What's The Difference: "Room Temperature" Vs. "Softened" In Baking

Learn what these two common baking terms mean for us living in a tropical country.

IMAGE PIxabay
ILLUSTRATOR Roselle Miranda

You've always been told that baking is a science. There are certain aspects of baking that make it different from cooking that it even has its own terms! Some terms in baking are especially important to know and you'll see these two terms often when reading through a recipe: softened and room temperature. 

Contrary to what some may believe, these two terms do not mean the same thing. In fact, knowing exactly what these two terms mean and how these affect your baking ingredients can result in making you a better baker. 

Here's what you should know about ingredients that are either softened or at room temperature: 

Did you know that you can use cold eggs, not room-temperature eggs, when making cookie dough?
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1 Softened refers to texture. Room temperature refers to hot or cold. 

If you take the words for what they really mean, there's a big difference. Objects that are described as "soft" refer to how it feels when pressed, the texture of the material when you rub it between fingertips, or when it's on your tongue, the mouthfeel is tender or silky. Texture can mean the ingredient is warm or cold so the temperature is relative to the ingredient. 

Room temperature means the ingredient should be either cool or warm. Anything in between is what is known as trepid or lukewarm. A thermometer is the best gauge of whether an ingredient is cold or hot. However, when an ingredient is described as needing to be "at room temperature", the ingredient needs to be at that temperature. For us, that usually means around 28 degrees C at night and can go up to 39 degrees C during the height of the dry season in the daytime. 

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Since many of us refrigerate ingredients such as eggs, butter, and even flour, removing these ingredients from the cold and warming them up to "room temperature" on our countertops is common practice. This is perfectly fine for the eggs, flour, and other ingredients that won't melt and instead will warm up without losing their texture.

For ingredients that do melt such as butter, however, this is where it gets tricky.

Butter that has been softened well is easy to cream with other ingredients, even without a mixer.
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2 Softened can mean cooler than room temperature. 

What room temperature is in the Philippines is not always the same as the room temperature of another country. Many recipes created in other countries use the phrase with the understanding that room temperature is a temperate one. That's why leaving out the butter, eggs, and other ingredients can be done without any fuss. Unfortunately, we live in a tropical country. 

Simply put, the "room temperature" meant for cooler temperatures doesn't always apply to us, especially when you are dealing with butter. A cool day is great but room temperature rises even higher as the day progresses to noon, where it can rise to beyond 90 degrees F 32 degrees C. This is around the same temperature when butter melts. So, when you leave out the butter to "warm to room temperature", you might actually be melting it instead of just softening it. 

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This is where "softened" becomes a much more meaningful term that's applicable to baking in a tropical country like ours. Using softened butter instead of room temperature-butter that's been left out is a big deal for baking. Using melted butter instead of softened can mean your batter or dough doesn't form the way it should and can make it fail. 

Butter that's been cubed will warm up faster than an entire block, so cut it up when softening it. 
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So the next time you need ingredients that are either softened or at room temperature, take into account what it means for the ingredient. If it melts, it's best to soften it instead. 

If you need to soften butter, here are a few quick tips:

  • ‚Äʬ†Softening butter¬†can take up to 1 hour or more depending on the¬†weather. If it's¬†a warm day, it may take¬†less time. If it's a cool day, it may take longer.¬†
  • ‚ÄĘ To check the butter, you should be able to firmly press a finger into the butter without digging too much into the block.
  • ‚ÄĘ If you can't firmly press into the butter, let it soften for another 15 minutes before checking again.

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