Almost all cookie recipes call for the butter and sugar to be creamed. I have read that you should beat them for 3-5 minutes. Do I really need to beat the mixture for that long? The dough seems well combined in 30-60 seconds.
Creaming is a method used in making many kinds of cookies (like these Soft Sugar Cookies), cakes, and quick breads. It’s more extensive than mixing, which is simply combining ingredients until they’re well incorporated.
When softened butter is creamed with sugar, the individual grains of sugar are distributed throughout the fat and fluff up the mixture. It’s obvious to think of air bubbles in whipped cream or egg whites because those both increase in volume so dramatically, but in this case beating creates air bubbles in the butterfat. When heated in the oven, the air bubbles expand and lighten the cookie (or cake or quick bread.)
It’s important to use softened butter, which sometimes people are too impatient to do. To combine properly with the sugar, butter should be somewhere between 65°F and 70°F. If it’s too cold, the butter won’t hold air; too warm, and the bubbles created in creaming will collapse. Some recipes call for “room-temperature” butter, but in the dead of winter or the heat of summer, this is inaccurate unless the environment is climate-controlled. To test, press the butter with your index finger; it should give slightly.
In the case of cakes, you usually are aiming for maximum volume. In cookies, this can be variable. If the cookie should retain its shape without spreading too much, only a small amount of creaming is needed. And if the type of cookie in question is high in butterfat (and therefore low in gluten development) or meant to be thin and delicate, too much creaming can make it crumbly.
Now here is where your recipe possibly gets tricky. You say it calls for three to five minutes of creaming. Does it specify the kind of mixer? A hand mixer is not as powerful as a stand mixer, so it will take longer to achieve the desired amount of creaming. If you’re creaming by hand with a wooden spoon, it will take even longer. This is why it’s nice to have other descriptors in a recipe. If the recipe doesn’t specify, here’s a helpful guideline. If the kind of cookie you’re making is intended to be light, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. If it’s denser, blend them to a smooth paste, but don’t cream to that stage.
What if you want to use butter straight from the refrigerator? It will take a little longer, but it can be done. Rather than cream the butter, then adding the sugar and creaming again, cut the butter into small pieces and add the sugar right away. Using either a hand or a stand mixer, beat the two together until the mixture is light in color and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl often. This could take up to 15 minutes, but it’s faster than waiting for the butter to come to the right temperature.
Some will ask, “Why don’t you just soften the butter in the microwave?” For one, I don’t use one; but more practically, it’s difficult to soften the butter without overdoing it and causing it to melt. If you know your microwave well enough, go for it.
Bottom line, yes, you do need to beat the butter and sugar beyond the point where they’re simply combined. Please follow the recipe, incorporating the information you now have.