How to bring these ingredients to room temperature: no shortcuts here. Simply take these ingredients out of the refrigerator when you take out the butter to soften, about 1 hour before beginning the recipe.
Ingredient fluidity – This is primarily a factor with vegan butter since its level of plasticity changes greatly within a relatively narrow temperature range. If you stick butter in your batter straight from the fridge it will not distribute in your batter as well as room temperature butter and in turn will not properly coat flour proteins or allow for intake of air pockets during the beating process.
Emulsification – Both butter and flax egg play an important role in the emulsification (joining of fats and liquids) of batter ingredients. Cold butter, as noted above, doesn’t distribute well enough to emulsify properly and, as with all chemical processes, emulsification (via butter or flax egg) occurs slower and less thoroughly in a chilled setting.
Dissolving of ingredients – Sugar dissolves in varying degrees within a batter based on the temperature of the liquid ingredients. Too cold and it will dissolve very little, too warm and it will dissolve too much.
As a general rule of thumb, you want to use cold ingredients for any kind of baked good with a flaky final texture. Examples of this are pie and tart crusts, biscuits, scones, puff pastry, and other. For all of these examples it is important that the fat remains solid before the baked good goes into the oven. The small pieces of solid fat that are studded throughout the dough will melt in the oven creating little pockets, aka flakiness. For these recipes you want to make sure your vegan butter, cream, etc. are cold before making the dough.
When you are bringing ingredients to room temperature you want them to be around 70 F (21 C). This is the temperature at which butter is soft but is not starting to look greasy or glossy yet. Once butter gets to the point where it is greasy looking or starting to melt it is too warm and you should pop it back in the refrigerator for a few minutes. The best way to bring ingredients to room temperature is to plan ahead. Leave your vegan butter, milk, sour cream, and cream cheese out on your counter for 30-60 minutes before starting your recipe depending on how warm your kitchen is.
If you are in a rush you can bring your ingredients to room temperature more quickly using these techniques:
Butter & Cream Cheese: Butter and cream cheese can come to room temperature quickly but cutting them up into small pieces and spreading them out. The smaller the pieces are, the quicker they will come to room temperature. I can get my butter to room temperature in about 5 minutes after it is cut into small pieces. I do not recommend microwaving butter to bring it to room temperature because it can easily become too warm.
Milk & Cream: Milk and cream can be brought to room temperature quickly by microwaving them for about 15-20 seconds to take the chill off.
cold ingredients lead to a coarse and heavy textured cake
room temperature ingredients allow for a fine texture and light mouthfeel
warm ingredients cause the cake to be more coarse in texture but retain the light feel
For many recipes, room temperature ingredients are the best bet. However, this is not true across the board. Some recipes actually rely on the ingredients being cold or hot to ensure recipe success. A good example is pie dough , which requires ice-cold water and chilled butter to create beautifully flaky layers. When in doubt, trust your recipe! I’ve said it a billion times and I’ll say it again: when it comes to baking, it pays off to be a perfectionist. Pay attention to temperature. Temperature is a reason your recipe will or won’t turn out. Always follow the recipe. Do you understand the importance of room temperature ingredients now? Hope so!