The Skinny on Fats: Butter, Shortening, and Oils

When it comes to baking, taste is everything. Sure it needs to look good, but if it tastes like old shoes, no amount of edible glitter in the world can save it. 

So when it comes to adding fats to your recipe, and this could include, Butter, Shortening, oil, or lard, choosing the RIGHT fat, can make or break your result, literally.

The Science of Fats

Firstly, why do we add fats? Fat tastes good. Sadly. Fat is a flavour enhancer, but it also has an effect on the STRUCTURE of your baked goods.

In the process of emulsifying (mixing two things that don't go together, like oil and water), particles of ingredients like flour are coated with fats, which not only helps to lubricate said particles, but it also helps to break down the gluten, which tenderises your resulting crumb. Cool huh. This process also generates air, which leads to a lighter, bouncy cake.

You'll notice that sponge cakes (which are light and fluffy), usually want you to mix on high speed, whereas dense cakes (like mudcakes), require very little mixing, sometimes even just with a spoon! This is because those recipes WANT a dense, fudgy result.

Now you can change up ingredients and mixing techniques to achieve different results, but for the purpose of this post, we want to simply understand how fats work when used basically.

Butter

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Butter is an animal fat, made from dairy, which contains around 80% fat (European butters can often be up to 85%. Lurpak has 82% fat). It is made by churning fresh or fermented cream or milk, to separate the butterfat, from the buttermilk.

Butter is what's known as a 'water in oil' emulsion, meaning that the other 15% or so is water. This water content can play a part in your baking in sensitive recipes, like soufflés, where precision is everything (just FYI, none of my recipes are that particular! Just throw it in!)

Butter is a solid at room temperature, with a melting to liquid point of 32-35◦C (90-95◦F). 

Cultured Butter, like Lurpak, is made from fermented cream. Cultured butter tends to have a more 'buttery' taste, thanks to the fermentation process.

Margarine, or Butterspreads, are made usually from oils and fats, and sometimes butter by products. They are spreadable even from the fridge, and generally have the same room temperature stability as butter. They are useful in baking where you need to use oil, but want to retain the buttery taste. High quality butter spreads (like Lurpak) use butter, with added oils to make their spreadable butters. Most cheaper margarines contain oil, water, and milk only.

When to use Butter: Cakes, biscuits, frostings.

Pros: Delicious taste, soft crumb, light texture

Cons: Heat sensitive, contains Dairy (for allergy and dietary consideration)

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Shortening

Shortening, including animal fats like lard, is any fat solid at room temperature.

Lard is rendered Pig fat, which has a high smoke point, and is surprisingly free of trans fats. It is used in cooking, and a favoured choice for perfectly flaky pastry.

Shortening as we tend to see it most, is Hydrogenated Vegetable oil, sold most commonly as Crisco, Trex, and Copha. In the case of Crisco, a mix of partially and fully hydrogenated soybean and palm oils, trans fat free, and used most commonly in frostings and pastries.

Copha, as used here in Australia most commonly for Chocolate Crackles (a kids party delicacy), is hydrogenated Coconut Oil.

Both lard and Shortening have a lower water content than butter, and they also generally have a higher fat content than butter (with the exception of European butters).

When to use Shortening: Cakes, pastries, frostings.

Pros: Heat stable, and in the case of Vegetable Shortenings, doesn't require refrigeration.

Cons: Little to no taste, greasy mouth feel.

 

High Ratio Shortening

If you make frosting, you have probably heard the term 'high ration shortening', so what is it?

High Ration Shortening was designed specifically for baking. It is 100% fat, and has added emulsifiers, to blend perfectly with things like flour and sugar, to hold more moisture and air, creating a softer crumb, or smoother frosting. Its also VERY heat stable, hence its popularity with frosting makers, holding up to even the worse weather. The good news is too, it has a less greasy feel than regular shortening.

When to use High Ratio Shortening: Mainly frosting, but also in cakes.

Pros: Very heat stable, excellent emulsification

Cons: Expensive, no taste.

Oils

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How long have you got? Seems like pretty much anything can make an oil if you squeeze it hard enough!

Some of the most commonly know oils are Vegetable, Sunflower, Canola, Cottonseed, Olive, Rapeseed, Palm, Coconut, Rice Bran (my favourite), and soybean oil. All are 100% fat, and are liquid at room temperature.

While arguably all oils are "bad for your health", some are better than others. My favourite, Rica Bran Oil for example, has a very high smoke point, no taste, and contains plant sterols, that actively lower your cholesterol. Thanks Rice Bran Oil. Its my go to oil for baking, because it doesn't affect the flavour of what you are making, which some oils, like Olive oil, can.

Why would I use oil instead of butter?

Oils are used generally to add fats, without the addition of water, while still giving a moist feel. Oils are also great for prolonged shelf life, as unlike animal based butter products, oils don't spoil. 

When to use oil: To add fats without added water, such as mudcakes, and some biscuits

Pros: Low in saturated fats, stable at room temperature, and doesn't require refrigeration.

Cons: No strength or structure, not suitable in frostings.

 

Substitutions

Is it ok to just swap out butter for oil?

Well no, not in every case. Butter gives your cake a soft, delicate crumb, with a buttery taste, whereas oil will change the texture to a more dense result.

Swapping out margarine for oil isn't to big a deal generally, as they have similar features, but when a recipe calls for butter specifically, its better to use butter.

Dietary and Lifestyle 

What can I do if I cannot use butter?

There are many non dairy spreads on the market, which can generally take the place of butter in cakes, although the texture may differ, however in frostings, because butter adds not only flavour but also structure, margarines and non dairy spreads often yield very soft frostings. You can either add more powdered sugar, to increase the density, or you can use some or all high ratio shortening. 

Opinion

So what do I use here at Viva La Buttercream? Well fortunately, my recipes are as relaxed as recipes get. You can substitute butter for margarine, or margarine for oil without much trouble. 

When it comes to Buttercream however, I REALLY cannot go past ALL BUTTER, and I recommend Lurpak. Even with the extreme heat we get here in Australia, I would rather keep my cakes in the fridge, than use shortening. I know not everyone has that option, but given the choice, that's what I chose.

If you are looking for a Vegan friendly, or shelf stable option, I can also highly recommend the awesome premade Buttercream from Cakers Warehouse. It tastes great, and pipes beautifully.

As I said, this is just scratching the surface of the use of fats and oils in baking, but I hope it helps you, especially to understand why we use what we use, so you can make your own decisions about changing ingredients.

Viva La BUTTERcream x