Spontaneous bakers understand the annoyance of recipes calling for do-ahead steps, such as setting out the margarine to bring it to room temperature before you combine it with other ingredients. When a recipe calls for room-temperature margarine, you can use your microwave strategically. Cold margarine won't blend well with other ingredients, but melted margarine may alter the texture of your baked goods.
Unwrap a stick of margarine and cut it into roughly even-sized pieces, about 1 tablespoon each. The margarine softens more quickly and evenly in smaller chunks.
Set the margarine pieces on a microwave-safe plate, uncovered. Put the plate in the microwave.
Set the microwave's power level to 30 percent or Low and the timer for 10 seconds. The lower setting and short time prevents melted or scalded margarine.
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Check the margarine after 10 seconds. If the pieces haven't softened to the point where your finger leaves a slight impression when you push the surface, continue heating it. Keep the microwave at 30 percent power or Low, and check the pieces at 10-second intervals.
Remove the margarine when the pieces yield to your touch and before they start to turn runny.
Though mostly interchangeable with butter, margarine substitutes better in full-flavored recipes such as chocolate cake and brownies than in recipes for flaky pastries or those that benefit from the full, rich flavor of butter, such as shortbread and pound cake.
You can speed up the softening process without a microwave by putting the plate on a damp warm towel or putting the pieces in a large bowl and wrapping the warm towel around the bowl.
Although margarine is made primary from blended vegetable oils, some brands contain dairy proteins or sugar. If allergies or ethical issues make dairy-free cooking a necessity, look for labels that say "dairy-free" and read the ingredients carefully.
With a focus on food, nutrition, cocktails and the latest dining trends, Melissa J. has been a freelance writer for more than 15 years. Her specialties include articles for such publications as SF Chronicle and National Geographic Green Living, as well as blog posts for the hospitality industry. Her previous positions include newspaper staff reporter and communications specialist for a nonprofit agency.