When it comes to baking delicious cookies, cakes, pies, and other goods, there is always some form of fat involved. This is because fats are an essential part of the baking process. They also provide moisture to your baked goods.
Although any fats will do, really, there are a few benefits to some over others and this can depend on a few factors. This article aims to provide you with some information about these factors in regards to butter and shortening, which should help you decide which is best to use in a particular situation.
As you will learn, each has its pros and cons, so it is all about what you seek in your baked goods.
What Fats Do in Baking
Before you learn about the differences between using butter and shortening in your baked goods, you should have some background knowledge about what the types of fats are and how they work to create delicious oven-baked treats.
Types of Fats
Products such as butter are typically created from animal fats. They consist of one of the three types of triglycerides, or fats. This particular triglyceride is saturated fat. The two other types of triglycerides include unsaturated and trans fat.
Unsaturated fat is what is found in liquid vegetable oils, and trans fat is found in shortening. Both unsaturated and saturated fat are natural, but trans fat is not, which is why many avoid it for health purposes.
Trans fat is made through a chemical process called hydrogenation, which involves adding hydrogen to an unsaturated fat.
Now that you know some things about the three types of triglycerides, let’s take a look at how fats work when they are heated up in the oven.
How Fats Work
Unsaturated, saturated, or trans fats — no matter which type of fat you use in your baked goods, there are certain qualities that they provide.
One thing that fats do is provide that lovely browning effect on your baked goods. Nobody can deny that this coloration can make your food look even tastier than it smells. Fats also work to propel heat throughout your food, helping to bake your goods evenly and more quickly.
Along with this, they act as an agent of moisture, despite not containing any water (aside from when it is in butter form, of course). Since oil does not evaporate the way that water does, it keeps your baked goods from being overly dried out.
Arguably the most important effect fats have on your baked goods is the breakdown of gluten bonds. When this occurs, it results in your oven-baked goods becoming softer and ready for you to sink your teeth into.
Butter vs. Shortening
Shortening is a solid white form of plant-based fats that is created by using a special process called hydrogenation. As everyone knows, butter is a solid yellow form of animal protein-based fats that is often found in the shape of a rectangular block, or it can be purchased in a spreadable form.
Although these two varieties of fat can be substituted for each other, they each can have different effects on how your baked goods turn out.
Thus, there are a few pieces of information regarding how they change the taste and feel of your food that you should be aware of before you decide to utilize one over the other in a recipe.
We will take a look at butter versus shortening and how each plays a role in flavor, texture, storage, and the nutritional value of your baked goods, as well any diet restrictions you have.
One big difference between butter and shortening is their flavor, or lack thereof in the case of shortening.
If you want to add a rich, creamy flavor to your baked goods, then butter is most certainly the way to go. Butter is known for its flavorful ways, so this probably comes as no surprise.
You can buy either unsalted or salted butter, but for baked goods, it is best to use the unsalted variety so you know precisely how much salt you are adding to your recipe. Different brands of butter have different amounts of salt, so this is the best course of action to take.
Since it consists of 100% oil, shortening does not provide any sort of rich flavor the way that butter does. Thus, it is best to use it if you do not want to add any flavor to your baked goods by using fats.
However, if you would prefer to use shortening for other benefits it provides but you would still like that nice buttery flavor, there is always the option of buying butter-flavored shortening.
One commonly known fact about butter’s use in baked goods is that it makes everything creamier and richer. This is because it adds more moisture to your cookies, cakes, and loaves of bread than shortening does.
Butter also does not result in an oily texture in your mouth after you eat baked goods made with it. Shortening, on the other hand, has been known to have this effect, and it is certainly not preferred by most people, for good reason.
Also, due to the water content found in butter, when it is baking in your oven inside a yummy cookie, the water is transformed into steam. This can lead to more gluten being formed, which can result in crispier baked goods as long as the baking time is right.
Shortening has a high melting point, and along with this, it does not lead to gluten formation. Thus, if you use shortening instead of butter, you can get a much flakier texture in your baked goods.
This makes it the preferred form of fat for pie crusts, biscuits, and lighter cakes. It also is able to stay solid, which makes it great for butter creams.
It also does not make your baked goods spread out as much either, so if you are trying to fit a lot onto one pan, shortening can be a great choice.
You should keep in mind, though, that you can still create flaky baked goods with butter. In fact, butter is quite versatile; it all just depends on how long you bake your foods that contain it. This gives you additional control, which might make butter’s use more appealing to some.
These are all things to consider when trying to decide whether to use butter or shortening.
One thing that is very handy about shortening is that it does not need to be refrigerated, unlike butter. This is because there is no dairy in shortening. Shortening can actually last for a couple years if it has not been opened.
The fact that it does not need to be refrigerated makes it ideal for camping, especially if you have no more room in your cooler for additional food. You might just need some helpful fats for cooking a yummy pancake breakfast over an open fire.
This may sound odd to some people, but butter actually has nutritional value. There are a few essential vitamins (due to the dairy content) as well as some good fatty acids within this delicious stick.
Shortening, on the other hand, does not have good fats. Rather, it contains a lot of trans fats, which are not beneficial to your health. In fact, they are bad for your body as consuming these fats can lead to higher cholesterol levels.
When it comes to using shortening, vegans can rejoice and so can those with severe lactose intolerance. Shortening makes for a great alternative to butter for those who do not eat dairy or animal products.
Though butter does not contain all that much dairy, it does have a bit in it. Thus, those who are lactose intolerant might have some digestive issues after eating a few cookies made with butter.
Unlike butter, which has both water and dairy, shortening is only made from plant-based oil, typically cottonseed or soybean oil. This is precisely why vegans can rejoice; no animal products are involved here.
One thing that is good to know is that you can actually combine both shortening and butter to get the texture effects of both forms of fat. It can also even out the size of your baked goods, making cookies the perfect height and width.
Also, when you are swapping out one for the other in a recipe because you only have butter or shortening at home, keep in mind that you will need to use more butter than shortening since it contains water.
As you now know, there are a lot of things to consider when deciding on the use of shortening or butter in a baked good recipe. It mainly comes down to flavor and texture, which is why one is commonly preferred over the other with certain baked goods.
Imagine how you would like your cookies, cake, or pie crust to turn out. You should be equipped with the knowledge to take it from there.
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.