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Butter vs Shortening in Baking

Posted Aug 24 2008 8:07pm
Yesterday, Judi.0044 asked me about whether and when you can substitute shortening for butter in baked goods. I have a lot of experience in this area with cookies, and some with cakes, so I’m happy to pass along what I know.

In general, you can substitute shortening for butter in equal amounts in baking recipes (not the frosting or icing, though—yuck). Shortening yields higher, lighter-textured baked goods, which is sometimes preferable to butter (depending on what you’re making).

Butter naturally has some water in it; shortening doesn’t. Cookies made with shortening and no extra water added, for example, are higher and lighter, while butter cookies are flatter and crispier. This is because butter has a lower melting point than shortening, causing them to spread faster and more in the short time it takes to bake a cookie. If you use shortening, but want an effect closer to butter, add 1 and 1/2 teaspoons water for every 1/4 cup of shortening.

But, of course, the elephant in the room here is flavor, or more precisely, lack of it, in shortening. If butter plays a central role in the flavor of a cookie or cake (e.g., shortbread cookies or butter pound cake), the end result will be diminished unless you radically alter the flavor profile (e.g., flavorful extracts, spices, glazes, etc).

If you’ve eschewed shortening altogether in recent years, you may be pleased to know that the major brand, Crisco , now makes all of their regular shortening without trans fats. Hurrah! They started making a separate variety of trans-fat free shortening two or three years ago, but I'm assuming they realized that no one wants trans fats so the switch was made. Spectrum Organics also makes a trans-fat free, organic shortening. Just a few years ago, I could only find the Spectrum brand at my natural foods co-op, but now it’s sold in my regular supermarket. Three cheers for healthy progress!

As an experiment, and an excuse to procrastinate from my recipe testing, exam grading, and general housekeeping, I decided to make a batch of cookies I developed for my Enlightened Chocolate book (I also needed to do some advance baking/freezing for a reception this Sunday, so now I have a leg up on one of my to-dos. Welcome to my wacky world of rationalization). I called for butter in my original recipe, but I was curious to compare with shortening. For the record, I used unsalted Land O’ Lakes butter and Crisco plain shortening sticks for the testing.

The photo above shows the cookies: the shortening cookies are at left, the butter cookies at right (note: I had to use a bit of Dutch process in the shortening cookies, which is why they are darker). As much as I love these cookies made with butter, I was surprised to find I preferred the texture of the shortening cookies—lighter, crispier exterior, greater puff, and a pleasantly chewy center. The butter cookies were flatter, crispier around the perimeter and far more chewy overall, reminiscent of a fudgie brownie.

Taking side by side nibbles of the two test subjects, I could definitely discern the absence of butter in the shortening cookies, though. The butter coaxes out the subtle flavors of the vanilla and the bitter, earthy notes of the cocoa. That being said, I don’t think I would notice (or, perhaps, care) if the shortening cookies were my only choice; they were still darn good. I’m thinking I may have to try a combo of butter and shortening. I’ll keep you posted.

Hmm, this makes three dessert postings in a row. Am I revealing too much of my raging Mr. Hyde-like sweet tooth? I’ll switch back to Jekyll mode in the days and posts to come. I have an incredibly easy and delicious fish technique, in particular, I’ve been meaning to share for awhile now, so look for that next. Until then, happy baking!

Double Chocolate Cookies

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour (or all-purpose flour)

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup sugar

1/3 cup unsalted butter, softened (or shortening)

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 large egg

1/3 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips

Optional: 3 tablespoons chopped nuts or sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray a cookie sheet with nonstick cooking spray.

In a large bowl whisk the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a separate large bowl beat the sugar and butter with an electric mixer at high speed until well blended. Beat in the vanilla and egg until blended. Mix in flour mixture and chocolate chips (and optional nuts) with a wooden spoon until just blended.

Drop by tablespoonfuls (or use a small cookie scoop) two inches apart onto prepared cookie sheet. Bake 11-13 minutes or until puffed in the center (just barely set). Remove from oven; cool on pans 5 minutes. Remove from sheets and cool completely on wire racks. Makes 30 cookies.

Nutrition per Serving (1 cookie):

Calories 82; Fat 2.8g (sat 1.5g, mono 1.0g, poly 0.1g); Protein 1.1g; Cholesterol 12mg; Carbohydrate 12.6g; Sodium 56mg.

(Note: I did the nutrition analysis using Diet Analysis Plus 7.0.1 )
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