Shortening vs. butter in baking: Making your best baked goods

Vegetable shortening can be a mysterious ingredient. I’d never plunged my spatula into the cloud-like stuff until a few months ago when I was baking in the test kitchen. Growing up, I always reached for a trusty kitchen staple instead: butter. But recently as I whipped up batches of cookies and a plethora of pies, I began to wonder about the difference between using shortening vs. butter in baking.
Shortening vs. butter in baking via @kingarthurflour

The ingredients

Butter

Butter is a familiar ingredient. We know it comes from cows, and it’s delicious on toast. It’s made by churning fresh or fermented cream, and then separating solids from the liquid (which is then sold as buttermilk). It’s about 80% butterfat, plus 18% water and 1% to 2% milk solids.

Shortening

Shortening on the other hand is a bit more complicated, starting with the name. “Shortening” actually refers to all fats and oils, but what we’re talking about here is hydrogenated vegetable oil shortening (such as Crisco).

This kind of shortening is typically made from soybean, cottonseed, or palm oil. It goes through a special process called hydrogenation so it remains semi-solid at room temperature. It’s 100% fat, unlike butter.

Even though these ingredients are clearly different, shortening and butter are often used interchangeably in recipes with acceptable results. But if you’re looking to make the very best baked goods, like so many of us King Arthur Flour bakers, which should you use?

Shortening vs. butter: the ingredient to reach for depends on what you’re baking. Click To Tweet

Shortening vs. butter in baking via @kingarthurflour

Cookies

If you’ve ever had a tray of cookies morph into one huge mess in the oven, it’s time to listen up.

Cookies made with butter, especially high-sugar recipes, tend to be flatter and crispier than cookies made with shortening. Because of butter’s low melting point, the dough tends to spread during baking before the structure sets.

To see just how different the spread would be, I baked two batches of our Self-Rising Crunchy Sugar Cookies (one made with all butter, one with all shortening), for another shortening vs. butter in baking comparison.

As predicted, the cookies made with shortening spread less and remained slightly rounded, thanks to the higher melting point. These cookies had what’s called a “short” texture. You might recognize this slightly sandy, crumbly feel as the characteristic texture of shortbread. (Yum.)

If you’re having problems with cookies spreading, you might try replacing some of the butter with shortening. Keep in mind this is just one reason why cookies spread; there’s a multitude of factors you can adjust if you’re committed to using butter for its rich flavor.

A quick fix? Consider chilling your butter-based cookie dough to help control spread (and bonus, you’ll also experience a wonderful depth of flavor, too!).Shortening vs. butter in baking via @kingarthurflour

Cake

What about cake? We know shortening adds tenderness since it’s 100% fat, so some of us curious bakers started wondering what would happen if it was used to make cake.

Would the cake rise in the oven? Or would it collapse? Would it have a large crumb? We needed to find out!

Our Back-to-Basics Moist Yellow Cake was the recipe of choice for this experiment — it’s a standard butter cake that uses a cup of fat. One cake was baked using all butter, while shortening was the fat of choice in the other.

The result? The difference between shortening vs. butter was underwhelming when judged by appearance alone. The height was comparable, as were the color and crumb.

The texture of the cake made with shortening, however was quite pleasant — tender, lofty, and light. When shortening is creamed with sugar, it traps air molecules, which helps to leaven cakes and make them tender. A fork slides through a slice of shortening-based cake easier than one made with butter.

You might be thinking, then why don’t more cake recipes call for shortening?

Flavor. What’s a cake if it doesn’t taste great? The rich creaminess of a classic butter cake is hard to replace.

Shortening vs. butter in baking via @kingarthurflour

Buttercream frosting

It might seem like butter would be the obvious choice when making buttercream frosting, and if you’re going for best flavor, it’s a worthy option.

But shortening might have its place in your frosting recipe too. Because it’s 100% fat, it helps make buttercream more stable than an all-butter buttercream, which can begin to separate at warm temperatures.

It’s a sad sight to see a beautifully piped cake wilt in the sun as the baker stands by watching helplessly. We replicated hot, summery conditions (when so many of us cake bakers are called upon) by putting frosted cupcakes in a low oven for 10 minutes.

The results were drastic: the all-butter buttercream melted and spread down the sides of the cupcake, while the buttercream made with shortening held its shape.

But you trade stability for flavor.

So if heat isn’t a problem, you might want to stick with a Classic Buttercream recipe.

Shortening vs. butter in baking via @kingarthurflour

Making the choice: shortening vs. butter in baking

It’s clear that both shortening and butter have their virtues and vices. They can both be used to make delicious, tender baked goods that are full of flavor and richness.

There might be certain cases when it just makes more sense to use butter, like in a classic cake perhaps. There are other times when a can of Crisco is now the thing I reach for: when making pie crust, frosting, and even sandwich cookie filling.

The virtue of butter vs. shortening is a passionate topic for many bakers, and we explore both here for their distinctive baking qualities. Each baker brings unique needs and perspectives to the table, and it’s our sincere hope everyone will choose ingredients that best embrace their personal goals.

Interested in more baking science? Check out our post on cookie chemistry, covering how to attain the perfect bendy/chewy/crisp/crunchy cookie texture you want!

A special thanks to fellow employee-owner Nic Doak for taking the photos for this blog.

Kye Ameden
About

Kye Ameden grew up in Fairlee, Vermont and has always had a love of food, farms, and family. After graduating from St. Lawrence University, she became an employee-owner at King Arthur Flour and is a proud member of the Digital Engagement Team.

comments

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Out of the two, we prefer butter for the flavor, Patricia, but either would work just fine. Most banana bread recipes call for oil so you maybe not have to decide which to use in the first place! Annabelle@KAF

  1. HowdyPete

    I understand the difference between butter and Crisco in cookies, cakes and frosting. But what about yeast breads?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Great question. In yeast breads they’re interchangeable. The difference would come from the flavor. Butter lends a richer, more deep flavor, whereas shortening won’t lend much if any flavor. Shortening also doesn’t aid in browning, so loaves may be paler in color. Annabelle@KAF

  2. Butter Me Up

    I love King Arthur and have actually had a good laugh, while shaking my head in amazement,reading all the comments about concerns over using shortening vs butter vs lard, its effects on the planet, the rain forest, the universe, those poor cows, those poor victimized cows, and whoever and/or whatever could be traumatized by cooking/ eating with Lard,Butter or Crisco. Unless you are feeding yourself shortening, lard or butter by the cupful every day,and a side of Sugar with your lard, common season should kick in to tell yourself, you’ll be “ok” eating a few cookies or biscuits made with shortening. More important if you are that worried about the effects of eating FATS, don’t bake anything and don’t eat them, period! I thank KA for their products!! ( and common sense) Hail to the King!

    Reply
  3. Janine

    I have found this blog very amusing. All this talk back and forth about the negative health affects of various types of fats. If you are that concerned why are you even eating things like pies and cookies? Seriously! An overall healthy diet is not going to be derailed by an occasional cookie or piece of pie. If I am going to indulge every once in a while it better be darn tasty! And since it’s not the mainstay of my diet I am not going to be concerned about the amount of trans fat or hydrogenated fat that’s in the one cookie I am eating (since I don’t eat them by the dozen!).

    Reply
  4. Richard Uie

    Thanks for maintaining a laser-like focus on the original intent of the article, i.e., promoting understanding of the science of cooking as it relates to flavor and texture.

    As a long time worshipper at the altar of James Beard, I understand that death by an atherosclerosis is the only respectable end for the true chef. Seriously, the trick with any of the highly saturated fat classes is moderation.

    For the “animal lovers” among us, let me observe that a properly roasted duck in the five pound range can yield about two cups of very lovely fat. For savory pastries, crackers, and other recipes that perform well with animal fats, duck fat is an amazing treat.

    Again, thanks for promoting learning without a political agenda.

    Reply
  5. MammaJo

    I love kitchen tests. We all learn so much. What I hate about blogs, are the many scare threats these new health nuts keep posting.

    If Grandma used Crisco and lived to teach you about it, there must not be as much health threat as you all claim. You want to know the REAL truth? They survived the Crisco “poison” because they worked from dawn til dusk out in fields. They didn’t sit around with their Ipads and Iphones building scare tactics for the rest of the world. The kids got out and ran and played instead of sitting by the television with an Xbox or Nintendo. Lack of EXCERCISE is what is killing your heart, not Crisco.

    I don’t want my pie crusts made from coconut oil and almond flour. If you do, good for you…go do it in your kitchen and stay out of mine.

    Reply
    1. Bernadette

      Hear, hear! Although, I guess that it’s a miracle Grandma managed to survive without webmd & whatever other omniscient site du jour deems to be ‘toxic’ or unhealthy. Really? Have you guys been on the same planet any time in the past century? You know, during the time that we went from lard, butter, coconut oil & palm oil being a crime against humanity & margarine & vegetable (nuffin healthier than vegetables, right?) shortening being the ‘good’ guys to their current status as villains & knaves? Am so totally sick of the silliness. Am sick of seeing you KAF guys apologizing & ‘thanking’ bullies for their input. This used to be a warm, friendly, welcoming site. We need to take back the night from the nutritional Cotton Mathers. This was one of the best baking sites out there with awesome staff & pretty fascinating customers. Could you stop being so bloody polite & just tell them to go kick rocks with their irrefutable ‘facts’? Huh, please? Early Christmas present?

    2. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and comments, Bernadette. We really do consider ourselves lucky to have the following of fans and customers that we do, and for the variety of opinions everyone brings to the table. The fact is that nutrition and ingredients occasionally intersect with controversy, which can lead to strong opinions and emotion. Regardless of feelings, our team does expect everyone to show respect for one another in their comments so that we can continue to provide a space where bakers can bring different ideas to the table and walk away with more than they brought. We do hope you’ll continue to bake in the way that makes you feel most comfortable (as will we), and that you’ll connect with our conversations and spaces which best make you feel at home. Kindly, Jesse@KAF

  6. Russ

    Susan, You mentioned deodorized which makes me chuckle. I have recently started using bacon grease and sugar on bundt cake pans. So far 4 out of 4 have released perfectly. A few people at Church have commented on how great the cakes tasted too. I guess a tiny bit of bacon flavor works well in baking too.

    Reply
    1. Suzee

      Animal fat is what made MCDs fries best too. After the govt made them stop using animal fat, their products started tasting bland.

  7. Russ

    RE: Crisco substitutes for baking: Years ago (35 or so) I spent a fair amount of time in one of baking Elves cookie & cracker bakeries. They used various shortenings including a beef fat with a 109F melt temperature. The question is if Crisco has a 118-119F melt temp and butter is 97-98F wouldn’t at least a partial substitution with beef fat plus maybe lard solve some of the spread & texture problems especially cookies? In some cases I find butter just doesn’t work or taste right.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid

      That’s an intriguing idea, Russ. As long as the beef fat was deodorized, as I’m sure the product in the industrial bakery was, so that it doesn’t bring a flavor of its own. Lard would also work, but be aware that many commercially available lards are hydrogenated, in which case, you’d be better off with the Crisco. Susan

  8. Sherri

    For all of you fellow health conscious bakers, I want to bring it to your attention that the FDA allows companies to advertise and label the ingredient list on a food product as 0 trans fat if it has less than a half gram of trans fat per serving. Several servings of that can add up fast. So, do your research and be wise in food choices especially if you’re heart health conscious. Butter, rather than crisco, is definitely my choice.

    Reply

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