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. Helen S. Fletcher

    I didn’t see you address the trans fat problem with Crisco. Even though it says 0 trans fat there is about .05 grams per serving as stated on their label but they don’t say what a serving consists of. Some bakery goods are much heavier in shortening than others. I brought this up as someone questioned me about the use of crisco in posts on my blog, pastrieslikeapro.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re guessing you’re wondering about using shortening instead of melted butter, which is sometimes called for in waffle recipes. The overall effect won’t be too drastic since there’s typically just a few tablespoons of butter (or oil) called for in waffle recipes. However, based on our findings here, we’d guess that the waffles might be slightly crispier when shortening is used, though they may not have quite as rich or deep of a flavor. We sometimes use vegetable oil instead of butter in waffles when we’re looking to create that crispy effect, so we think it’s worth experimenting with shortening in your next weekend batch of waffles. We think you might be pleased with the results! Kye@KAF

  2. Sara

    They sell butter-flavored shortening at most grocery stores now for around the same price. Would this sub well in cookies and cakes for butter?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      As we found in this post here, shortening behaves slightly different than butter in baking because of its ingredient composition and melting point. That being said, if you enjoy the flavor of butter-flavored shortening, you’re welcome to consider giving it a try in some of your favorite recipes to see if you like the results. You can also consider using half butter and half shortening to see if that lands you someplace in the middle: both with nice flavor and texture. Shortening is best in recipes like cookies; butter truly shines in recipes like cake. We hope you find a perfect balance in your baking! Kye@KAF

  3. Bles

    Your blog is very helpful. I learned about butter vs shortening which I didn’t know the difference before. I have some question which I hope you can help me… I made some Filipino pandesal bread and it requires 5 tbsp of butter. The result was a little dense when its cold but when it is hot it is soft. Can I add some (and what amount) shortening to make it tender or softer (even it is cold)? Your reply is highly appreciated. Thank you and more power.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re glad to hear that our blog is a helpful friend in the kitchen, Bles! You can certainly use shortening in your recipe. We’d recommend starting with using half shortening and half butter, but if you find the butter flavor is lacking, you can tweak that a bit. You should have a nice, tender result without losing the lovely butter flavor completely. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Certainly, Claudia. We always love the flavor of butter but some recipes benefit from the tender puffiness that shortening tends to lend. Go with half and half or play around with different amounts of each. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

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