For creaming with a handheld electric mixer, butter should be softened to cool room temperature until malleable, and not squishy and shiny. To soften butter at room temperature, cut the butter into thin slices or ½-inch cubes and let stand for about 15 minutes. (Use this time to complete other steps in the recipe, like measuring the other ingredients and greasing the pans.)
One of my favorite tricks, which I learned from the late, great food writer Richard Sax, is to grate a cube of chilled butter on the large holes of a cheese grater; it will be the perfect consistency for creaming. If you have a heavy-duty standing mixer, you can use chilled butter straight from the refrigerator, cut into thin slices, beating for about 1 minute at high speed until smooth and light colored. After the butter is smooth, add the sugar and continue creaming. Some cooks soften butter in a microwave, but it’s not worth the risk of melting.
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