Understanding your baking fats means always being able to choose the right one for the task at hand.

By Darcy Lenz
May 28, 2021
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Butter, shortening, and oil
Credit: Getty Images

Whether or not we like to think about it, fat is an integral element of baking. Fat provides moisture and tenderness to everything from cakes to croissants. Not to mention, it can also contribute rich flavor (hello, butter), decadent mouthfeel, and even help certain baked goods rise effectively. There's no denying it's essential, but have you ever considered why different recipes call for different types of fat? 

While all fats overlap a bit in the roles they serve in a baking recipe, given their different chemical structures, it's important to choose the right one for the job at hand. For anyone who's ever experimented with developing their own recipes, or is a fan riffing on existing recipes to give them a more personalized feel, (or heck, any baker who simply needs to make a substitution because they forgot to buy vegetable oil), understanding your fat options is key to achieving your desired results. 

Most common fats used in baking fall into one of two categories: solid fats and liquid fats. Solid fats include things like butter and shortening, while liquid fats are going to be your oils. 

Butter, oil or shortening

Solid Fats

Butter

For many of us, baking means butter. And for good reason; butter offers a fantastic flavor and richness. Beyond the obvious fact that buttery flavor is a most wonderful quality to possess, the water content in butter leads to the release of steam during the baking process, and this steam helps to leaven baked goods. Plus, butter (like other fats) inhibits the formation of gluten strands in a dough or batter, ultimately resulting in a tender final product. 

There are different types of butter available in the supermarket, but the one most commonly used in baking is called sweet cream butter — which is your standard Land O'Lakes butter. Sweet cream typically has a fat content of around 80 percent, a bit less than European-style butters. More often than not, you'll reach for unsalted butter in baking so that you can control the salt level with the amount that you add to your dough or batter. You certainly use salted butter in place of unsalted if that's what you have on hand, but keep in mind that there's no industry standard for salted butter, which means some brands will be saltier than others.  

Shortening

Vegetable shortening may not be able to deliver a luxurious taste like butter, but this neutrally flavored baking fat — made by hydrogenating vegetable oils — has other gifts to offer. For one, shortening is 100 percent fat, no water. This makes shortening ideal for baking pie crusts (especially pie crusts that will require blind baking) because without that water being released (through steam), the crust is less prone to shrink.

Additionally, the maxed out fat content of shortening makes for maximum tenderness. Compared to butter, shortening has a higher melting point; thus, if you were to make a batch of cookies using all shortening, they would spread less than those made with butter. 

Lard

Once a staple in many kitchens, lard — which is a shortening-like cooking fat made by rendering pork fat — has fallen out of fashion with home cooks in recent decades. (I mean, lard isn't the most appetizing name if we're being honest about it.) Like vegetable shortening, lard is 100 percent fat; however, it does have a lower melting point and is especially great for baking projects where flakiness is the goal, such as pie crusts and biscuits. 

There are different types of lard available, differentiated by the part of the pig the fat is sourced from and how it is processed. The most ideal varieties for baking are processed lard and the more luxe leaf lard. Neither of these varieties has any detectable pork flavor and leaf lard (harvested from the leaf-shaped fat surrounding the kidneys and abdomen) is especially creamy and smooth. 

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil, which has gained loads of popularity in the baking world during its ascension to health food hero in recent years, has the lowest melting point of any solid fat (78 degrees F). Even still, like butter, it can be creamed with sugar and can typically be substituted one-for-one with butter in most baking recipes. The final results will simply be a bit lighter than if made with butter.

Another perk of coconut oil is that it has a relatively high smoke point and is thus a good choice for greasing your baking pans. When it comes to flavor, you can choose whether or not you want a hint of coconut showing up in your baked goods. If you're trying to bring a little coconut essence to the party (say, if you're baking a coconut cake), go with an unrefined coconut oil. And if you'd rather skip the taste of coconut, you'll want to buy refined coconut oil. 

Liquid Fats

Neutral Oils

Neutral oils are those that do not bring flavor with them, such as vegetable, canola, grapeseed, and avocado oils. These flavorful liquid fats are the most commonly used oils for baking. Any neutral oil can be substituted for another, so you can use whatever you have on hand — they're all 100 percent fat and used to add moisture, tender texture, and decadence. Oils tend to keep baked goods softer and more moist for longer because they do not solidify at room temperature, which is why you often see oil called for in cake recipes. 

Olive Oil

Occasionally, fruity and flavorful olive oil is called for in certain desserts (often rustic cakes) to provide a uniquely rich flavor. However, it's probably not a liquid fat you want to reach for to bake a batch of sprinkled confetti cupcakes.

Olive oil pairs very well with citrus flavored cakes or chocolate. If you love the flavor of good olive oil, it's definitely worth playing around with incorporating it into your baking. 

Substituting One Baking Fat for the Other

Obviously, solid fats can be melted into a liquid state, but they will resolidy with cooling. So, solid fats can be substituted for liquid fats in a recipe (once melted), it's just important to remember that this will impact the final product's texture a bit. After all, think about replacing vegetable oil with butter; butter has a lower fat content than the oil, so your baked good will not be quite as tender.

Conversely, you generally want to steer clear of trying to substitute liquid fats for solid fats. The liquid fat will not be able to perform the task of leavening that a recipe may require the solid fat called for to do. So for instance, consider a recipe — perhaps sugar cookies or a pound cake — where you're asked to cream softened butter and sugar extensively. Oil would be a poor substitute here because while butter contains petite air bubbles, oil is a compact, dense liquid. In the process of creaming, the oil would not be able to whip into the fluffy, creamy consistency you need. On the other hand, if you're in a pinch and need to substitute liquid fat in for melted butter in a cake, quick bread, or muffin recipe, you should measure about ¾ of the amount of butter originally called for in oil.