When you first start baking, it might feel as if you’re learning a new language, and in some ways, you really are. You might wonder why recipes have so many mixing terms—cream, cut in, whisk, fold, stir, beat—and whether it really matters which one you choose. It does. The technique and tool you use can dramatically affect how a dish turns out. Let’s explore what these mixing terms really mean.
Cream butter to aerate cakes
Often the first instruction in cake and cookie recipes is “Cream the butter and sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy.”
The purpose of creaming is to beat tiny air bubbles into the butter. A cake that isn’t properly aerated by creaming will be compact and dense instead of light and airy. As you cream butter, or butter and sugar (the best tool is a paddle attachment or flat beaters), the mixture turns fluffier and paler, a direct result of beating air into it.
The crucial question is: What’s the ideal temperature for creaming butter? The answer depends on whom you ask.
Butter holds these air bubbles best at 68°F or just slightly cooler. According to Bruce Healy, a baker who has conducted extensive experiments on this topic, the butterfat in solid butter starts to melt at 68°F. (You can’t see the melting because the butterfat is in an emulsion with milk solids.)
But most cookbooks and pastry chefs call for “room temperature” butter, a term that’s not only imprecise since room temperatures vary immensely, but also, if taken literally, that’s incorrect. In most households, butter that’s truly at room temperature is already a few degrees above 68°F, too warm to cream properly. A better (though less concise) instruction would be to use butter “that’s been left at room temperature just long enough to be pliable yet still firm, not soft and squishy.” Some cooks call this softened butter. With softened butter (it should be about 65°F, which is below room temperature), you can only cream for about three minutes before it gets too warm, the butterfat starts to melt, and some of those precious bubbles collapse. But three minutes should be sufficient to get reasonable aeration.
I get superior creaming when I start with refrigerator-cold butter cut into tablespoon-size pieces. During the first minute of creaming, the butter is still too cold to blend with the sugar. But after six or seven minutes, it’s magnificent—light, very fluffy, and dry.
Cut in butter to tenderize pastry
The term “cut in” refers to mixing butter or another solid fat with flour. The purpose of this critical step is to grease the flour with the fat and to prevent the formation of gluten, which would make the pastry tough. Gluten forms when flour proteins meet water; as long as you’ve moisture-proofed the flour by coating it with fat, these gluten-forming proteins can’t link up and toughen your dough.
Starting with cold butter is key. This way, you’ll end up with many small and large pieces mixed with the flour rather than a completely homogeneous mixture; these varied-size butter pieces help to ensure flakiness once the dough is baked.
Many tools will do the job of cutting in butter—two table knives, a multi-bladed pastry cutter, or your fingertips—but those that do it quickly and without warming the butter are best.
Whisk to incorporate air
A whisk is such a useful mixing tool because its wire tines multiply a single stir in the mixing bowl many times. As a result, a whisk is faster and more efficient at blending ingredients and incorporating air. For jobs like beating egg whites or whipping cream—incorporating lots of air—a balloon whisk (a large whisk with tines that flare into a balloon shape) is ideal. The cream or egg whites stretch between the tines as you whisk, trapping air more effectively.
When it’s important to blend ingredients quickly and thoroughly, as when emulsifying a sauce or a mayonnaise, a long, thin whisk is often the best tool. It blends as if you were stirring with a dozen thin spoons.
Fold to preserve volume
Folding is the technique used for combining two mixtures with different textures. It’s often called for when mixing a light, aerated mixture (such as whipped cream or whipped egg whites) with a heavier one. To make a soufflé, the goal is to fold beaten egg whites into a heavy soufflé base without deflating the whites. To make a fruit fool, you fold whipped cream into a puréed fruit mixture. In some cakes, nuts must get folded into the batter.
The challenge with folding is to get a uniform texture without losing volume. Gentle lifting is crucial, as is the right tool. A wide, flat utensil with a large surface, such as a rubber spatula or a dough scraper, works well because you can lift up a large amount of the mixture and spread it across the top. By doing this repeatedly, turning the bowl and gently lifting up more batter, the mixtures combine without rough stirring, which would deflate your lighter ingredients.
More folding tips: It helps to first “lighten” the heavier mixture by whisking in about a quarter of the lighter one; now that there isn’t such an extreme difference in texture, the two mixtures will combine more easily. Also, it’s better to put the lighter mixture on top of the heavier one, not vice versa. Otherwise, the heavy base would deflate the lighter one. When this isn’t feasible, such as when combining ground nuts or flour with whipped egg whites, sprinkle the powdered mixture over the whites gradually to minimize deflation.
Stir to simply blend
Stirring is probably the simplest of all mixing methods. It usually implies using a spoon, a spatula, or another utensil to mix ingredients together, without vigorous motion, until uniformly blended. With stirring, you’re not beating in air, greasing flour proteins, or preserving volume. Beating is similar to stirring but suggests an electric mixer and more active movement.
Unless a recipe instructs otherwise, stirring shouldn’t be lengthy—in some cases, too much stirring can be detrimental. For example, pancake batter needs gentle stirring to just barely combine the ingredients. Over-stirring can make the pancakes tough. When adding fruit, nuts, or chocolate to a batter, you only need to stir until the ingredients are evenly distributed.