The main role fat plays in baking is to coat and weaken gluten bonds which results in a more tender baked good. They help to retain air pockets and carbon dioxide that will be released during baking.
Fats come in the form of solids and liquids and are sometimes referred to as tenderizers.
Sometimes referred to as plastic fat, solid fat examples are: butter, tallow, lard, and shortening. They remain solid at room temperature and can be melted by warming or heating. In baked goods, solid fats are often whipped or creamed which creates air bubbles within the fat resulting in a light texture. Solid fats can also be used as a separator in many recipes (biscuits and croissants) to create delightfully flaky layers.
Let’s take a look at the different kinds of solid fats in detail.
Butter is used in baking for its superior flavor over other fats. It can add tenderness, structure, flakiness, and a rich, delicious flavor to baked goods. It contains good saturated fats, trace minerals, healthy fatty acids, and provides Vitamin A, D, E, and K.
Butter can be used in baking in its solid (cold) form, at room temperature (softened), melted, or browned. If a recipe doesn’t specify a state, and just lists ‘butter’ in the ingredient list, it is most often referring to room temperature butter.
There are a wide assortment of butters available and with so many varieties on the grocery store shelves, one could be confused as to which one is best for baking. Let’s find out about the varieties.
Sweet Cream, Sweet, & Unsalted Butter – These three different labels of butter are very common and guess what? They are all the same! In the US, this type of butter contains about 80% butterfat, 20% water, and no salt. In Europe, butter has a slightly higher fat content of about 85%.
Sweet cream, sweet, and unsalted butter are the most common and inexpensive choices for baking and are preferred for most baked goods. You will find them used in most recipes calling for butter. They are a safe bet if you are unsure of what to use or when a recipe does not specify.
Salted Butter – On the grocery store shelf, sitting right next to the sweet cream or unsalted butter you will usually find salted butter for the same price. It can also be found labeled as salted sweet cream butter and in appearance looks the same as unsalted. Salt is added to this kind of butter as a preservative to keep it fresher longer. With salt added the sodium content is inevitably higher in salted butter.
Sweet cream and salted butter can be used interchangeably in baking, however, if using salted butter, you will want to omit any salt the recipe calls for, or significantly reduce the amount.
Cultured Butter or European Butter – This type of butter is simply heavy cream that has been allowed to sour slightly before being churned. It can also be made by adding a starter (or live beneficial bacteria) before churning. Why is this done? Cultured dairy contains lactic acid-producing bacteria that aids in digestion by breaking down casein and lactose (proteins and sugars). And since every human is lactose intolerant to a certain degree, this is a great choice.
Cultured butter is a more expensive option and has more of a sour (cheesy) flavor than sweet cream or salted butter. It’s delicious!
Clarified Butter – Also referred to as drawn butter, clarified butter is unsalted butter that has been cooked and strained to remove water content and milk solids. It is almost 100% butterfat. By removing the water content, clarified butter will last longer than regular butter (several months) in the refrigerator. It’s used mostly in cooking because of its high smoking point.
Clarified butter can be used in cake, cupcakes, and quick bread recipes, however, since it is more liquid at room temperature than butter it wouldn’t be a great option for pie crusts, biscuits, scones, or any baked good that requires a solid fat.
Ghee – Ghee is pure butterfat. It is simply clarified butter that is cooked longer to remove all solids leaving 100% butterfat. Like clarified butter, ghee is most commonly used in cooking. The same rule applies to baking with ghee as baking with clarified butter.
Clarified butter and ghee both have a different, less intense ‘buttery’ flavor; almost like butter mixed with oil. They do not have a creamy or silky texture like butter and are expensive options if purchasing store bought versions.
Margarine – Margarine is an ‘invented’ butter substitute made from numerous ingredients including: hydrogenated (more on this term in a bit) oils, water, milk, salt, emulsifiers, and flavorings. It is widely believed that margarine is a good alternative for those with dairy allergies, however, the majority of margarine brands contain some form of dairy.
Margarine can be used in place of butter but let’s go ahead and avoid it in all baked goods! Butter is a much more flavorful options and provides some health benefits.
How to Make Butter
Butter is made by churning or agitating fat rich heavy cream — fresh or cultured. Small beads of fat, encased in teeny membranes, are dispersed throughout heavy cream. When they are shaken or agitated the beads burst open and fats are expelled from the membranes. They are attracted to each other and eventually form a solid mass leaving behind the liquid portion of the heavy cream called buttermilk.
To make homemade butter you will need:
- Food processor or pint mason jar
- Large, medium, and small mixing bowls
- Heavy cream
- Ice water
- Parchment paper
- Rubber spatula
How to Make Homemade Butter
Making butter is one of the easiest things you can do in the kitchen. It's also very fun to watch the cream turn to butter before your eyes. When you make butter for the first time I suggest getting the entire household involved or at least watching! The task is accomplished much faster if you have a food processor but can also be done by shaking the cream in a mason jar.
1. In a medium bowl add about 1 cup of ice cubes and 2 cups of water. Set aside.
2. Pour 1 pint of cold heavy cream into a food processor fitted with blade attachment and attach the lid. If you are using a mason jar I suggest adding less cream. About 3/4 cup in a pint jar.
3. Turn the food processor on and let the cream process for about 3-5 minutes. After about 30 seconds you will see the cream thicken to whipped cream. If you are using the mason jar method you will need to start shaking the cream as hard as you can. You will definitely get a workout and I suggest finding a shaking buddy so you can take turns! It takes much, much longer than with a food processor.
4. After another 3-4 minutes the cream will start to separate (the timing may be different depending on the power of your food processor). Keep processing (or shaking) until the butter forms into a large mass and has separated from the liquid. We aren't quite done yet, but I recommend tasting the butter at this point. You will be pleasantly surprised! :)
5. Stop the food processor and pour the liquid into a small bowl. KEEP this liquid. It is delicious homemade buttermilk. Use it in pancakes, muffins, biscuits, or any other recipe that calls for buttermilk or milk!
6. Add about 1/2 cup of cold water (no ice cubes please!) to the butter and process again. This step may seem strange but it's essential so the butter does not go rancid. We are technically 'washing' the butter to rinse/separate the last bit of buttermilk from the butter which helps it stay fresher longer.
7. Place a fine mesh strainer lined with about four layers of cheesecloth in a large bowl. Pour off the water and scrape the butter out of the food processor with a rubber spatula. Let the butter stand for 5-10 minutes so all liquid drains off.
8. This step is optional but I always do it because I'm impatient! If you are like me and don't want to wait the 5-10 minutes, lift the cheesecloth out of the strainer and bring the edges to the top. Gently squeeze the butter so even more liquid is released. The drawback to this step is you have to be very careful to get all the cheesecloth fibers off of the butter. You don't want to eat those!
9. Using a piece of parchment paper, form and wrap the butter. Store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
If you do choose to make homemade butter please share your results by snapping a photo and posting it in the 'I Made It' section at the end of this class!
The definition of shortening is any fat that is solid at room temperature. Examples includes butter, tallow, lard, and vegetable shortening. The name ‘shortening’ comes from the fact that when solid fat is combined with flour it prevents gluten from forming, or ‘shortens’ the gluten strands. (More on flour and gluten later!) Without shortening, baked goods will become gummy or chewy.
Most of us know shortening as the brand name Crisco that comes in a large cylinder container or pre-measured baking sticks. This form of shortening is made by hydrogenating various vegetable oils which is a chemical process of transforming a liquid oil to a solid by adding hydrogen. This process results in trans fat laden molecules which are destructive to the human body when consumed. Crisco, and any other vegetable shortening brand, makes great pie crust and buttercream frosting but along with margarine is among the least healthy options.
Lard & Tallow
Lard is rendered (cooked) and unrendered forms of pig fat. It has a neutral flavor and does not taste like pork! It comes from parts of a pig that have a high concentration of fatty or adipose tissue. Make sure to check labels to see whether or not your lard is hydrogenated. If it is hydrogenated it will not need to be refrigerated, however, if it is not, refrigeration is probably best. Non-hydrogenated or home rendered is best.
Lard is high in monounsaturated fat, contains oleic (fatty) acid, and vitamin D. It is valued for its flakiness in baking, especially pie crust…it makes the best pie crust!
If you need to avoid dairy products and a recipe calls for butter, lard is the next best choice!
Tallow is made by rendering suet, or raw fat, from beef or mutton. You can buy tallow at the grocery store or make it at home by cooking down raw fat. It has many, many uses outside of cooking and baking, including: soap making, flux for soldering, candle making, and being used as a lubricant.
Tallow contains high levels of Vitamin A, E, D, and K, omega-3 fatty acids, and is rich in antioxidants. Tallow can be used in place of butter for making cookies, pie crusts, scones, biscuits, and other sweet pastries. Like butter, it is solid at room temperature but doesn't have as rich of a flavor.
Liquid fats are oils. Common examples of oils used in baking are: canola oil, vegetable oil, and olive oil. They are typically used in quick breads, muffins, and cakes. Containers can be found in a variety of sizes and also in spray forms.
Canola Oil — Canola oil is made by crushing seeds from the canola plant. 45% of a canola seed is oil and is released during this process. Canola oil has a very neutral flavor and can be used for any recipe calling for oil. It can be substituted for any liquid oil in baking.
Vegetable Oil — Contrary to the name, vegetable oils don’t contain any vegetables. They are classified with the name ‘vegetable’ only because they do not come from an animal. Typically, these oils are made (in the same way as canola) from soybean, cottonseed, rapeseed, sunflower, or safflower. Most vegetable oils on the grocery store shelves are soybean oil. Like canola oil, they have a very neutral flavor and can be substituted for any liquid oil in baking.
Olive Oil — Olive oil is made by a process called malaxation which is basically adding water slowly to a paste of ground olive flesh and pits and stirred until oil starts to clump together and concentrate. Olive oil has a rich nutty flavor that is pronounced in baked goods. If you like the flavor of olive oil, use it in any baked good that calls for liquid oil to bring a unique depth of flavor.
If possible, purchase cold-pressed varieties which means the oil was exposed to less heat during processing and should be fresher, resulting in a longer shelf life.
Storing Oil — Canola and vegetable oils will last in a cool dark pantry or cupboard for about one year. Olive oil is best stored in a cool dark place as well, however, refrigeration will extend shelf life to 18-24 months. Olive oil will become cloudy and start to solidify when stored in the refrigerator. You can see the difference in the photo above. There is nothing wrong with the oil in this state and it will clear (and solids will dissolve) when brought to room temperature. If any oil has an unpleasant odor, flavor, or appearance discard immediately. It has mostly likely gone rancid and is no longer good for cooking or baking.
Up Next: Lesson 4 — Sugars
Sugars come in multiple forms. Next we will discuss all the ways to add delicious sweetness to your baking.