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Sometimes a recipe asks me to soften the butter before I use it. This can be accomplished with a few seconds in the microwave, or just by leaving it out at room temperature for a while.

Ice, on the other hand, does not get soft with heat. It just immediately starts melting.

What chemical differences between the two would account for this?

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The main difference between warming 'solid' butter and warming solid ice is that one is a mixture and one is a pure substance.

Ice has a crystal structure set in place by the shape and polarity of the water molecule. It requires quite a bit of energy to be removed from 0 degree water to cause the formation of the solid phase. The structure has two options - remain water, or, once cooled enough, become solid.

Butter is a mixture of fat and water and other components. As this mixture warms, the fat component changes viscosity and becomes more liquid and less sludgy. The water does not change much, but is trapped in the layers of the fats. At 40 F, just above refrigerator temperature, butter is 'hard' because the fats are not flowing. As the temperature warms, the fats start to move, thus softening the butter.

The butter softening behavior can be seen in some metals as they get heated close to the melting point. Iron becomes 'soft' and malleable, and can be forged. Ice has a particular, rigid structure, so never has a 'soft solid' stage.

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  • $\begingroup$ Would it be accurate to say that butter has a variety of states it can be in and still be "solid", while ice has only one state, and this accounts for the difference? $\endgroup$ – Eli Rose May 7 '18 at 1:46
  • $\begingroup$ @EliRose Yes, that is a good description. Solids can have different crystal structures, etc.. The word 'state' though, in strictest terms, is a particular term with particular meaning. At some point butter is a very high viscosity liquid that seems like a soft solid. $\endgroup$ – MarsJarsGuitars-n-Chars May 8 '18 at 16:36

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