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Butter vs Shortening in Baking

Butter vs. Shortening in Baking

Not all fats are created equal when it comes to baking. Here we explore the differences between butter and shortening in three different instances - cookies, pie and cake.

blog_image by Land O'Lakes Test Kitchen

blog_image by Land O'Lakes Test Kitchen

Can I substitute butter for shortening or shortening for butter in a recipe?

This is a is frequently asked question especially about baking recipes. The answer is yes, butter or shortening can be used interchangeably in baked goods and can be used as a one-to-one swap. However, be wary that the results - your baked goods - will be a bit different depending on which fat you use because butter and shortening are two very different ingredients.
 
Butter contains 80% butterfat and about 20% water (naturally occurring). Shortening is 100% hydrogenated vegetable oil and contains no water. There is a slight difference in the way baked goods turn out, depending on if you use butter or shortening. Shortening traps more air bubbles and has a higher melting point than butter, so recipes that use shortening tend to produce an end product that will rise a little higher, holds its shape during baking, and has an interior texture that is softer or lighter.

Does substituting butter for shortening impact the flavor?

There is no doubt about it, cookies and cakes taste better when they are made with butter. Shortening, which is made from hydrogenated vegetable oil, has no flavor. So why do recipes call for shortening? Shortening can make baked goods rise higher and be lighter, which depending on what you are baking, may be preferable to using butter. Our team at Land O’Lakes usually chooses to use butter in our recipes, mainly because butter provides such great flavor.

We tested a few classic recipes, cookies, pies and cake, the only difference was using butter or shortening. In all the images below the top photo is butter and the bottom photo is shortening. 

Cookies Made with Butter vs Shortening

Cookies are a good example of where you see a difference in baking results of using butter versus using shortening in a recipe. cookies made with only butter may not rise as tall and may spread a bit more, but the edges will be crispier and will have a rich buttery taste.  Cookies made with only shortening will result in a cookie that bakes higher and holds it’s shape better during baking. The reason a cookie made with butter is slightly flatter and spreads more is that butter has a lower melting point than shortening, causing them to spread more quickly in the short time it takes to bake. 


The photo shows the cookies made with shortening rise a little higher and hold their shape better. The butter cookie provides better flavor and a crispier exterior with some good browning around edges and a chewy interior.

Pie Crust Made with Butter vs Shortening

What makes the best pie crust -- butter or shortening? Butter of course.
 
Butter is composed of 80% butterfat and 20% water. The crust’s flakiness is created by the steam produced from the water while it bakes. The butter will add a rich flavor to your finished pie crust.
 
Shortening is 100% vegetable oil, which allows for a higher melting point than butter, so it stays solid within the pie crust dough in your oven longer. When the shortening finally melts, steam forms in pockets and it puffs the layers of dough apart, making a flaky, but not as flavorful as butter, crust.

Cake Made with Butter vs Shortening

Taste is the obvious difference as butter produces a more flavorful cake. Cakes made with butter can be as light and tender as those made with shortening. When using butter, you must cream the butter and sugar properly, check out How to Cream Butter and Sugar for more information. For best results when making a cake with butter, start with room temperature butter (65 F.), you do not want it melted or too warm, or it will not cream the butter and sugar properly.  Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 4 to 5 minutes.

Two yellow cakes, one recipe made with butter and one made with shortening.  You can see the slight volume difference as well as a color difference, but the butter flavor wins our hearts here at Land O’Lakes.

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