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Baking 101: Fats and oils

Marnely Rodriguez-Murray is the author of the food blog Cooking with Books. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, she has worked as an overnight bread baker in Colorado and a chocolate maker in Virginia. She currently resides ...

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Someone once said "fat is flavor" and that someone was absolutely right. Embracing that statement, we're sharing a few of the most popular fats to use in baking, why we use them and what results to expect when using them. You'll discover that fat isn't just flavor, it's so much more.
From canola to coconut...
Woman baking with butter

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.

In baking and pastry, fats and oils:

  • Provide flakiness in doughs.
  • Contribute moisture to crumb structure.
  • Aid in a balance of tenderness in baked goods.
  • Prevent staling (notice how yeast bread without fats, like baguettes, go stale faster than bread with fat, like challah).
  • Add creaminess to sauces.

What are the most commonly used fats and oils in baking?

Butter

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Tip

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

More baking tips

Baking 101: Choosing the right flour
Baking 101: Gelling and thickening agents
Baking 101: Sugar and other sweeteners

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