Cold ingredients are easier to work with after standing at room temperature for at least 20 minutes. Creaming ingredients works a lot better when they have softened without being heated in a microwave or stove.
If the recipe calls for dairy (especially milk, butter, margarine, eggs, cream cheese, or cheese in general), take what you need from the fridge and set it on the counter. Set a timer for 20-40 minutes before you use it. Avoid leaving it out too long or harmful bacteria can grow.
However! There are at least two exceptions to this:
1. Cream cheese takes a long time to reach room temperature, I have no qualms letting it sit on the counter for 2 hours.
2. Pastry recipes require cold butter, and in those cases you do not take the butter out of the fridge in advance. Why not?
Butter contains fat and water, and flour contains gluten proteins.
As gluten is worked – either kneading or mixing – the gluten begins to form structures, or stiffens.
Cold butter will coat the gluten, assisting the stiffening, and leading to flaky pastry. Warm butter will become absorbed, and turns into flat pastry.
The water content of butter – if kept cold – will turn into steam during baking. But if the butter is warm and becomes absorbed into the flour, that doesn’t happen, again leading to flatter pastry.
If I’m making cookies, warm butter is easy to work with and I don’t really care if the cookies are flat. But with a cream puff, I’d want it as flaky as possible and would use cold butter.