When we think about fats and oils in baked goods, we think of that rich buttery taste in cookies, but fats bring more than flavor to the table.
Butter, made by churning cream, has become a process done by machines but hundreds of years ago, churning butter was a chore in everyday life. There are different kinds of butters: raw cream butter, sweet cream butter, cultured cream butter, European-style butter, whipped butter and some specialty butters that are flavored.
Lard, a by-product of the pig industry, is the fat extracted from pigs and used in baking. Typically baked into pie crusts, lard gives baked goods a flakiness without that intense butter taste. The slight "meaty" taste is great for pot pies and mincemeat pies.
Shortening is made from soybean oil and is 100 percent fat (meaning no water, unlike butter). Most commonly seen in high-ratio cakes, a moist cake baked in the 1930s, it was used because it increased shelf life.
Vegetable oil, commonly extracted from soybeans, used in baking has certain functions. When making a pie crust with oil, it will not be as flaky as a butter crust, but an oil crust does not absorb as much moisture, preventing a pie from getting soggy too quickly.
Olive oil, one of the most expensive oils in the market, is commonly imported from Europe, but we're seeing more and more olive ranches in the U.S. Brands like California Olive Ranch and Oregon Olive Mill, are milling olives into oil for a fresher, higher-quality oil.
Coconut oil, the oil extracted from the kernel or meat of coconuts, has become a movement in the past few years. Just like vegetable oil, it provides a tender crumb but no flakiness. Muffins and quick breads made with it are moist and tender, with a slight coconut flavor.
When making muffins or quick breads, use a liquid fat like coconut or vegetable oil. These items do not need to be airy, so oils work best. When making cupcakes or cakes, use a solid fat like butter. Typically whipped with sugars, these baked goods tend to need more rise and structure, typically aided by the whipping of the solid fat and sugars. Want to learn more? Read about the science behind a muffin and a cupcake.
Sources: How Baking Works: Exploring the Fundamentals of Baking Science by Paula Figoni, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee
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