Types of Baking Fats and their Functions

by Beat Bake Eat

Fat is an essential ingredient in baking. Without it, many baked goods such as cookies, muffins, cakes, and pastries wouldn’t look and taste the same. Various fats and oils have different properties that can affect your final product in many ways, such as its appearance, texture, moisture, flavor, and even how it leavens.

Why fats are an essential ingredient in baking, the different types, and each functions.

Whether you’re a pastry chef, a bakery owner, or just someone who loves to bake at home, it’s essential to know the role of fats in baking, the properties of each type, and their common uses.

Here’s a quick guide to baking fats and their functions.




The Roles of Fat in Baking

Fats are made up of long chains of fatty acids that can either be saturated or unsaturated. These fatty acids form specific types of triglycerides, which all behave differently when baking.

In general, baking fats have the following functions:

Enhances flavor

Fats blend the flavors of each ingredient in a recipe to form a richer and fuller flavor. This is more common with animal-based fats like butter which gives unique flavor notes and richness than you won’t get from other fats.

Provides tenderness

From the term shortening, fats coat the flour and “shorten” gluten bonds to slow down gluten formation. This explains why a yeast bread with fat (ex. bread rolls) would be more tender than a yeast bread without fat (ex. baguette).

Adds moisture

Unlike water, fats don’t evaporate with heat, so a moist texture is still achievable even without water or milk. Fat is also a good heat transfer medium; meaning it helps to move heat throughout baked goods which allows for more efficient and even baking.

Aids in Leavening

Sometimes, a recipe will instruct you to whip the fat with another ingredient, which is usually sugar. This process, known as creaming, creates air pockets that contribute to the rising of baked goods. This is why it’s quite common to see recipes that call for softened butter include a creaming step. Also, some fats like butter contain a small amount of moisture, and when that evaporates during baking, it creates lift.




Types of fats

There are many types of fats you can use for baking, and they are typically categorized as solid or liquid fats.

Solid fats; butter, margarine, lard, shortening, solidified coconut oil

Solid Fats

Solid fats can be melted into liquid form, but they function quite differently from liquid fats since they re-solidify when cooled.

Butter

As the most commonly used solid fat in baking, butter is a dairy product with around 80% fat, ideal for enhancing flavor and adding richness to your baked goods. With a moisture content of 15%, it also contributes to the rising of the product during baking.

When softened butter is whipped with other ingredients, it results in a unique texture. For instance, it gives cakes, muffins, and quick bread a softer, more velvety texture, and a more delicate crumb. Likewise, cookies are softer, less chewy, and crisp, and brownies are smoother, more leavened, and less dense.

Margarine

Widely used as a spread, margarine is a vegetable oil-based fat designed to mimic butter in flavor and mouthfeel. It is typically produced from different plant-based oils like canola and soybean oil.

There are 3 types of margarine:

  • Soft, spreadable margarine most commonly used on toast
  • Hard, stick margarine for baking
  • Liquid margarine, usually used for cooking

Can I replace butter with margarine in baking?

For baking, it’s best to use stick or hard margarine because it has the same texture as butter. Spreadable or soft margarine is not recommended because it has a much higher water content than butter.

The fat content in butter is about 80%. So although butter and margarine look similar in appearance, different types of margarine can have a fat content ranging from 30% to 80%. This is why it’s extremely important to check the label for fat content to ensure that it can work as a butter substitute!

Which is healthier; butter or margarine?

Butter is high in cholesterol and saturated fat. Margarine is lower in saturated fat than butter but it also contains trans fat and has the same amount of fat as butter. So it’s better to use neither and opt for liquid oils instead. 

However, if you are going to use margarine anyway, it’s best to use the liquid or soft kind.

To make vegetable oil solid for use in margarine, their structure is chemically changed using a process called hydrogenation. Unfortunately, this process reduces the number of unsaturated fats, increases the number of saturated fats, and also produces trans fats.

In general, the more solid the margarine is, the more saturated and trans fats it has.

Stick margarine is a more reliable butter substitute for baking, but it’s not healthy to use it routinely, just like butter.




Shortening

Made from vegetable oils by hydrogenation, shortening is an edible fat with a neutral flavor, unlike other solid fats. Since it has a higher melting point than butter, it is usually used in pastries and pie crusts as it shortens gluten strands that create a tender and flaky end product.

Shortening is also used for creaming because it can trap large volumes of air during whipping, allowing baked goods like cake to have a lighter, softer texture and a better rise. Overall, it’s a good vegan and dairy-free substitute for butter.

Lard

Giving a distinct mild pork-like flavor, lard is a white, rendered pig fat that functions similarly as shortening but with a lower melting point. Among the different kinds of lard, leaf lard has the highest quality and mildest flavor you can use for baking.

It has a low degree of creaming compared with butter, making it unsuitable for cakes, cookies, and biscuits. But because of its large and stable fat crystals, it is typically used in savory pastries and pie crusts to get that desirable crumbly and flaky texture.

Coconut Oil

Considered one of the healthiest fats, coconut oil is a colorless, edible oil sourced from the kernel meat of coconuts. Depending on what the recipe calls for, coconut oil can be used in solid or liquid form.

This is extremely useful since it can be an excellent substitute for butter, lard, and other oils because of its low melting point. It has a higher fat content than butter, but it results in a similar product with a slightly lighter taste and a touch of coconut flavor.

Tip: If you prefer to skip the coconut flavor, use refined coconut oil instead.




Liquid fats; canola oil, vegetable oil, olive oil, avocado oil, melted coconut oil

Types of liquid fats

Liquid fats or oils are usually from plant sources that contain a higher percentage of unsaturated fatty acids and are generally healthier for you than other types of fats.

Neutral Oils

Neutral oils, the most commonly used liquid fats in baking, are those that do not add any residual flavor to the final product. These are the best liquid fats you can use in baking since you don’t want extra flavors in your cakes and cookies.

Some examples of neutral oils are avocado, canola, grapeseed, corn, and vegetable oil. Since they don’t solidify at room temperature, oils can keep your baked goods softer and moister for longer. The best part is you can substitute any of these oils for another, so you can use whatever you have in your kitchen.

Olive Oil

Like coconut oil, olive oil is also one of the healthiest liquid fats. It impacts the overall flavor of the final product because of its fruity flavor and aroma. This is why using olive oil in baking might not be the best choice for all kinds of recipes. It provides a unique flavor that may be perfect for baked goods with fruity, nutty, and savory quality, like rustic cakes and pumpkin bread.




FAQs

What happens if you use less fat than the recipe calls for?

Let’s say you used less oil in a cake than what the recipe indicates; since fat adds moisture and provides tenderness, you will end up with a slightly drier and less tender cake.

Which fat is the most unhealthy?

Trans fat and saturated fats are the most unhealthy while unsaturated fats are the most healthy.

In general, you should altogether avoid fats that have partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (ex. shortening and stick margarine) as they contain artificial trans fats. Trans fats are known to increase your risks for weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. 

What is the healthiest fat to use for baking?

The healthiest fat to use for baking is liquid vegetable oil or those with unsaturated fats. It usually contains omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, and several vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Some examples are extra virgin olive oil, coconut, canola, and avocado oil. 

What can you substitute for oil when baking?

You can replace half of the oil with plain unsweetened applesauce, or other mashed purees like banana and pear. Another substitute you can use is plain low-fat yogurt, but keep in mind that it will add a slightly tangy taste to your baked goods and you may need to check for doneness sooner as reducing fat can shorten the baking time.

With my banana applesauce muffin recipe, I replaced all of the oil with applesauce and it worked really well!

Which is the best fat for baking?

The short answer is none. Some baked goods are better with oil, some with butter, and some with both. Some recipes, like vegan baking recipes, use neither and they still manage to be moist and delicious. It all depends on the result you are aiming for.


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