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Microwave ovens are perceived as the solution to all culinary requirements. A plate of pasta that needs to be reheated in a jiffy? Microwave. Milk to be boiled? Microwave. Meat sauce that requires defrosting? Microwave.
By the same token, many people are apt to think that butter may also be softened more quickly using this modern piece of kitchen equipment. It seems to make sense, doesn't it? But…
Softening butter in the microwave is a perfect example of a culinary myth. I bet that you too, on reading this article, will be amazed to learn that a slab of refrigerator-cold butter popped into the microwave will not produce the desired effect. Unless you know a few tricks.
The reason is purely scientific but, in order to learn it, you need to recall how a microwave works.
How to soften butter in the microwave
First of all, this electrical appliance contains a magnetron, that is to say a component able to convert the household electricity supply into high frequency radio waves. In actual fact, these are special types of waves which stand midway between radio and infrared waves, commonly known as microwaves.
They are directed towards the food positioned on a rotating plate in the centre of the oven. You may wonder why it has to rotate. This is because the waves are reflected by the internal walls of the microwave oven so that they reach every part of the food and if the latter rotates, the entire process is speeded up. Also because the oven door is installed on one of the walls and therefore does not serve our purpose at all.
Now comes the interesting part, that is to say, when the waves actually penetrate the food. When this happens, the food molecules start to vibrate and the more waves they receive, the more they vibrate. This leads to a gradual increase in temperature. This is why microwave cooking is evenly distributed: heat is generated in each and every molecule.
However, the problem is that not all molecules are similar. To simplify, we can say that some vibrate a lot and some vibrate a little while others vibrate according to which molecules are adjacent to them. The latter case applies to butter, in which ice crystals are close to fat molecules. This is a rather unusual sort of structure: it is somewhat stable and “does not vibrate” a lot, but if heated for any length of time, tends to collapse all of a sudden.
This is an explanation that would horrify the experts but it does explain why butter, when placed in a microwave oven, is transformed from an attractively solid slab to a greasy mess. In brief, if you just wish to soften butter and not actually melt it, the microwave oven is not the best solution. Unless you know a couple of tricks, of course.
How long in microwave to soften butter
Here is the first way to soften your piece of butter: place it in the microwave for just a few seconds, ten at the outside, then turn it and place it on the other side, continuing to repeat this operation. After having done it for three or four times, the butter should be soft enough without liquefying.
Another method consists in placing a small dish of water close to the slab of butter and switching on the microwave oven for 35-40 seconds. The oven will become a sort of “steam chamber”, which will soften the butter.
Finally, do bear in mind that the result will vary considerably according to the butter quality (and consequently its fat content), the weight of the piece of butter and the type of microwave oven being used.