Ingredients: Fats


Of all the ingredients in all of the recipes of I have on the site, questions about fats come up the most – and for good reason. Fats have a great influence on baked goods and fulfill multiple roles. Other ingredients may have several functions but usually they emphasize one function more than others. Fats however have great influence on each of their functions.

Fats are also wide and varied giving the average baker trouble making accurate substitutions. Butter, lard, shortening, margarine, cocoa butter, and oils are all fats but each has been created for a specific purpose. Sometimes you can substitute one for the other with little difficulty, while other times it will have a dramatic result.


Major Functions


Tenderizing refers to an ingredients ability to interfere with the structure builders of a

This cupcake was made with butter. Notice how fine the air cells are in the crumb. There are so fine that you can't really see them. What you see is a fluffy texture. That is tenderizing.

recipe. Structure builders include gluten proteins, starches, and egg proteins. By interfering with the structure builders the resulting product is softer to bite, crumbles easily, or chewy.

Fats tenderize by coating the structure builders preventing them from absorbing water and/or bonding with one another. This coating occurs during two different stages. During the mixing process the fats physically get manipulated and start coating the structure builders, especially if the fat is mixed in before water is added. During the baking process, solid and plastic fats melt and coat structure builders before they can react in the oven.

Generally speaking, the earlier the structure builders are coated the more tenderizing will occur. In other words, products will be more tender if the fat is mixed in well during the mixing process rather than waiting for the fat melt during the baking process. Another factor that influences tenderizing is how fluid the fat is. Oil, for example, is completely liquid at room temperature while butter is plastic. Plastic means a mixture of liquid and solid fat – more on this later. Anyway, the more fluid a fat is the more thoroughly it can disperse through the ingredients during the mixing process meaning the more thoroughly it can coat the structure builders. Of course, the more fat in the recipe the more tenderizing.

A Note About Emulsifiers

An emulsifier is an ingredient that is often added to fats to improve their functions. The main function of emulsifiers is to help more evenly distribute fats and oils throughout a batter. The more the distributed they are the more tenderizing occurs.

While emulsifiers are usually added to fats they also influence other ingredients as well. Proteins become stronger and more flexible so they can stretch more without breaking, which means they can hold expanding air and steam better resulting in better leavened cakes. Emulsifiers also helps prevent starches from becoming stale. Emulsifiers also help bring together fats and water which usually repel each other.

To identify emulsifiers look for monoglyceride or diglycerides in the ingredients. Lecithin is a natural emulsifier found in milk, cream, and egg yolks.


It is a common misconception that leavening comes greatly or entirely from baking powder and baking soda but it is also not true that fats are the main source of leavening. Rather fats, liquids, and baking powder and baking soda each contribute to leavening.

Fats’ main contribution to leavening is creating air cells, which are necessary for leavening to take place. These air cells are created during the mixing process, think “cream together the sugar and butter,” and these air cells are later incorporated into the batter when the other ingredients are added.

To create more air cells a fat must be plastic. A plastic fat is a fat that is malleable at room temperature – such as butter. These fats can be easily molded and manipulated into trapping air. Consider trying to use cold butter, which is not plastic, in a mixer to try and create air cells. Because it is not malleable no air cells can be created. Notice that a fat can be plastic and non-plastic depending on room temperature.

Keep in mind that batters and doughs (minimum of flour and water) can trap air cells easily, even without fat present. This is how breads, which normally don’t contain fat, can still have lots of air cells and leavening. Fats just help contribute to the creation of air cells. In some cases, like cookies, they are a major sources of air cells. However, in cakes they play a more minor role.

Fats also contribute to leavening by releasing gases that physically expand the air cells they helped create. Some fats, like butter, contain water which turns into steam. Some fats, like shortening, have trapped air which expands from the heat of the oven. For thinner pastries, like apple turnovers made from puff pastry dough, fats contribute greatly to leavening. When you talk about puff pastry dough though leavening is usually referred to as flakiness. However, for big thick pastries, like cakes, liquid ingredients, like water, do more for physical leavening. Water (and all liquids) always expands more than trapped air because water is a liquid at room temperature, which changes to steam from the heat of the oven greatly expanding the batter’s air cells.

To contribute more to physical leavening choose fats that are high in water or have lots of trapped air – remember water contributes more to leavening that trapped air does. Also choose fats that melt at higher temperatures. The further along in the baking process a baked good is the stronger its structure builders are which means they won’t collapse after being expanded – usually the hotter the baked good is the further along it is in the baking process. So if the fat melts at 120 degrees F as opposed to 95 degrees F, the water and trapped air is released later in the baking process which means better leavening because the structure builders are strong enough to hold up the expanded air cells.

Recall emulsifiers help strengthen proteins so by using fats that contain emulsifiers you increase the amount of leavening in your baked good. The strengthened proteins are stronger and more elastic meaning that they can hold on to trapped air cells better and when they bake they are able to expand without bursting/breaking better meaning a lighter product. That is why high-ratio liquid shortening cakes cannot be made with other fats because the amount of emulsifiers allows them to contain the high level of liquid ingredients which contribute to massive amounts of leavening.


As mentioned earlier, fats contribute to flakiness in both puff pastry and pie doughs.

Apple Turnovers (pictured), croissants, and danish are examples of products that get flaky from layers of fat.

While basically sharing in the same principles as leavening, there are some key differences. Flakiness is always better achieved when the fat melts later in the baking process which is why puff pastry made with shortening is almost always puffier than when it is made with butter. Keeping your fat chilled before baking can also contribute to flakiness.

Flakiness is also better achieved with larger pieces of fat. Consider the puff pastry episode apple turnovers where the fat is incorporated using the block method – a large piece of fat folded into the dough rather than mixed in. Even pie dough where fat is rubbed into the dough still requires large flakes to still be considered properly mixed. These larges pieces of fat act as tenderizers because their massive size physically blocks structure builders from one another but also contributes to flakiness by eventually melting away and creating an air pocket.


Moistness is the sensation of something being liquid while moisture is water. Knowing

Pesche, Italian Peach Wedding Cookies, receive a great deal of moistness from oil. They are also moist from being soaked in liqueur.

this, it is possible for something to be moist while lacking moisture. Oil is an example of something that makes baked goods extremely moist even though the product itself has no moisture.

Fat contributes to moistness far more than water does and even though it seems counter-intuitive it actually makes a lot of sense. Recall that water evaporates in the heat of the oven. While some moisture does remain in the finished product (usually by being bound by sugars), most of the water has evaporated off as steam. Also, water is used to form structure during the baking process by the structure builders. Water being used in this way is not available to create moistness in a product.

In contrast, fat does not evaporate or turn into steam, and fat is not used by structure builders to create structure. This means that fat can contribute to moistness better than water can. Also because emulsifiers distribute fat more thoroughly and because emulsifiers bind with water, the presence of emulsifiers means a more moist product.

Minor Functions

Prevents Staling

Over time no matter how the baked good is stored, it will go through a staling process called retrogradation. Retrogradation is when the starches in a product expel water and become hard and leathery instead of staying soft and gelatinized. Fats, especially those with emulsifiers, interfere with starch retrogradation which helps reduce or prevent staling.

Contributes Flavor and Alters Flavors

All fats contribute flavor in one way or another including “unflavored” or “plain” shortening. The most desirable feature of butter is its flavor. Fat also contributes a richness factor to the pastry which falls under flavor. Also, frying oil contributes flavor to fried products.

While fats have their own flavor they also manipulate the flavors of other ingredients. Flavors typically dissolve well in fats, which means that fat can carry flavor very well (think flavor oils) but also fat helps deliver flavor better. Flavor molecules that are smaller can evaporate easier to reach your olfactory bulb and they also disperse better through your taste buds.

Fat used in excess can mask flavor. Dissolved molecules can become lost in the fat preventing them from evaporating or your tongue could just become so coated with fat it can’t perceive flavor. This can work to your advantage if something is over-flavored or the flavors are not marrying well together. It’s important to find the right balance of fat to help enhance your recipes.

Contributes Color

Fats that are yellow in color, like butter, contribute a golden color to baked goods. Fats with milk solids, like butter, help promote a browning on the surface of the baked good through a process called Maillard browning. Maillard browning is the process of browning contributed from a sugar breaking down in the presence of protein. Milk solids are high in those proteins. Fats also help promote heating of baked goods so they brown faster naturally as well. Low-fat baked goods tend to be lighter in color.

Creates a Creamy Texture and Provides Structure to Soft Desserts and Sauces

Recall that water and fat repel each other, which is why you shake salad dressing before using it. The same is true for sauces, custards, frozen desserts, icings, and fillings – granted unlike salad dressing those desserts contain ingredients other than fat and liquid to help create a more permanent emulsion. Regardless, the tiny droplets of fat create the rich, creamy sensation that is typically associated with desserts and sauces. Fats also help prevent crystallization (common in products high in sugar), which could otherwise create a jagged texture over time.

I know it seems awkward to say that fat creates structure when earlier in the article it was stated that fat tenderizes baked goods. However, in items that lack other ingredients to create structure fat takes on that role. Icings and buttercreams are the most obvious example of this structure. While buttercreams do contain meringues because there is so much butter the icing takes on the characteristics of butter (spreadable at room temperature, solid when chilled). Most sauces and fillings usually have structures from egg proteins and starches, so in these cases we would say that fats provide substance or bulk.

Helps Release Baked Goods

Everybody knows this one! Every time you bake something in the oven or cook something on the stove a little pan spray or butter helps make sure your product releases easily and cleanly. Products that are high in fat, such as the dough used in the Pecan Tassies, release so much fat during the baking process that it naturally lubricates the pan.

Helps Make Gluten Stretchier

When fats are used in yeasted doughs they can help make gluten less likely to break during the fermentation process resulting in more volume. Emulsifiers are much better at this.

Helps Thin Out Chocolate and Coatings

Fats, particularly cocoa butter or shortening, are added to help make chocolate pipe even more smoothly. The fats coat and lubricate solid particles allowing them to move more easily between one another resulting in a thinner chocolate. The same concept occurs when added to coatings for candies or glazes for tortes.

The Chemistry of Fat

Chemistry has never really been my strong suit so I’ll try to keep this section as short and

Triglycerides are fats. They contain a three-carbon glycerol molecule (glycerin) and three fatty acids. Di- and monoglycerides are emulsifiers. They contain fewer fatty acids that triglycerides. The fatty acid end of emulsifiers is attracted to fatty while the other end is attracted to water.

simplified as I can – so if you’re a chemistry whiz you may know way more than I do in this topic but bear with my superficial explanations. However, there are some important things to know about the chemical make up of fat.

A fatty acid is a chain of 4 to 22 carbon atoms bound together. Chemically speaking, a fat is a three-carbon glycerol (or glycerin) molecule with a fatty acid bound to each carbon. Since there are three fatty acids attached to the glycerol molecule it is called a triglyceride. Emulsifiers, on the other hand, are glycerol molecules that are only bound to one or two fatty acids (monoglyceride and diglyceride respectively) – the remaining carbons are attracted to water which is why emulsifiers are so great at emulsifying, or bringing fats and water together.

Notice the difference between the three types of fatty acids. Saturated fatty acids are the most solid while polyunsaturated fatty acids are the most fluid. Polyunsaturated fats do not have to be all double bonds - as long as there is more than one double bond is polyunsaturated.

There are two main types of fatty acids: unsaturated and saturated. Unsaturated is further broken down into two groups: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. The term saturation comes from how many carbon atoms in the fatty acid are bound to hydrogen atoms. If all the carbon atoms are bound to hydrogen atoms then the fatty acid is saturated – it is saturated with hydrogen atoms. Sometimes a double bond is present between carbon atoms, which prevent hydrogen atoms from attaching to those carbons. This is called unsaturated because it is potentially possible to add another hydrogen atom to the fatty acid – it is not fully saturated with hydrogen atoms. Hydrogenation is the process of chemically altering a fat by forcing hydrogen atoms into unsaturated fats turning them into saturated fats. This is further explored under shortening.

The more saturated fatty acids present in a fat, the more solid the fat is. Conversely, the more unsaturated fatty acids present in a fat, the more liquid it is. Fats high in saturated fatty acids include cocoa butter, tropical oils, and animal fats. Fats high in unsaturated fatty acids include vegetable oils. Generally speaking, saturated fats are said to be less healthy than unsaturated fats and saturated fats are linked to high blood cholesterol and increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

Types of Fats


Butter is the king of fats and is widely desired because of its taste, mouth feel, and

Land O Lakes is a type of butter.

because it is natural. Butter’s magical mouth feel comes from its final melting point (the point where a solid fat is completely liquid) which is right around body temperature at 94 degrees.

When discussing butter in terms of fulfilling the functions of fats it can be said that butter is a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none (if you don’t count flavor). Commercially made American butter has about 80% fat and European butter has about 82% fat. Since butter is made from milk, it contains between 15-30% water, depending on how it’s made (homemade versions have more water and less fat), which means it contains both trapped air and water which are useful for leavening. Butter is also plastic at room temperature making it great for creating air cells. Since it is plastic at room temperature it is great for tenderizing and because it is so solid chilled it works well for providing flaky layers. Butter even contains natural emulsifiers including mono- and diglycerides and lecithin.

However even though it can pretty much fulfill every function of fats it doesn’t excel at any particular function compared to the other fats. Other disadvantages include spoiling faster than other fats, high price, and its narrow plastic range. Butter’s narrow plastic range makes it particularly difficult to work with in warm bake shops and if the ingredients added to a dough are too cold, butter will set up causing the dough to break. Butter is also very high in saturated fat and contains cholesterol making it the unhealthiest fat used in baking.

Since butter melts at such a low temperature in the oven it’s actually not that great for physical leavening in most cases – at least when compared to other fats. The steam and trapped air are released very early on in the baking process. Too early, in fact, because most of the structure builders are not strong enough to hold on to the gases so they just pass through the batter and the volume is lost. This is part of the reason why butter contributes to spread. Spread is when baked goods expand outward rather than upward. Cookies are usually said to have spread when they come out wider after being baked but other pastries can have spread. Cupcakes for example have spread when the surface is flat rather than domed. Depending on your goal for the baked good, spread could or could not be desirable.

Although butter comes salted, bakers prefer to use unsalted butter. Unsalted butter gives bakers more control over their recipe, by allowing them to decide on the salt content, and the result is a more flexible ingredient.


Fulfills all functions of fat, but excels at none


Flavor, mouth feel, natural, creates spread


Expensive, spoils quickly, narrow plastic range, unhealthy


Margarine is imitation butter and many different products can be called margarine.

Generally speaking, margarine (like Smart Balance) that comes in tubs is designed to taste like butter, be healthier than butter, and spread even at cool temperatures. As a spread, it is generally unsuitable for baking.

Some margarines are a blend of butter and shortening and, depending on the ratios, can be specialized for enhancing certain functions of fat. Most margarines are created scientifically to imitate butter as much as possible.

Those margarines that are created are typically made from hydrogenated oils and blended with some milk product. Margarine that is truly created to imitate butter will have the same composition as butter meaning it will have about 80% fat and about 16% water. Keep in mind that because margarine is created for special purposes that not all margarines are good for baking. Margarines that are designed for spreading, especially those that spread at cold temperatures, work poorly in baked goods. Spreads are higher in water content and rely on gums and starches for their consistency.

Margarine found in stick form is usually designed for baking. It is typically designed to be healthier and create better results than butter. Margarine sticks are often a butter and shortening blend.

Since margarine is created it can typically be created to be healthier than butter but it is impossible to perfectly replicate butter’s flavor. The result is that all margarines have different flavors and can often times have a very strong taste – this can be an advantage or disadvantage. The pre-designed ratios that make margarine may be great to excel in particular functions but can result in a less flexible ingredient which results in a less useful ingredient. How many different kinds of margarine can a bakeshop have before it becomes inconvenient – especially if those margarines use up precious refrigerator space?


Fulfills all functions of fat, depending on type it may excel in certain functions


Similar to butter, healthier than butter, cheaper than butter, designer margarines excel in certain functions of fat


Flavor and mouth feel inferior to butter, may contain trans fat (from the shortening or hydrogenated ingredients), designer margarines reduce flexibility, unnatural


Lard is a by-product of the meat industry and comes from hogs. Lard commonly goes through hydrogenation to make it less greasy and improve its use in the bakeshop. Unlike butter, lard is 100% fat and relies solely on trapped air for leavening. Lard is plastic over a greater range of temperatures than butter is. It also melts at a higher temperature than butter which helps improve leavening and flakiness in pastries.

Lard has grown unpopular in the use of baking and pastry. For one, lard is not kosher, halal, vegan, or vegetarian greatly reducing the number of people who can eat products made from lard. It also contributes a meaty flavor to pastries which may or may not be desirable.


Fulfills all functions of fat. Does not contain water so it will not produce steam for leavening but it melts at a higher temperature than butter which produces goods with more volume. Being 100% fat means it is better at tenderizing products than butter is.


Excels in leavening and tenderizing, less expensive than butter, may be healthier than butter, can be kept at room temperature, natural


Violates many dietary restrictions, meaty flavor reduces flexibility, mouth feel inferior to butter, may contain trans fat if hydrogenated


Margarine and shortening are very much alike. Margarine was created to imitate butter

Crisco is a very popular brand of shortening.

while shortening was created to imitate lard. Margarine and shortening are both created through hydrogenating oils but the key difference is that margarine eventually has water or milk added while shortening is always 100% fat.

Mentioned earlier, hydrogenation is a process of chemically altering a fatty acid (usually derived from soybeans) to make it saturated. This is usually done to create a more solid product but hydrogenation also improves shelf-life by preventing spoilage. Hydrogenation allows manufacturers to create a fat that melts at a very high temperature resulting in superior leavening capabilities even without water being present. It also means a fat that does not spoil at room temperature. Shortenings have relatively the same consistency at room temperature and cold temperatures giving them a wide plastic range – which makes them very easy to use.

Like margarine, there are different types of shortenings that excel at particular functions. There are three main types of shortening. All-purpose shortening is mainly used in pie dough and biscuits and even frying.

High-ratio plastic shortening is all-purpose shortening with added emulsifiers and are best used in icings and cakes. When used in icings, icings come out fluffier and the ingredients in the icing are better combined reducing the chances the icing will break or curdle. Cakes generally come out moister, more tender, and feature a finer more even crumb and are resistant to staling.

High-ratio liquid shortening is a less hydrogenated shortening that contains many extremely effective emulsifiers. Cakes made with high-ratio liquid shortening are even moister and more tender than high-ratio plastic shortening and create the most volume than any other fat. High-ratio liquid shortenings are not required to be incorporated through creaming which means they can be made using a blitz method, where all the ingredients are added at once. High-ratio liquid shortenings are so effective that manufacturers often suggest reducing the amount of shortening in a recipe by 20% prior to use. These last two benefits help lower bakeshop costs by reducing labor, time, and ingredients per baked good.

Despite its fantastic abilities shortening has many disadvantages. Of all the fats, shortening has the worst flavor. Unflavored shortening is supposedly easy to flavor, but it does contribute a very potent blandness. Shortening’s high melting point contributes a terrible mouth feel, leaving a waxy film in your mouth long after you have finished eating the pastry.

Perhaps to most bakers the biggest disadvantage is the presence of trans fatty acids.

Notice the difference between Cis and Trans fatty acids highlighted by the red box.

Trans fat are unsaturated fatty acids that have hydrogen atoms on opposite sides of the double bonded carbon atoms, which is in contrast to “cis” fatty acids where the hydrogen atoms are on the same side. While trans fat are naturally occurring, they occur in very very small amounts. In hydrogenated oils they occur in much higher concentrations. Trans fats are not necessarily created on purpose but rather they are a result or by-product of the hydrogenation process. Trans fats have lots of health concerns including increasing blood cholesterol levels, increasing risk of coronary heart diseases, and even increasing the risk of certain cancers.

Trans fats are present in fat that has been hydrogenated whether it is fully or partially hydrogenated. This includes shortenings, margarines, and lard (if the lard is hydrogenated). Keep in mind that trans fats produced as a result of hydrogenation are small in number, so it is very possible that if a serving size is small enough the amount of trans fats per serving could appear to be zero. Make no mistake, we currently lack an effective method of sifting out trans fats and it is said that trans fats may build up in the body so if trans fats are a concern to you, the only way to avoid them is to avoid hydrogenated fats and products containing hydrogenated fats.

Paula Figoni’s book, How Baking Works, explains how to substitute between butter and shortening.

Replace shortening with butter

Our recipe calls for 1# (16 ounces) of shortening and 10 ounces of water.
Divide the weight of the shortening by .8. 16/.8 = 20 ounces
Then reduce the amount of liquid (milk or water) by the difference between the two.
20 ounces of butter – 16 ounces of shortening = 4 ounces. 10 ounces of water – 4 ounces = 6 ounces.
So our new recipe uses 20 ounces of butter and 6 ounces of water.

Replace butter with shortening

Our recipe calls for 1# (16 ounces) of butter and 10 ounces of water.
Multiply the weight by .8. 16(.8) = 12 ¾ ounces of shortening
Then increase the liquid in the recipe by the different between the two.
16 ounces of butter – 12 ¾ ounces of shortening = 3 ¼ ounces. 10 ounces of water + 3 ¼ ounces = 13 ¼ ounces.
So our new recipe uses 12 ¾ ounces of shortening and 13 ¼ ounces of water.


Fulfills all functions of fat. Does not contain water so it will not produce steam for leavening but it melts at a higher temperature than butter, which produces goods with more volume. Being 100% fat means it is better at tenderizing products than butter is.


Excels in tenderizing and leavening (especially if it contains emulsifiers), less expensive than butter, may be healthier than butter, can be kept at room temperature, very wide plastic range, vegetarian, vegan, halal, and kosher


Contains trans fat, poor mouth feel / leaves a waxy feel in your mouth, unnatural


The main difference between oils and fats is that oil is liquid at room temperature. That’s

Oils can come from a variety of sources and generally regarded as natural. Not all oils are equal though. Tropical oils, like coconut, are more solid at room temperature. Oils can also contribute flavor so if, for example, an olive flavor is not desired avoid olive oil.

not to say that fats are 100% solid at room temperature. Shortening, for example, is 80% liquid at room temperature.  Also, some oils are actually solid at room temperature.  Tropical oils, like coconut oil, are very solid at room temperature.  Oil is also 100% fat like lard, but unlike lard oil does not contain any trapped air.

Since oil is liquid at room temperature and contains no trapped air it does not contribute to leavening at all. It does not create air cells for expanding in the oven and it does not release water or hot air to expand air cells. However that’s not the only reason it doesn’t contribute to leavening. Recall that hi-ratio liquid shortening is the best fat for leavening and is liquid at room temperature. The emulsifiers present in the shortening that help strengthen proteins, from eggs and gluten, allowing them to stretch more, trap air better, and hold air better without breaking. Oil lacks these emulsifiers and on top of that oil is the most effective fat for tenderizing which actually weakens the proteins.

As stated earlier, oil excels tenderizing. This is due to a couple of reasons. For one, oil contains no water that proteins and starches use to build structure. Two, oil is liquid at room temperature, which allows it to coat structure builders much better and more thoroughly than plastic fats. But that’s not the only area where oil excels. Oil is also great for creating moist products. Recall that moisture is water while moistness is the sensation of being moist – so something can be moist without any moisture. Enter oil. Oil being a waterless 100% fat liquid-like substance that doesn’t evaporate or get absorbed by other components (starches, egg proteins, gluten) makes it perfect for creating moist chewy products. Pesche is an example of a cookie that is extremely moist and chewy from a high amount of oil.

Oil is most often used in quick bread, muffin, and chiffon cake recipes. These products tend to be somewhat dense and sturdy, tender and easy to bite, and very moist. Another common characteristic to these products is the coarse crumb. Remember that plastic fats and emulsifiers create lots of tiny fine air cells which helps create a tender even crumb with a soft spongy texture. Oil does not create these tiny air cells and the remaining ingredients in the doughs and batters end up creating uneven air cells – sometimes due to under mixing (gluten doesn’t develop as much in products high in oil because less mixing is needed for the batter to come together).  The fine air cells are also due to tenderizing – the weakening of structure builders.  This is why these products have a tender crumbly coarse crumb that is soft without being spongy.

Oils are also good for bottom crusts of pies where the pie’s filling is particularly watery. During the baking process water from the filling can seep into the crust which increases toughness. Oil creates a very tender crust and blocks out water preventing it from toughening the crust.

By the way, vegetable oil and salad oil are different things. Vegetable oil is exactly as it sounds – oil extracted from vegetables like corn. Salad oil is vegetable oil that has gone through a process called winterizing. Winterizing is when vegetable oil is chilled and the solid fat is removed, leaving behind fats that are liquid even while chilled. Salad oil is also called winterized oil and is used, you guessed it, in salad dressing.


Tenderizes and moistens. Does not contain water or trapped air and does not contain emulsifiers, so oil does not contribute to leavening.


Excels in moistening and tenderizing, typically less expensive than butter, depending on the type can be healthier than butter (especially since oil is mostly  unsaturated fatty acids), can be kept at room temperature, natural


Does not contribute to leavening, can contribute undesirable flavors (like peanut oil), can go rancid faster than saturated fats, too much oil may create a greasy sensation rather than a moist sensation

Cocoa Butter

Cocoa butter is the fat that is found in chocolate. Most bakers use cocoa butter by using chocolate but it is possible to find cocoa butter by itself. Real white chocolate is cocoa butter sweetened with other ingredients added such as vanilla, emulsifiers, and milk solids – so in some cases white chocolate and cocoa butter could be used as substitutes for one another.

From what I’ve read cocoa butter doesn’t seem to be capable of leavening on its own. Recall that fats provide leavening by creating air cells in a batter that are later expanded during the baking process, and then fats contribute to leavening again by melting and releasing trapped air and steam. Since cocoa butter is solid at room temperature it isn’t really a plastic fat, which means that it cannot form air cells. Also, since it’s solid at room temperature you can’t really add solid chunks of cocoa butter into a batter and mix it on high hoping the chunks will break up. Recipes that use cocoa butter melt it first – so it actually takes on characteristics of oil rather than butter. Since you melted the cocoa butter any trapped air is lost and even if you used it in solid state it melts at such a low temperature that any trapped air would be lost very early in the baking process (which wouldn’t help anyway since air cells were never created in the first place).

With that being said, I suppose it is possible to find cocoa butter’s plastic range (temperature range where cocoa butter acts like room temperature butter) and maybe if you really cream a solid chunk of cocoa butter for a long time you may actually get it to a plastic state (from all the heat generated by friction) though I still doubt that it will have the same air cell creating capabilities as butter and shortening. Plus as it cools (from either resting at room temperature or from cool ingredients like cold milk) and sets up it will be solid again which means poor dispersal through the batter and inflexible air cells that will end up getting crushed instead of incorporated into the batter.

Since cocoa butter is usually melted before being added to a batter, it will resemble oil more than butter meaning that it should mimic oil’s major benefits: moistness and tenderizing. However, because cocoa butter is so solid at room temperature it does not actually provide moistness – but it will impart a very velvety melt-in-your-mouth mouthfeel so I’d say that’s pretty similar. Cocoa butter is also said to be half as good at tenderizing because it’s so solid at room temperature. Remember that tenderizing actually means liquid fats coat structure builders so they can’t bond properly to each other or absorb water. This can happen during the mixing process or the baking process – the earlier the coating happens, the more tenderizing. In the case of melted cocoa butter, tenderizing during the mixing process is probably the case so it’s most likely to be a good tenderizer when used like that (especially since it’s such a good emulsifier). In the case of trying to cream a solid chunk of cocoa butter I doubt it is actually fluid enough to coat any structure builders. A solid chunk of cocoa butter will melt in the oven to better coat structure builders but this is considered pretty late since plastic fats, like shortening and butter, will already have begun coating during the mixing process. Plus since the cocoa butter was so solid at room temperature and poorly distributed through the batter it’s unlikely the tenderizing would be very thorough.

Cocoa butter is also said to be an excellent emulsifier. As stated earlier, emulsifiers have many functions, including making proteins more flexible and stronger and helping prevent staling, but the main function is that they help disperse ingredients better throughout a batter (which means your batter is less likely to break and look curdled). Since emulsifiers are good at dispersing ingredients they help in tenderizing by helping fats spread out better and more thoroughly throughout the batter and emulsifiers themselves also coat structure builders. But, like I said before, I would expect this benefit to only be seen if the cocoa butter was melted prior to adding it in the batter.


Some tenderizing, doesn’t add moistness, or contribute to leavening


Contributes a melt-in-your-mouth mouthfeel similar (if not better than) butter, contains natural and added emulsifiers


Must be used melted prior to adding to a batter, very narrow (and unusable) plastic range, high in saturated fats

Substitutes for Fat

This is an on going section that I will try to update regularly. Much of the information in this section I have found from experiments I performed.

There are different reasons to substitute fats. The biggest reason most people want to replace fat in their baked goods is to create a healthier product. Though there does not seem to be a perfect solution there are some popular fat replacers. Another alternative to completely replacing fat is to use a blend of fat and a fat replacer. You get a healthier product and still get the benefits of using fat.

Keep in mind many substitutes may seem to create better volume than butter. That’s because those substitutes don’t tenderize as much as butter does. A less tender product is able to hold up to expanding air cells better because the structure builders are able to freely bond with each other and to use water.

Be aware when using substitutes that allergy sufferers need to be made aware of what is in your product – especially if they wouldn’t expect a certain ingredient in that baked good. Always play it safe and disclose all ingredients but especially when you substitute ingredients.


Applesauce is one of the most popular substitutes for fat in cake. It provides great

This cupcake was made with applesauce. Note the long air cells called tunneling possibly due to the development of strong gluten from the applesauce's high water content.

moistness as well as a very sweet taste without contributing a strong apple flavor. The biggest downside to applesauce is that it doesn’t really tenderize very well. The cupcakes I made with applesauce were extremely chewy and tough compared to butter. Despite this, applesauce is an easy to use substitute. Applesauce would benefit greatly from being blended with oil. Oil is the best fat for tenderizing while also boosting the finished cake’s moistness. Applesauce was used as a fat replacer in the fat replacer study episode along with bananas and beans. You can find more information about my findings in the blog post before the video.

Better than butter:

Volume, Moistness

Similar to butter:

Flavor (sweeter than butter, but no melt-in-your-mouth consistency)

Worse than butter:



Mashed Ripened Bananas

This cupcake was made with mashed ripened bananas. Despite being such a great substitute bananas have a very strong flavor decreasing its flexibility.

Naturally with banana’s squishy texture one would think that it would perfectly substitute fat in cakes. Compared to butter that actually holds true. Cakes baked with bananas instead of butter see more volume and more moistness than cakes made with butter. Bananas also contribute a fair amount of tenderizing though not anywhere near as much as butter. The biggest disadvantage to using bananas in a cake is the flavor it contributes. Banana’s overwhelming flavor masks delicate flavors like vanilla. Even using a blend of butter and banana, the flavor can be pretty potent. Also, individuals with a latex allergy could potentially have a reaction to products with banana. Banana was used as a fat replacer in the fat replacer study episode along with applesauce and beans. You can find more information about my findings in the blog post before the video.

Better than butter:

Volume, Moistness

Worse than butter:

Tenderizing, Flavor (contributes too much added flavor)

Pureed Beans

This cupcake was made with bean puree. These cupcakes see a great deal of volume because beans, unlike applesauce or bananas, contain little to no sugar. Sugar acts as a tenderizing by bonding to water preventing structure builders from using water. Water bound to sugar also increases a good's moistness. Without added sugar from the beans, these cupcakes are bland, tough, and dry.

Pureed beans was actually a suggestion that was supposed to be done in my baking formula technology lab in school (we had a terrible snow storm that day so class was cancelled). I decided to give it a try and see how it works as a substitute for butter. Turns out that beans aren’t really that great of a substitute as they don’t really contribute tenderizing but even more so they don’t contribute moistness. Cakes made with bean puree are extremely dry – which is actually easy to remedy with simple syrup. I found that beans still make a more tender product than applesauce does so it may be worth trying – especially if blended with butter or oil. Pureed beans don’t really contribute much flavor – in fact because beans are so low in sugar they actually make a really bland product. If you use beans make sure to add a little extra sugar in your recipe or try adding in a syrup like honey or maple syrup. I used pureed navy beans (similar to cannellini beans) in a fat replacer study episode along with banana and applesauce. You can find more information about my findings in the blog post before the video.

Better than butter:


Worse than butter:

Moistness, tenderizing, flavor (bland)

UPDATE:  Beringelinhaa on youtube suggests using peeled and grated butternut squash, beets, and zucchini!

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  1. […] SO the first thing you do, is sniff the amaranth flour (I use this one here). […]

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