Butter vs Vegetable Shortening: How They Differ, How to Swap & More
In 2018, however, the Food and Drug Administration’s ban on artificial trans fats went into effect, though products are allowed to claim they’re trans fat-free if the amount is less than 0.5 grams per serving. . Crisco, the brand synonymous with shortening, has changed its formula to use fully hydrogenated oil, while others, like Nutiva and Spectrum, use non-hydrogenated oils. Keep in mind that trans fats are naturally present in dairy and other ruminant products (cows, sheep), although generally at levels below 0.5 grams per serving, according to the FDA. These natural trans fats also have a different chemical structure than artificial trans fats.
Is shortening a health food? Of course not. But is butter better for you? Not necessarily, because butter comes with its own set of issues, including saturated fat and cholesterol. And it’s worth noting that almost every time the question of butter versus vegetable shortening arises, it’s in the context of baked goods, which we know we should be eating as an occasional treat anyway.
So how do they compare from a culinary point of view? Here’s what you need to know about these two fats, including how they differ, if they’re interchangeable, and why you might still want both in your pantry.
Fun fact: butter is also a type of shortening. As Harold McGee explains in “On Food and Cooking”, since the early 19th century the term has referred to “fats or oils that ‘shorten’ a dough, or weaken its structure and thus make the final product more tender or laminated”. This effect makes the difference between, for example, a buttery shortbread that melts in your mouth and a loaf of bread with a stretchy, chewy bite.
Butter is made after the cream has been cooled and churned, causing the fat to consolidate, at which time the mixture is kneaded and shaped. As I mentioned above, vegetable shortening is often based on the process of hydrogenation, although others are formed through cycles of pressing, filtering, and cooling.
Shortening is 100% fat, while American Butter is closer to 80% fat, with 18% water and 1–2% milk solids.
In something like pie crusts, fat is essential for tenderness, interfering with gluten creation. Gluten forms when flour proteins meet water, one reason why you might get a slightly harder result with butter (more water) compared to shortening. Fat also contributes to flaking when it melts and leaves air pockets, says Lauren Chattman in “The Baking Answer Book.” With its higher amount of fat, “the vegetable shortening incorporated into the flour creates more air pockets than butter during cooking of the crust,” she says. As King Arthur Baking says, shortening will also help your crust hold its shape better (more on that below), especially your lovely crimps.
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Substituting butter and shortening for each other in pie crusts that were developed with certain fats in mind can affect flavor and texture, as well as the amount of wiggle room you have before the fat begins to melt (the shortening saves you a little more time). To get the best of both worlds, Chattman recommends 60% fat and 40% butter to get “flakes and flavors in the right balance.” A good example of a butter-shortening combination can be found in my colleague Olga Massov’s Cornish Pasties.
The shortening has a neutral flavor. This is useful if you use it to, for example, grease a frying pan. In batter or batter, a flavorless fat is not ideal. While Chattman acknowledges the benefit of cookies spreading less with shortening, “I beg you to stick with butter,” which she says provides its own flavor and enhances that of other ingredients, like chocolate.
What about buttery shortening? Reviews are mixed from my favorite sources. In a 2007 test, Cook’s Country tasters found the “artificial, margarine” taste of Crisco butter-flavored pie crusts off-putting (the “horrible chemical aroma” in a test of French fries in a kicked some out of the kitchen). Shirley Corriher would disagree. “The taste of cookies made with butter flavored shortening can be exceptional. Butter flavored shortening cookies can beat butter in blind tastings with some recipes, for example chocolate chip cookies,” she says in “BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking.” Your call!
Butter has at least one other flavor advantage, thanks to those milk solids. As Kye Ameden explains in a comprehensive cookie test at King Arthur Baking, the sugars in these milk solids caramelize at high temperatures (milk sugars and proteins also team up in the flavorful browning reaction known as Maillard name, which occurs at a lower temperature than caramelization). This leads to the more enhanced browning seen by Ameden, but can also provide additional complex flavors that you wouldn’t get with pure vegetable shortening.
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Hydrogenation makes shortening great for incorporating at room temperature because it doesn’t soften as quickly, McGee says. Air butters best at cool room temperature, around 65 degrees, while “shortening creams work best at warm room temperature, between 75 and 80” degrees, he says.
Similarly, once baked goods are baked, the difference in melting point is also apparent. As my former colleague Jane Touzalin wrote: “The butter begins to melt before the shortening; a biscuit made with butter will sink and flatten because its fat runs out before the structure of the biscuit has had a chance to solidify. Shortening melts at a higher temperature; when the melting begins, the cookies will have been in the oven longer and set, so they will hold their shape better. You can see the power of vegetable shortening to help cookies stay thick in these Billy Goats.
If you’re particularly concerned about buttercream on a cake becoming soft at higher temperatures, consider adding shortening to the mixture. As a side benefit, the shortening can help add a brighter white tint to the icing. Learn how shortening is used in the filling of classic chocolate whoopie pies.
In addition to melting point, there is at least one other major difference in how fat and shortening behave during creaming. Creaming is an important step in baked goods, such as cookies or cakes, that you want to leaven. The air pockets you form when creaming expand during baking due to leavening agents (baking soda, baking powder, yeast) and water evaporation.
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As McGee explains, fat clings to these air pockets that are introduced to the back of the sugar crystals that are beaten into them. “Animal fats – butter and lard – tend to form large crystals of fat which collect large pockets of air, which rise in the dough and escape. Vegetable shortenings are made to contain small crystals of fat which trap tiny air bubbles, and those bubbles stay in the batter.Plus, the shortening is primed for creaming because it’s pumped with tiny nitrogen bubbles, giving you ready-to-use air pockets. ready to expand.
These benefits explain why some cake recipes, such as Joy Wilson’s Grandma’s Pound Cake, call for shortening and butter. The shortening helps to make the cake particularly noble and tender. Swapping butter could lead to a squat cake with a less velvety crumb.
Are butter and shortening interchangeable?
At this point, it should be pretty obvious that butter and vegetable shortening aren’t necessarily an easy swap, at least not without triggering changes in a recipe’s end result. Before making a change, make sure you understand their functional differences. In some ways, shortening is more of a problem solver than butter. Mixing in a little in an all-butter recipe won’t significantly harm flavor, but can do enough to improve texture, shape, and stability. Swapping butter for shortening is more likely to cause problems than solve them, aside from adding more robust flavor. If you do, pay particular attention to temperature-related differences.
My suggestion: Consider saving the shortening for recipes that need it and for times when you find yourself struggling with an all-butter recipe. Shortening also has a long shelf life, at least a year (or more, depending on your perspective) at room temperature. At the very least, it is very useful for greasing pans. But at some point, you may find yourself using it for more than that.
This post has been updated.