What Does Cutting Butter in Mean?

What does Cutting Butter in Mean?

In the baking world, particularly the pastry niche, cutting butter is a common step. While I’m familiar with it now, when I first tried making scones and read to cut the butter into the recipe, I had no idea what to do in my early baking days. Did I physically cut it with a knife? And if so, into what? Cubes? Slices? While it may initially sound confusing, cutting butter into a recipe is a simple but crucial step. All that cutting butter means is blending cold butter into the flour without melting into the flour. But why is the step necessary, and how is it accomplished?  

Why Bother to Cut in Butter?

The temperature of butter in a recipe can completely change the texture of baked goods, especially pastries. When working with chilled butter, it creates a surface that is lighter with more flakes. As the pieces of butter melt, while baking, the water in the butter turns to steam. As the steam forms and evaporates, air bubbles are created and baked in. Without chilled butter, the delicate layers of butter and flour in a croissant would not exist. 

scones made with butter cut in
Chilled butter helps to create air bubbles and flakiness in scones

Alternatively, butter and flour melt together when using room temperature butter, creating a crumbly consistency perfect for tart crusts. While room temperature butter effortlessly blends into recipes, cold butter needs to be integrated into the flour to mix evenly. It requires a little more effort, but the finished texture and layers are worth the time. 

Prepping the Ingredients

When cutting butter into a recipe, the most important thing is to keep the butter as cold as possible. I start by cubing the amount of butter a recipe calls for into quarter-inch cubes. Once the cubes are cut, place them back into the fridge. While the butter chills, measure out the flour and any other dry ingredients called for. Transfer the dry ingredients to a bowl, keeping in mind the flour will spread up the sides as you work. If the bowl is too small, the flour can overflow over the sides. Remove the butter from the fridge, and scatter the pieces evenly over the flour’s surface. Begin cutting the butter into the flour using either two knives, a pair of forks, or a pastry cutter

Popular Methods to Cut Butter Into a Recipe

  • If you are using two knives, hold a knife in each hand, and cut into the flour and butter, creating X shapes as the blades pull through the butter and flour. In my own experience this method takes the most time, and I don’t recommend it. 
  • If using two forks, hold a fork in each hand. Place the prongs of the forks together into the pieces of butter, and pull the forks in opposite directions. The flour and butter will sift through the prongs, breaking the mixture down into smaller pieces. This method is a little easier than using knifes. 
  • If using a pastry cutter, hold the cutter in your dominant hand. Press the blades straight down into the butter and flour, twisting as you work and moving throughout the mixture. I prefer this method because it takes less time, and you can also stabilize the bowl with your free hand. 

How to Know if Butter Is Fully Cut In?

Continue blending until the butter has reduced to a fine texture. Unless a recipe states otherwise, the size of the butter pieces should be between the size of grains of rice and sand. The consistency may look and feel like cornmeal. 

Once reaching a meal texture, continue to follow the recipe steps. If you are not using the dough within five minutes of mixing, I recommend placing the bowl back into the fridge. Otherwise, the butter may start to melt, nullifying the butter cutting. 

Butter Cutting Tips

  • The most important tip is to keep the butter as chilled as possible. If you begin to notice oil from the butter on your fingertips while working butter into the flour, you can refrigerate the dough for a few minutes in the fridge. Once chilled, resume blending the ingredients.
  • If making multiple batches of pastries or pie doughs, I don’t advise making one large batch. While it may seem like it will save time, creating one larger batch means the butter spends more between being pulled from the fridge and making it to the oven. Instead, make smaller batches and bake individually, or chill batches not being worked or baked in the fridge. 
  • Ideally, when chilled butter is an ingredient, I bake on neither hot nor humid days. While we can’t control the weather, there are factors we can influence. About fifteen minutes before starting a recipe, place a bowl and pastry blender into the freezer. Chilling tools can help slow down the speed at which your ingredients will warm, especially on a warm day. 

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