What is the difference between butter and shortening?
What is the difference between butter and shortening?

Most recipes for cookies and pastries demand the use of fat. Fat gives that soft, chewy, and moist feeling to your treats, and more important – it gives flavor. Still, some baked good recipes call for butter and some for shortening. Why is that so? Is there a difference in what kind of fat are you using for your cookies or pastries? 

Butter and shortening have different chemical structures and therefore different performances when used in recipes. Understanding their abilities will make you perfectly suitable to decide which of them to use when you’re baking.

Shortening Characteristics 

Shortening is a semi-solid vegetable fat, similar to lard or margarine. Semi-solid fat means that shortening is liquid at room temperature, while it is solidifying in the refrigerator. As it is a vegetable fat, it’s manufactured from vegetable materials, such as soybean, sunflower, palm, or cottonseed oil, thru the hydrogenation process.

Shortening is 100% fat and it doesn’t contain any moisture, which is necessary to promote gluten formations when you’re baking with it. It also has a high melting point (117 degrees F or 47 degrees C) so it won’t allow your baked goods to spread as much as butter, but it will make them higher. 

When it comes to the flavor, shortening loses a battle. It has a simple mild oily taste, which can be good when you’re using other ingredients with strong flavors. You can also use shortening enriched with butter aroma.

Shortenings were notorious because of the method of their production – hydrogenation produces trans fats, which are bad for entire human health. However, today you can find shortenings with 0% trans fats, which are healthier versions. 

Butter characteristics

Butter is one of the healthiest foods in our diet, a dairy product with at least 80% milk fat. Known for thousands of years, butter is a completely natural “super food”, which contains essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals, and almost does not change its properties at high temperatures.

As we mentioned, butter is “only” 80% fat. The rest is 16% of liquid and 4% of milk solids. The liquid in butter allows the gluten to form properly and gives that beautifully chewy taste to your baked goods. Butter is spreading while baking, but also can prolong baking time, as all the liquid has to evaporate. A little tip – when you’re baking with butter always use a lower temperature and bake a little longer, to avoid burning your baked goods. Butter has a lower melting point than the shortening – it melts at 95 degrees F or 35 degrees C.

Butter has a wonderful natural smell and exquisite strong taste that cannot be compared with shortening. The buttery aroma of your baked goods can’t be achieved with any other fats.

Also, butter is a healthier option than shortening. It contains all fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E, and K. Butter is also a rich source of iodine in a highly absorbable form. It also contains lauric acid (MCT), as well as lecithin. In addition to lecithin from the group of building phospholipids in butter, we also have sphingomyelins and cephalins. 

Although butter is healthier, keep in mind that it is still high in calories and saturated fats.

Can shortening be a substitute for butter?

Yes, shortening can be a substitute for butter, and also butter can be a substitute for fat. Don’t forget that these two ingredients don’t contain the same amount of fat – butter has 80% while shortening has 100%. If you’re using them as a replacement for one another use 1.2 amounts of butter to replace shortening and 0.8 amounts of shortening and 0.2 amounts of milk to replace the butter. You can also combine shortening and butter in recipes.