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Jun 19, 2012 06:31 PM

What is the effect of using melted butter in a cake recipe vs. room temperature butter?

I haven't seen many recipes that call for melted butter instead of room temperature butter, and I'm just wondering how using melted butter instead of room temperature butter affects the cake.

I was looking at this recipe:
And in the pictures the cake looks SO moist. Is that an effect of using melted butter (which that recipe calls for)?

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  1. In part, yes.

    Basically, when recipies call for softened butter, they use the creaming method; the sugar and butter are mixed together in such a way that the sugar cuts little air bubbles into the butter. These little bubbles can add some extra volume to whatever you are making.

    If you melt the butter first, not only do you not have those air bubbles, but there's water in butter, so you'll end up getting some gluten development when you mix in the flour and create a more "chewy" or softer texture.

    3 Replies
    1. re: ipsedixit

      Nice explanation. Adding also that coating the flour w/ butter also helps prevent more gluten development, in addition to the water. I like melted butter because it makes a denser cake.

      I think this is a good description, although it's based on bread, it still applies to cakes.

      That OP recipe posted sounds really good. I'll have to give it a try some time.

      1. re: chowser

        I think I remember seeing on ATK that you should "Bend" your butter. IOW, pick it up and bend a stick. If it bends it's the perfect degree of "Warm" where as if you can't pick it up or it breaks it's not the right temp.


      2. re: ipsedixit

        I wonder whether the water in the butter does much in a cake. There is already quite a bit of liquid in cake batters (it's not a cake dough). Does melted butter do anything different than oil in a cake - other than the taste?

        Moisture content of butter is relevant in cookies, where there is little additional liquid. But even there it can have more effect on dissolving the sugar than on developing gluten. You need to consider water content when substituting American butter for European butter or shortening in cookies and crusts. Crusts are so dry that substituting alcohol for water makes a difference in gluten development.

      3. 100% on target. Also, the recipe you're linked to is for a pound cake which isn't typically as light and airy as a layer cake, hence the melted butter for the chewy texture ipsedixit described.

        1. I must confess. I keep the butter in the freezer, so the simplest and easiest way to get it ready for cooking is to melt it in the microwave, so everything I bake starts with melted butter, whether the recipe said to or not!

          2 Replies
            1. re: ipsedixit

              Well for those some recipes call for grating frozen butter anyway, so I think this freezer system could work, although I am not sure what Kajikit does :)

          1. Melted butter can be used with muffin method cakes (mix dry, wet, together). It is also added to egg foam cakes.

            The voids (bubbles) in your cake can be formed by any of 3 gases:
            air incorporated in creaming or beating the eggs
            co2 from the baking powder
            steam formed during baking

            I suspect most of the volume is from the steam. The others mainly create the starting points, the 'seeds' for the steam to collect in. Creaming has the potential creating a more uniform matrix of small voids. Cakes and muffins using muffins may have the same volume, but the voids tend to be more heterogeneous (some small, some larger, etc).
            On further thought, I'd say that nearly all of the rise during baking comes from steam. Expansion of incorporated air does some rise, as does the Co2 from double acting baking powder, but steam's the big thing.

            Baking a merangue is an example of fixing a mechanically created foam. Cream puffs and popovers are examples of steam created bubbles, without seed bubbles, resulting in one or two large ones.

            1. I like them dense, too, and I also frequently sub in brown butter for some or all.