Creaming Time in Cupcakes

Many cake and cupcake recipes start by creaming the butter and sugar together until the mixture is light and fluffy. This step adds tiny air bubbles to the batter, and as we’ve discussed, it’s crucial for the final rise and texture of the cake. But what happens if we don’t cream the butter enough? Or if we cream it too long? In this experiment, we under- and over-cream the butter to see the effect in cupcakes.

Experiment Overview

Goal: To see and taste a difference in cupcakes made with butter that is under- or over-creamed
Recipe: Vanilla Cupcakes from Pretty. Simple. Sweet.
Method: Beat butter and sugar until just combined. Remove one-third of the mixture. Beat the remaining butter until light and fluffy. Remove another third. Beat the last third of the mixture on high speed for several more minutes. To each portion of butter and sugar, add the remaining ingredients. Bake, cool, and analyze.
Results: With the under- and over-creamed cupcakes, we noticed
– Different batter consistency
– Lower rise and denser cakes
– Tougher cakes
– More tunneling
– Stickier paper liners
Conclusions: A perfectly creamed cupcake has the highest rise, best crumb, and lightest texture. Under-creaming won’t break a recipe, and a little over-creaming won’t hurt, either, but a severely over-creamed cake might collapse into a dense, gummy mass.

Testing Method

Ingredients and Equipment

  • 187g Baker’s Corner all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp Clabber Girl baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp Stonemill iodized salt
  • 2 large Goldhen eggs, at room temperature
  • 120g Friendly Farms whole milk, at room temperature, divided
  • 111g Countryside Creamery unsalted butter, softened
  • 200g Baker’s Corner granulated sugar
  • 12-tin muffin pan
  • KitchenAid 5-speed hand mixer
  • Stand mixer

Baking the Cupcakes

  1. Line a 12-muffin pan with paper cups and preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. Combine flour, baking powder, and salt (192 g total). Divide into three portions (64 g each). In another bowl, whisk the eggs (108g total). Divide into three portions (36g each). Divide the milk into three 40g portions.
  3. With the handheld electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar (311g total) together until just combined, about 4 minutes on speeds 1–2, then remove 103g (under-creamed). Cream the remaining butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about another 5 minutes at speed 3, then remove another 103g (control). Transfer the remaining butter mixture to a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat at medium speed for another 5 minutes (over-creamed).
  4. To each portion of butter mixture, add 36g egg and mix until combined.
  5. To each batter, add half a portion of flour and mix until just combined. Then add the entire 40g milk and mix until just combined. Lastly, add the remaining flour and mix until just combined.
  6. Divide each batter into four muffin cups (50g per muffin). Bake 20 minutes, cool for 5 minutes, then remove muffins to a rack to cool completely.

Results

To better understand these results, I suggest checking out the earlier post about butter’s role in leavening. In this recipe, the creaming step adds air into the butter, and the air expands in the oven to raise the cupcakes. It may also be helpful to review what happens in under- or over-leavened batters.

Different batter consistency

Creamed mixture

After creaming the butter and sugar together, the three mixtures had different consistencies. The under-creamed mixture was crumbly, and when I rubbed it between my fingers, it was gritty with sugar crystals. The perfectly creamed mixture was light and fluffy, and its texture was smoother. The over-creamed mixture was greasy, most likely because it was warmest. As butter creams, friction from the mixer warms it up. In hotter rooms, warm air whipped into the butter will also soften it.

The creamed mixtures also differed in color. The more air in the butter, the lighter its appearance. The perfectly creamed butter was a pale yellow, but the over-creamed butter bordered on white. Air makes the butter appear lighter in color because the tiny bubbles scatter light rays, and the more there air bubbles are, the paler the butter. (This is why snow is white even though ice is clear!) As we’ll see later on, the differences in color caused by aeration are noticeable in the crumb of the baked muffins as well.

As the butter was creamed for longer, its texture and color changed.

Batter

After the batters were fully prepared, the under-creamed mixture was thinnest, and the over-creamed batter was thickest. This could be a result of differences in water absorption caused by the sugar. Sugar likes water, so it competes with flour for it. But given the different textures of the creamed butter mixtures, the sugar probably dissolved to different extents during the creaming step, which changed how much more water it wanted.

The grittiness of the under-creamed mixture suggests that the sugar remained in large crystals, thirsty for more water to dissolve in. So when the milk was added to the batter, the sugar used the liquid to dissolve into a syrup, leaving less water for the flour to absorb. As a result, the batter is thinner.

On the other end, in the over-creamed mixture, the sugar had more time to dissolve in the water from the butter (remember, butter is 16–18% water), and any remaining particles are small and evenly dispersed throughout the mixture. Because the remaining solid particles are finer, they’re also more likely to dissolve in the liquid from the egg. At this point, the sugar doesn’t need much of the water from the milk to dissolve, so the flour ends up absorbing more milk, which thickens the batter.

Lower rise and denser cakes

After baking, the most striking difference among the cakes was in their height. As you can see, the perfectly creamed cupcake was the tallest of the three. The creaming step is crucial for aeration. As we cream the butter, we add tons of tiny air pockets. These air bubbles remain in the batter, and in the oven, they expand with the help of the baking powder to raise the cake and give it height.

If the butter is under-creamed, the cake batter never has enough air pockets. In the oven, the baking powder doesn’t have many air bubbles to expand, so even though the amount of baking powder is the same, the cake cannot rise as high.

The over-creamed cupcakes also have low volume. If we over-cream the butter, the batter contains too many air pockets. In the oven, all these air bubbles expand, and in the process, they stretch the batter between them. Eventually, the batter breaks, the bubble collapses, and the cake loses volume. Also, as we mentioned earlier, the longer we cream the butter, the warmer it gets. We’ll see in the next post why heat causes a loss of volume.

A perfectly creamed batter contains the correct number of uniform air bubbles. In the oven, these bubbles expand to give the cake maximum height. Although the expanding air stretches the batter thin, it’s not so thin that the structure collapses.

The differences in height also translated to variation in density. The perfectly creamed cake, which contained the most air and rose the highest, was the lightest. The other two cupcakes were denser.

Under- and overmixed batters gain less volume than properly mixed batters.

Tougher cakes

As the air bubbles expand in the cupcake and stretch the batter thin, they also change the texture. Thinner layers of batter are easier to bite through, so they’re more tender. The perfectly creamed cake was the easiest to bite of the three, while the other two cakes were tougher.

Because the under-creamed batter didn’t have enough air pockets to begin with, there weren’t enough expanding air bubbles to stretch the batter as the cake baked. And because the structure collapsed in the over-creamed cakes, they too lacked the thin sheets that make a tender cake. Although both of these cakes were edible, the perfectly creamed cake was noticeably the most tender.

More tunneling

I expected to see differences in the crumbs of the cakes based on what I described in the post about under- and over-leavening. But any differences in crumb were obscured by the tunnels through the cakes. Although all my cupcakes exhibited some tunneling, the tunnels were much more extreme in the under- and over-creamed cakes.

We’ve seen tunnels in overmixed muffins due to excessive gluten development, but tunnels form in cakes for different reasons. Incorrect ingredient ratios, mixing, or oven temperature can all cause the batter to become too thin as it bakes. And if the batter is too thin, expanding air rises quickly through the batter, leaving tunnels in its wake.

As we discussed, the under-creamed batter was thinnest because large sugar crystals grabbed water. In the oven, the sugar only attracts more water, dissolving into a syrup and thinning the batter even further. Thus, the under-creamed cupcakes were susceptible to tunneling.

What about the over-creamed cakes? They started with the thickest batter of the three. My best guess is that the excess air caused the batter to warm and thin more quickly, kind of in the way that muffins with more baking powder brown more, but this result still puzzles me. I expected the over-creamed cake to be dense and gummy (like these muffins without baking powder) due to collapsed air bubbles, but perhaps I didn’t over-cream the butter enough.

Stickier paper liners

A surprising difference among the three cakes was in the ease with which the paper liner came off. The liner of the perfectly creamed cake peeled away easily, but the wrappers on the other two cakes stuck. This is usually a reflection of the moistness of a cake or the amount of fat in the cake.

All the cakes contained the same amount of butter, and I couldn’t detect a difference in moistness among the three. Perhaps the sticky liners were instead a reflection of aeration and density—the perfectly-creamed, lighter cake had less surface between air bubbles for the liner to stick, while the denser cakes had more surfaces for sticking.

Conclusions

Although all three types of cupcakes in this experiment were edible, the perfectly creamed cupcakes had the best volume, texture, and crumb. When preparing cakes and other baked goods that use the creaming method, such as cookies, it’s important to cream the butter just until it’s light and fluffy in order to properly aerate the batter. In the next post, we’ll consider another factor that’s important for successful creaming: the temperature of the butter.

References

Corriher, Shirley O. Bakewise; Scribner: New York, 2008.

Figoni, P. How Baking Works, 3rd ed.; John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: Hoboken, 2011.

Robbins. M. J. Creaming butter and sugar. King Arthur Baking, 2015.



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