Ever wonder why some cookie recipes call for shortening while some call for butter? Understanding the differences between butter vs. shortening will allow you to master the perfect baked treat!
If you appreciate a good cookie, whether it’s a classic snickerdoodle or one doused in chocolate chips, you might attribute your delight to that sweet, sweet sugar. But did you know that much of a cookie’s favorable traits have to do with the type of fat used?
Imagine all the things you love about a cookie: chewy or crisp, moist, flavorful and melts in your mouth. Those are contributions from fat! With a variety of baking fats available, understanding what each type can do for your baked goods can prove helpful.
For example, lard is especially good for making flaky pie crusts. For cookies, however, both butter and shortening are popular choices. Let’s discuss the differences below.
The role of fat in cookies
Before delving deeper, it is beneficial to familiarize ourselves with the role of fat in baking cookies. Fat is one of the necessary building blocks to produce any baked goods – and cookies are no exception. It is what imparts mouthfeel qualities, affects texture and structure, and most importantly packs your cookies with flavor.
Differences between vegetable shortening vs butter
As a preface, shortening is a fat that is semi-solid or solid at room temperature. By definition, fats such as lard and margarine fall into this category, but today the term ‘shortening’ can simply refer to vegetable shortening.
As its name implies, vegetable shortening is derived from plant sources – typically soybean or cottonseed oil. Since oil is naturally liquid at room temperature, how does vegetable shortening fit into the definition of being semi-solid or solid? This is because of a process called hydrogenation which converts unsaturated fats to become saturated, solidifying the oil.
- Palm oil has a higher melting point and is usually added to make shortening harder without as much hydrogenation.
- Butter, on the other hand, is a dairy product made from churning milk.
The general difference that affects baking, is that shortening is 100 percent fat, whereas butter is only 80 percent. This is because butter contains up to 16% moisture and around 2% milk solids.
Shortening does not have moisture to promote gluten formation, resulting in a more tender, crumbly cookie. Butter, on the other hand, can produce a chewy cookie when gluten is formed.
It may sound contradictory but using butter can also yield crispy cookies. This is possible since butter spreads thinner during baking. However, it must be baked long enough until the water is driven off.
Low temperature and longer time will allow this without burning the cookie. Creaming the butter instead of melting it will introduce an airy texture that can add to the crunch.
Shortening has a higher melting point (117ºF/47ºC) than butter (95ºF/35ºC), which allows it to stay solid for longer and have its structure set, resulting in a cookie that spreads less and therefore, will be taller.
If spreadability is something you worry about, it might be worthwhile to use shortening in cookies like Snickerdoodle with a high ratio of wet ingredients. To reduce spreading when using butter, you can refrigerate the cookie dough for at least 30 minutes before baking. Make sure you’re not placing cookies too close on the tray.
For better structure, aim for a butter temperature of 65 to 67ºF (18 to 19ºC) to ensure its fat crystals are intact and are firm enough to hold the incorporated air bubbles from creaming. Avoid creaming for too long as it can warm the butter to over 68ºF (20ºC) where the butterfat starts melting, defeating the purpose of starting with an ideal butter temperature.
The flavor of butter is unrivaled and since shortening is essentially vegetable oil, it simply has a bland, oily taste.
Shortening may have its advantages, but when it comes down to a Danish Cookies for example where there aren’t other strong contributing flavors, you might want to stick to butter to avoid compromising its star flavor. If you must use shortening, try the butter-flavored version.
Which is healthier?
Traditionally, shortening made through hydrogenation produces trans fats which have gotten a bad rap. Because of this, companies have made shortening with 0g of trans fat now available just like the one from Crisco.
Keep in mind that rounding rules make it possible for its trans fat to be labeled as 0g as long as it is under 0.5g. This means that it may not be completely trans fat-free.
Butter actually contains natural trans fat too but in small amounts, which in the same way, allows it to be labeled as 0g. Butter does, however, have a leg up on shortening whereby it contains beneficial fatty acids and nutrients that shortening does not such as vitamins A, E, K and B12.
At face value, while butter may seem like the “healthier” option, it’s worth remembering that it’s still high in calories and saturated fat.
Can I substitute shortening for butter?
Certainly, but remember that a weight-to-weight replacement with butter will result in less fat since it is only 80% fat. To attain the same amount of fat, butter should be added at 1.2 times the amount of shortening from the original recipe.
To fully exploit the textural benefits of shortening and the unmatchable flavor of butter, you can try using both, half and half in a recipe.
13 Comments Leave a comment or review
Thank you. Very interesting and educational:)
Trying to recreate my great-grandmother’s hermit cookie/cakes. I have her recipe calling for shortening, spices, molasses, water and 5 cups flour. My cookie/cakes are similar but not as moist and do not have a moist shine to them. I am guessing her measurements were.’a handful of this and a dash of that….’ can you think of anything I can try to achieve a shinier more moist cake? I used white granulated sugar and maybe brown sugar would help?? They are also much lighter in color. I would appreciate and suggestion at all 🙂
Jessica Gavin says
Usually, granulated sugar can help with shine and crispiness. Brown sugar will add flavor and darker color, also makes baked good more moist.
Mary Welsh says
Might great-grandma have used lard? If she was a farm lady . . .
How does ghee behave compared to either butter or shortening?
MICHAEL WILLIAMS says
ghee works! https://www.cooksillustrated.com/how_tos/9390-clarified-butter-a-substitute-for-shortening
Cheryl Tenbrink says
Like most of us, we remember our grandmother’s cooking. I have been trying recipes for many years trying to somewhat duplicate her tea cakes. My mother is almost 90 so my grandmother would have created these too many years ago. Not sure about shortening, lard, or butter. They were not real sweet, light in color, fluffy but dense fluffy, and not spongey. A heavier cookie than not. I know they were rolled out and cut but not sure about refrigeration. My grandmother was from Germany.
Crazy after all the years of trying all different combos I am not much closer than I was. Any ideas?
Eternally grateful for any ideas.
Jessica Gavin says
Do you happen to know the name of the baked good? Or was it her own creation?
Loice chinyamu says
Wow thanks I have learnt a lot
Jessica Gavin says
You’re welcome, great to hear that you found the butter and shortening article helpful!
Janice Mathieu says
Thank you Jessica! Does the same concept work with baking breads? Can I use shortening for pumpkin bread?
Jessica Gavin says
Once you melt the butter, the texture is pretty similar. It’s the room temperature solidified fat that really impacts the spread. You can use shortening in pumpkin bread, it may give a taller loaf. Let me know how it goes!
Really helpful information – thank you for sharing your knowledge.
I came upon this after finding a (vegan) Cuban bread recipe that called for shortening and butter, so I wondered why. This answered my question! 🙂