Cookie chemistry: which fat yields the best results in sugar cookies?

Your favorite sugar cookie recipe calls for butter. But you’re baking for a dairy-free friend: can you use vegetable shortening instead?

Your Aunt Sue’s handwritten sugar cookie recipe calls for “a stick of oleo” – i.e., margarine. Can you safely substitute butter?

Cookie chemistry to the rescue!

The answer to these two questions is yes, and yes. You won’t end up with the exact same cookies, of course – but they’ll taste good.

What about substituting other fats? Say, vegetable oil? Or even cream cheese?

Well, not so much.

Sugar Cookies Fats Test-2A

Here are the results of our Cookie Chemistry: Fats test.

So, how did the test work? I made our basic recipe for Sugar Cookies, a recipe that results in a typical flat, palm-sized sugar cookie that, depending on how long you bake it, the weather, and how you store it, will be a bit soft with crisp/crunchy edges; or soft all the way through.

The recipe calls for butter; or a butter/cream cheese combination, for a slightly puffier cookie. I tested it using butter; vegetable shortening; margarine (“I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter”); low-fat cream cheese; the butter/cream cheese combination, and vegetable oil.

Fats were all measured by volume, not weight, since this is how most bakers will choose to do it. If your recipe calls for 1/3 cup butter and you want to try Crisco, you’ll probably just scoop out 1/3 cup Crisco, right?

At the dough stage, all of the batches except the one made with vegetable oil looked pretty much the same; the oil batch was “wetter.”

I scooped the cookies onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, using a tablespoon cookie scoop. I baked them for exactly 11 minutes in a 350°F oven; the recipe calls for a baking time of 10 to 12 minutes, so I split the difference.

The result?

Sugar Cookies Fats Test-3

Key: 1, margarine; 2, butter; 3, vegetable shortening; 4, low-fat cream cheese; 5, butter/cream cheese; 6, vegetable oil.

Type of fat makes very little difference in appearance.

All of the cookies looked almost exactly the same, save for the cream cheese cookie (#4) – which was lighter-colored and didn’t spread as much. The vegetable oil cookie (#6) was a bit darker.

Type of fat makes a slight difference in texture.

The cookies made with butter, margarine, and the butter/cream cheese combination were a bit crunchy around the edges, and soft in the center. Those made with cream cheese were unappealingly hard; which makes sense, given the fact that cream cheese is lower fat than any of the other choices to begin with, and I used a lower-fat cream cheese to boot.

The cookies made with shortening were crunchier/crumblier. Unlike those made with butter/margarine, they weren’t at all “bendy.” Those made with vegetable oil were tender/crumbly, but unappealingly greasy.

Sugar Cookies Fats Test-5

Type of fat makes the most difference in flavor.

Hooray for real butter! While taste is certainly subjective, I feel that butter-based sugar cookies have the best, most balanced flavor.

That said, the margarine cookies had a certain nostalgic appeal, flavor-wise. If you’re a Boomer, your mom probably did a lot of baking with margarine, which was the low-cost butter alternative back then; at one point, it was even positioned as a healthy substitute for butter. When I tasted the margarine-based cookies, I experienced a big dose of jà vu: Mom putting a plate of sugar cookies on the kitchen table after supper.

How about the rest of the fats? Vegetable shortening, as expected, yielded neutral sugar flavor. Cream cheese was rather odd and flat; while the cream cheese/butter combination tasted exactly like 100% butter – which makes sense, given the ratio was 4 parts butter to 1 part cream cheese.

And the vegetable oil cookies? YUCK. They tasted like old cooking oil. So not only were they greasy, they didn’t taste good.

At the end of the day, I’d avoid sugar cookies made with either 100% low-fat cream cheese, or 100% vegetable oil.

But the remaining fats? The choice is yours to make; they all yield delicious cookies.

Oh, and by the way, were you wondering how I got all of my cookies to be so perfectly round?

Sugar Cookies Fats Test-6

Not via any special scooping or shaping skills!

I positioned the cookies too close together on the cookie sheet; as always, I was in a hurry. So when the big blobby cookies came out of the oven, having all run together, I used a large (2 3/4″) biscuit cutter to trim off the misshapen edges.

And all those leftover edges? Perfect sweet nibbles for me and my extended family as we enjoyed a languid evening at my niece’s softball game.

Consensus? The scraps from this cookie chemistry test are just fine – especially with ice-cold lemonade on a hot summer night at the ballfield.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Suzanne

    For the last few years, my chocolate chip oatmeal cookies failed to spread out when baking. They taste fine but are too small and thick. The original recipe is old and calls for margarine. I’ve been using butter. Could this be the reason? I also started using a cookie scoop. Perhaps I should switch back to using a simple spoon. Please help.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Suzanne, that’s an interesting question! Butter vs. margarine shouldn’t make a difference when it comes to spreading. It seems more likely that something in the ingredients or environment has changed. Are you using the same oven? Have you switched types of oatmeal? If you’re getting smaller, more compact balls with the cookie scoop than you did with a spoon, feel free to smoosh them down a little with your fingers before putting them in the oven. If that doesn’t help, then you might consider adjusting some of your other ingredients as mentioned in this article. Happy baking! Kat@KAF

  2. RONNA DAVIS

    I have a recipe that calls for 1 cup of butter and 1 cup of cooking oil If I use 2 cups of butter and no cooking oil will that be a problem for an ultimately good cookie?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It will possibly give them a buttery flavor and it will change the texture, Ronna. It might be a good idea to try a half batch first just to see if you’re okay with the texture and flavor. Annabelle@KAF

  3. Ecila

    Angie, I read that the left over liguid from canned chickpeas can be whipped, then used as an egg substitute, which ends up merengue like. So I guess I’d just go for a Pavlova type cookie.

    Reply
  4. Angie Martin

    I have a 6 year old grandson who has many allergies, which include all nuts, coconut and worst of all, egg. Christmas is coming and I would love to be able to bake him some special cookies. I have tried using egg replacer in a cake without much success. I would gratefully accept any and all suggestions and recipes!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Angie,
      We’re glad to hear you’re eager to bake for your family. It sounds like you’re looking for our post about making homemade egg replacers using flax blended with water. It includes all the tips and tricks you’ll need to know to make the swap successfully. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  5. Lynda Sandora

    I have been experimenting with triple ginger molasses cookies. The last time I made them they were perfect, crispy outside, chewy inside & made with Gluten Free “Bob’s” flour This time they spread. I didn’t have enough gluten free flour left so substituted 1/2 of regular flour. The recipe called for 3/4 cup soft butter but I substituted 1/2 butter & 1/2 Crisco. I baked them at 350 degrees & the last time I made them 13 min came out with those softer centers & more cake like. This time they were flat & adjusting the cooking times didn’t help. Since they turned out ok the first time at 350 would the change in flours have made the difference? Or since some of the posts that say too much sugar could cause the flattening, the other change I made was to coat the balls in raw, heavy crystalized sugar instead of regular white?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Lynda, using the different flours could’ve been a factor in your cookie mishap, but I would’ve expected them to be dry lumps, not flat. So I think you should give us a call at 855-371-2253 so we can troubleshoot with you. Bryanna@KAF

    2. Mary Speer

      Your cookies were not flatter because of the different flours, in my opinion, but because you increased the total amount of fats by a third. If you are going to substitute Crisco for butter, you should use equal amounts of Crisco and butter. You increased the total from 3/4 cup to 1 cup, and that is what made your cookies spread out more. Next time you must substitute Crisco for part of your butter, make sure the total of the two still comes to the same amount.

  6. Sugar Cookie Monster

    One of my favorite drop sugar cookie recipes uses vegetable oil. However, you only use 2/3 of oil for the batch. So easy to just mix up with a bowl and fork. If I’m baking rolled out cookies, I like margarine. I don’t like crisp edges, and butter always seems to get dark and hard around the edges. Frosted sugar cookies are my Favorite food.

    Reply
  7. Fun size wife

    My favorite sugar cookie uses sour cream and butter. You get that brief “crisp” when you you first bite into it, and then pillow soft inside. I also feel, that for a successful cookie, you have to use a good flour. I noticed that I used to get a lot of separation of the butter with cheaper flours. Not so with KAF products. If you’re baking things you love to give your family, spend your money on quality products before you bake.

    Reply

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