Baking With Butter (And Other Fats)

Do you remember, “Nothin’ says lovin’ like somethin’ from the oven”?  Reportedly, Pillsbury says it best. How many brands of refrigerated dough can there be?  Regardless of what comes from the oven, we want it to taste good. Sometimes that means throwing discretion to the wind and eating stuff we otherwise would avoid. Yeah, right. We all know that limiting simple carbohydrates like white flour and sugar is healthful, but once in a while a splurge disrupts the routine. In that case, we crave “mouth,” the sensation of satisfaction that a food is expected to give. In the unwarranted war against fats that erupted in the last century, commercial baked goods were loaded with sugars—yes, more than one—in a feeble attempt to restore the mouth feel lost to the missing ingredient. The only real accomplishment was to increase the simple carbohydrates and practically force a person to eat several pieces of pastry in the quest for the satiety of mouth. Fat, it was discovered, was never the problem in one’s diet. Sugars were…and are. Regardless of all the emotional baggage we carry about fats, it’s a baker’s best friend, realizing that savory cooking is art, baking is science (there is a formula from which there is little room for straying).

We need to know how fat works in baking before we can appreciate its talents. When flour and water are mixed together, gluten is activated to make the dough elastic, and even stringy. In bread baking, gluten is a welcome guest because it helps the loaf to hold its shape after it rises. In cake baking, less gluten activity is desirable to prevent chewiness. Without sufficient gluten, the carbon dioxide from the addition of yeast would burst the pockets and the bread would flatten. After manipulating the water-flour mixture by kneading or stirring, and if all the gluten that could possibly develop is actually developed at this point, we would have a tough and chewy, flat baked item. This is where fat enters the scene, albeit little in breads.

In baking sweet goods, particularly, fat is almost always mixed with flour before water or any other liquid is added. The fat coats the particles of flour so that water can’t touch them. This means that not all the gluten will develop, making the final product tender. What happened is that the fat “shortened” the strings of gluten that develop. This is the origin of the term, “shortening.”  But wait, there’s more. Fat helps to trap air bubbles, especially at the point when sugar and fat are combined. This is how cakes rise. Of course, add a leavening agent and they rise even more. You see this when the height of the cake exceeds that of the batter first put into the pan.

Fat has more than one form: animal fats are usually solid, plant fats usually liquid. It’s really nature’s way of storing energy and is a more compact storage unit than carbohydrates or proteins, having twice the energy per gram. The key in baking is to choose a fat that is good for you and for the recipe.

Mistakenly labeled an enemy of the cardiovascular system, butter is a fair source of fat-soluble vitamins, especially vitamin A. It contains healthy fatty acids that support immunity, natural lecithin to help metabolize cholesterol, conjugated linoleic acid to fight disease, protects joints against degradation, and provides fatty acids essential to brain function (Lock, 2005) (Fallon, 2000). Less than two-thirds of butter is saturated fat. More than a fourth is monounsaturated, and only very little is polyunsaturated. American butter must be at least 80% fat; as much as 85% for European. It’s that 15% of water that makes a huge difference in butter’s performance in baked goods. Chocolate chip cookies baked with butter will be flatter and crisper than those baked with a less watery fat, such as canned vegetable shortening.

The taste of butter is its selling point. It can be mixed with other shortenings, too. In pie crusts, butter has to be kept cold when you work with it because it’s a more brittle fat than lard or vegetable shortening, and too much will melt into the flour, changing the texture.

What cows are fed makes a difference in the quality of the butter, which explains the inclination of some people to buy European, notably Irish, butter that comes from pasture-fed cows. European butter has more butterfat and less milk solids and water, yielding a more flavorful product. If anything, it’s the milk proteins that cause health concerns, not the fat. Some of the puzzlement about butter is caused by intrusion into the butter industry by… the government (Nuben, 1999).

Margarine is cheap, easy to make, labor-moderate and phony. Because it’s a trans-fat and has little character, we avoid it altogether.

Lard has a better lipid profile than you’d imagine. It has less saturated fat than butter, and more mono- and polyunsaturated fats. What it does for pie crust is gustatory delight. Even when cold, lard is comparatively soft, thus enveloping most of the flour particles and inhibiting the formation of gluten, resulting in the flakiest pie crust. What happens is that it separates the flour and water long enough for the steam to keep layers of lard and flour farther a part. If you’re interested, buy fresh lard and use it quickly because it isn’t a good keeper. You might not want to use lard in cakes because its large crystalline structure makes a sizeable grain, and we don’t want a flaky cake. Suet is the bovine counterpart of lard.

Oils, such as canola and olive, are good at shortening, but poor at trapping air bubbles, so they’re not recommended for all baked goods. It is possible to substitute one fat for another, and experimentation will help you decide on what you like. With pie crusts, whatever makes it tender also makes it less flaky. Covering the flour with fat will make the crust tender. That happens with overworking the dough, either from kneading by hand or flattening with a rolling pin. Leaving the clumps of flour and fat alone will separate the crust into layers that will come apart where the fat was. Getting a crust that is both tender and flaky is up to the baker. That is the art of the science.

Even the one or two percent change in fat content that American butter may have experienced over the years has made a change in the way baked goods come out of the oven. If you decide to experiment with combinations of fats, let us know the results. We never turn our noses at baked fruits.

Chris A. Nubern American Butter Institute Market Situation & Outlook Third Quarter 1999. Volume 2, Number 3

Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, PhD Why Butter Is Better 01 January 2000

Haug A, Sjøgren P, Hølland N, Müller H, Kjos NP, Taugbøl O, Fjerdingby N, Biong AS, Selmer-Olsen E, Harstad OM. Effects of butter naturally enriched with conjugated linoleic acid and vaccenic acid on blood lipids and LDL particle size in growing pigs. Lipids Health Dis. 2008 Aug 29;7:31. doi: 10.1186/1476-511X-7-31.

Kala AL, Joshi V, Gurudutt K Effect of heating oils and fats in containers of different materials on their trans fatty acid content. J Sci Food Agric. 2012 Aug 30;92(11):2227-33.

Lock AL, Horne CA, Bauman DE, Salter AM. Butter naturally enriched in conjugated linoleic acid and vaccenic acid alters tissue fatty acids and improves the plasma lipoprotein profile in cholesterol-fed hamsters. J Nutr. 2005 Aug;135(8):1934-9.

Przybylski O, Aladedunye FA. Formation of trans fats during food preparation. Can J Diet Pract Res. 2012 Summer;73(2):98-101.

USDA United States Standards for Grades of Butter Effective August 31, 1989

*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.