This is part of my ingredient function series. Today, I’ll try to answer the question “what does fat do in baking?”
Fat gets a bad rap, but fat is an integral ingredient in baking, so it pays to know the function of fat in baking. What fat does and how it works.
NOTE: Originally posted in 2008 and updated on 2/6/2018 with photos and expanded information on coconut oil and lard.
Why Is Fat Important?
As far as I am concerned, fat is essential, both in cooking and in baking.
Even a ludicrously fit person has maybe 10% body fat, so I am comfortable with this statement.
We all need to consume a certain amount of fat.
And no, the most healthy way isn’t in a piece of cake or a slice of pie, but if you are going to occasionally make cake and eat pie anyway, it is good to know how different fats work in baking.
Fat does amazing things in foods:
- it is a medium for heat transfer, as in deep-frying
- it also carries flavors
- add depth and richness to a dish
- assists in browning
- tenderizes the crumb in both cakes, cookies, and breads
- with the right mixing method, it can almost completely inhibit gluten development (think shortbread cookies)
- assists in the rise of baked goods (see: creaming method)
What type of fat you use can significantly affect the flavor and final texture of your baked good.
Here is my list of 4 best solid fats to use in baking.
If you’re interested in baking with liquid fat (oil, not melted butter), you can check that out at the bottom of this post.
Best Solid Fats for Baking
I will say it–I love butter.
Butter is a natural product and contains fewer trans-fats than margarine.
Butter is a solid at room temperature.
By USDA standard, butter contains at least 80% butterfat. The remaining 20% or so is composed of milk solids and water.
It has a relatively low melting point, and once it starts to melt, it melts quickly.
PRO TIP: Note that, since butter is one of the only solid fat that is not 100% fat, substituting butter for shortening or lard (or substituting shortening or lard for butter), requires a bit of math, especially if you want to maintain the original texture and only swap out the fats.
Not used so much in cooking these days, our grandmothers used lard for everything from frying chicken to making pie crusts.
It has a crystalline fat structure that makes it perfect for making the flakiest pie crust ever.
Lard is 100% fat and should have a clean, fairly neutral flavor.
With the magical resurgence of pie making over the past few years (see the Art of the Pie website and jojoromancer on Instagram to name just two pie experts), lard, specifically leaf lard, is making a great comeback as an almost essential fat in pie crust, if not the sole fat. For example, many pie bakers swear by a mixture of leaf lard and butter in their crusts.
“Regular” rendered lard (not leaf lard), has a bit more of a porky flavor than clean tasting leaf lard, so if you want to try using it in baking, it’s best to stick with fillings or flavor profiles that already lend themselves to porky goodness. Say maple bacon doughnuts or an apple pie with a bacon lattice crust.
Shortening is a hydrogenated fat that is 100% fat.
It begins as vegetable oil and then through the process of hydrogenation, it is made into a solid.
I do not know all the ins and outs of that voodoo, so if you’re interested in hydrogenation and how it works, check out this post on how hydrogenation works.
It is a solid at room temperature, and it melts fairly slowly at temperatures somewhat higher than butter.
With the exception of butter flavored shortening, vegetable shortening does not add any flavor to whatever you are making.
Since it melts at a higher temperature than body temperature, it can tend to leave a rather unpleasant coating of fat in your mouth when you eat a shortening-based frosting or piece of cake.
On the flip side, cakes and cookies made with shortening tend to remain softer than their counterparts made with butter, especially at refrigerator temperatures.
Coconut oil is oil extracted by one of several different processes from fresh or dried coconut meat.
Among other ways, it can be made using a cold press method, hot press method, from separating the fat from the liquid in coconut milk with the use of a centrifuge.
Most high-grade virgin coconut oil has a light coconut flavor.
Coconut oil is liquid above 76 F and a solid below.
Coconut oil generally maintains its solid form in climate-controlled home conditions and is 100% fat.
Refined coconut oil is often bleached (and I really don’t want to know what color it was before bleaching) and deodorized to yield a neutral flavor.
The downside is that a lot of the refined coconut oil on the market is made from not-the-best coconut oil to begin with.
Generally speaking, I avoid refined coconut oil. Still, if you are interested in using it, since it is odor-free and has no real coconut flavor, it lends itself to use in a wider variety of baked goods.
For example, banana pound cake made with virgin coconut oil sounds like a great plan. A chocolate mint cake? For me, not so much, so I’d stick with refined coconut oil if I had to choose.
Differences Between Solid Fats Used in Baking
Not only do all four of the fats discussed above (butter, lard, shortening, and coconut oil) taste and smell different, they also behave differently in baked goods.
I want to focus mainly on the way these fats behave in cakes and cookies, and lard isn’t generally used in cookies.
Remember though, when considering what fat/s to use for making pie crust, do not discount the magically large crystalline fat structure of lard for helping you achieve maximum flakiness. And that’s all I’ll say about lard for now.
Right, moving on.
Shortening Vs. Butter
Since butter contains some water, along with some milk solids, it is very firm under refrigeration but is nice and plastic at about 68 degrees, F.
Once it starts to melt, it melts very quickly. Shortening, on the other hand, is 100% hydrogenated vegetable fat.
It behaves about the same at refrigeration temperatures as it does at cool room temperature.
Note that shortening will never get as hard as butter does in the fridge. Even frozen, since it doesn’t contain water that will freeze, shortening will get cold but won’t freeze.
Shortening begins to melt at a slightly higher temperature than butter, and it tends to melt more slowly.
What’s Your Point?
Well, let’s say you’re making some oatmeal cookies.
You make 1/2 with butter and 1/2 with shortening.
The ones you make with the butter will be crisper at the edges and a little chewy, will spread a fair bit and will be nicely browned.
The ones you make with the shortening will be softer and puffier, a bit lighter in color, and they won’t spread as much.
This is why: the water in the butter mixes with the flour in the recipe, forming some gluten. Gluten=chewy cookie. The butter melts to a thin liquid quickly. Melted fat=lots of spread=thin cookie. The milk solids brown in the oven. Browned milk solids=well, you know, brown cookies.
Since there is no water in the shortening to mix with the flour, there won’t be much gluten development, and you’ll get a more tender cookie.
Since the shortening melts at a higher temperature and more slowly than butter, the cookies will tend to hold their shape and be puffy, rather than thin.
No milk solids to brown=lighter cookies.
I’m not a fan of shortening, although if you want to refrigerate your cookies, they won’t get too hard if you’ve made them with shortening.
I like the way butter tastes. The way it behaves is part of its charm.
Knowing how it behaves gives us some power to make it behave the way we want.
Note: Coconut oil behaves much the same way as shortening. If using virgin oil in your cookies, capitalize on that tropical flavor by adding some shredded coconut to your dough, or maybe even consider doing something wacky like adding banana chips to the mix.
How To Make Thicker Cookies Using Butter
If you use all-butter and want a thicker cookie:
- refrigerate the dough before baking, and make sure you’re baking on a cool cookie sheet. If you have to re-use a sheet, make sure you let it cool before placing more dough. (Hint: run your cookie sheet under cold water and it will only take a few seconds. Then dry it off, and you’re good to go.)
- If you’re portioning your cookies with a disher, let them spread naturally rather than pressing down on them before baking.
- Bake on a non-preheated baking stone or on those double-metal-layer cookie sheets.
How To Make Thinner Cookies Using Butter
- Use melted butter or at least have your dough at room temperature.
- You’ll still want to bake on cool cookies sheets, but you can “pre-press” your portioned dough before baking either by pressing with the bottom of a glass or even just using your hand. Not too thin–just press them down into even discs rather than rounded scoops.
- Bake on a preheated baking stone or on metal cookie sheets.
Baking cookies with shortening or coconut oil yields more tender cookies that tend to be puffier with less spread and less browning. Baking cookies using butter yields a crisper, browner cookie that is somewhat chewy rather than tender. They spread a bit more and will brown nicely during baking.
How To Substitute Shortening or Coconut Oil for Butter (or Vice Versa)
Most recipes will tell you you can do a 1:1 substitution either way, and that is generally true, although you will probably note some textural changes.
In order to keep as close to the original texture as possible, here’s what you do.
To Substitute Butter for Shortening or Coconut Oil (or Ghee, for that matter)
- Multiply the amount of shortening by 1.2. If your recipe calls for 4 oz shortening, you’ll need 4.8 oz of butter.
- To make up for the extra liquid in the butter, multiply the amount of butter (4.8 oz) by .18 (about the percentage of water that’s in the butter) In our example, that would be 4.8 x .18 = .86 oz.
- Subtract that amount of liquid from the recipe. In this case, since 2 Tablespoons of water-type liquid equal an ounce, you’ll be reducing the amount of liquid by .86 oz (if you have a kitchen scale) and by about 1 Tablespoon and 2 teaspoons if you don’t have a scale.
To Substitute Shortening or Coconut Oil for Butter (or Ghee, for that matter)
- Multiply the amount of butter by .8. Using the above example calling for 4 oz butter, 4 x .8 = 3.2 oz. That’s the amount of shortening you will need.
- To add in the extra liquid you’re losing by using 100% fat, multiply the weight of the butter by .18 to find out how much liquid you need. 4 x .18 = .72 or roughly 3/4 oz. Add this amount of extra liquid.
- If using a kitchen scale, just weigh that amount. If not, you’ll need approximately 1 Tablespoon (.5 oz) plus 1 1/2 teaspoons (.25 oz) in extra liquid.
My Bias: Butter is the Most Versatile Fat to Use in Baking (and Cooking)
Butter is by far my favorite fat to use in baking. Here are some reasons why:
- Butter is a natural product
- it melts in your mouth
- It is rich
- it tastes good.
- It is a very versatile ingredient. You can use it at so many different temperatures–from cutting in cold butter to make flaky biscuits to rubbing in room temperature butter to make a crumbly cookie to melting some butter into a ganache for added richness, to using melted butter as the fat in a pancake or muffin batter, to brushing melted butter onto homemade bread before (or after) baking for a soft rich crust.
See how long that sentence is? That’s at least how useful butter is in the bakeshop!
Butter Texture Across a Wide Range of Temperatures
- Frozen butter is near-rock hard and splinters when you cut it.
- Refrigerated butter is firm.
- Cool butter (65-70 degrees) is plastic, malleable and extensible, and is definitely the sweet spot when making cakes and frosting.
- Warm-ish room temperature butter (75-85 degrees) is very soft but still emulsified.
- Above 95 degrees, butter melts.
- (Butter by itself) As soon as it hits 212 degrees, it sizzles and bubbles–that’s the water evaporating from the pan.
- When the butter stops sizzling, that’s when you know all the water is gone. Separate the milk solids at this point, and you’ve got clarified butter, or ghee, the Indian word for it.
- After the water boils out, the next time it starts sizzling, it’s because the milk solids are frying in the butterfat. Leave it alone, and watch the butter carefully, removing it from the heat when the solids are toasty and brown and straining out the solids, and you’ll have beurre noisette, or nutty and wonderful brown butter.
Use chilled (or even frozen) butter to make a flaky pie crust or biscuits.
Use cool butter to cream together with sugar for cookies and cakes.
Use very soft butter to brush into pans or to mix with cinnamon and sugar for cinnamon rolls.
Use melted butter to brush onto bread–before or after baking.
Use clarified butter or beurre noisette in genoise and madeleines.
Use browned butter to make some browned butter blueberry buckle or brown butter chocolate chip cookies.
As Promised Way Back at the Beginning: The Function of Cooking Oil in Baking
Cooking or vegetable oil is comprised of 100% fat and is liquid at room temperature.
Depending on the oil, it may or may not solidify or thicken under refrigeration and it may or may not contain saturated fat.
As with all fats, cooking oil is a shortening, and this means that one of its functions is to coat flour to prevent or control the amount of gluten that forms in whatever you’re baking.
Being a liquid fat, vegetable oil does a great job of shortening, so it yields a nice, tender, and moist cake.
One thing it does not do is hold air like butter, so it is no help in leavening.
This is why many oil-based cakes either have a relative Lot of chemical leavener and/or also rely on beaten egg for added rise. (Think chiffon cake.)
How/Why Oil Keeps Cakes and Other Baked Goods Moist
Since oil is a liquid often even under refrigeration, a cake that uses oil in the batter rather than a fat that is solid at refrigerator temperatures will still have a soft, moist crumb.
Butter cakes are soft at room temperature, but straight from the fridge, they are somewhat hard and dry. This is because the butter that is woven into the network of the cake is solid.
The point? If you’re using a perishable frosting that needs to be refrigerated–such as one with eggs in it (French or most other European-style buttercreams) or cream cheese–a cake with oil as the fat is generally the way to go.
You’ll still want to bring the cake out of the fridge at least 30 minutes before serving, because nobody wants cold cake unless it’s ice cream cake, but you will not have to worry if the cake will be soft for serving, even in the center where it might still be cold from the refrigerator.
In many cakes, a neutral oil works well to keep from getting in the way of the flavor of your vanilla or chocolate cake.
But there are many instances where you want the oil flavor to shine through. In that case, as with lemon olive oil cake for example, use an oil that has a rich flavor on its own. Or play around with the many flavored oils available these days.
Substituting a part of your neutral oil for some orange avocado oil in an orange chiffon cake or some hazelnut or walnut oil in a chocolate cake is also an excellent way to add additional flavor without having to deal with extract or zests.
Please take a look at The Creaming Method for a discussion of creaming for cookies versus creaming for cakes. It is riveting reading and good information.
What Others Are Saying...
Karen De Jesus says
Thank you for explaining in simple terms. I am a home baker and would love to turn it into a business some day. My favorite are cupcakes and cakes. I wish i had money to be a pastry chef since that is were my heart is. So i have conquered my chocolate cupcakes after a few trial and error attempts. BUt now I am looking for the best light and fluffy vanilla cup cake receipe. I have tried to many. I am not over mixing all my ingredients are at room temp. The flavor is delicious but they come out dense and dry. I have tried the two step creaming method and it was not bad but came out like pound cake style. Can you please give me some tips? Please