Fat Chance: Is Butter Really Better?

Our contributor, Summer Stone, is here to share some insight on how fat affects our cake recipes…

I fully admit I am a bit of a butter fanatic.  I love nothing more than a kitchen filled with the heady aroma of baked goods loaded with the golden richness of sweet cream butter.  But the scientist in me demands that I keep an open mind when evaluating which kind of fat leads to the best cake.  Fat in cake plays a diverse set roles; it provides moistness, aeration (leavening), flavor, texture and tenderness.  The problem with determining which type of fat qualifies as the cake-fat champion is that different fats affect different characteristics of the cake.  Butter is known for its flavor profile, oil for moisture provision, shortening for aeration and margarine a combination of attributes.

Which fat makes the best cake? | Baking Science with Summer Stone for TheCakeBlog.com

In order to get a handle on how varied fats alter cake properties, I baked a vanilla cake recipe varying only the type of fat used.  The fats included butter, canola oil, shortening and stick-type margarine.  Here is what I discovered about using different fats in this cake.

Baking Science: Which fat makes the best cake?

BUTTER:
Being slightly butter prejudiced, I expected the butter cake to be the flavor standout.  What I found was that the flavor of the butter was difficult to detect even when compared directly to the other cakes.  I think if these cakes were laden with buttercream the subtle differences would be even less distinguishable.  The value of the butter came in its ability to create a beautifully fine-textured cake.  The small crumb size was noticeable when compared to the more open crumb of all of the other cakes.  This compact crumb does lead to a cake that has less height than the others, but even so, it did not seem overly dense.

OIL:
I was pleasantly surprised by the oil cake. I expected it to be moist, which it was; the oil cake was definitely the moistest of all of the cakes. But what I found interesting was that the oil cake was as tall and light as the shortening cake. I had expected the oil cake to be more short and dense since oil doesn’t hold air pockets as well as butter or shortening, but this was not the case. This cake did have a slightly coarser, more open crumb than the butter cake but the texture was by no means unpleasant. I also expected the oil cake to taste flat, yet it had a pleasant neutral vanilla flavor that tasted quite similar to the butter cake.

SHORTENING:
The shortening cake was by far my least favorite. While the cake was tall and light in density, the texture was coarse, dry and crumbly. The flavor was fine, but the texture was so unappealing that any favorable characteristics were overshadowed.

MARGARINE:
Truthfully, I expected the margarine cake to be awful. But it wasn’t as bad as I had envisioned. The margarine cake was nearly as moist as the oil cake though it did not have the same light texture. It was also coarser than the oil and butter cakes and possessed more air pockets. The salt present in the margarine made the cake a bit too salty, but overall the cake was decent on most fronts. I would not say this cake was bad, but neither would I say it was great.

I am not willing to give up lovely, creamy butter in my cakes but the results of these tests inspire me to replace some of the butter with oil in the future.  I don’t have to fear that the oil will adversely affect the taste of the cake and the benefit of moistness is highly desirable.

Take a look at your cake recipe today and perhaps give another fat a chance.

Summer Stone , CONTRIBUTOR

Summer's love of baking and science, plus a bit of a rebellious spirit, leads to all sorts of crazy experiments in the kitchen and beyond. She also blogs at CakePaperParty.com. Read more about Summer on her bio page.

Comments

  1. 1

    says

    This is so great. Something I have always wanted to try but never took the time. I’m shocked with the oil results and can’t wait to sub some of it out sometime! Great job!

  2. 2

    Dana Stege says

    Thanks for doing this. I’ve always wondered. I have a recipe that uses shortening and it’s delicious, so I thought shortening would be the best but I like the oil cake. So, could you use half butter, half oil? How would you use both? I really want the moisture in the cake but keep the flavor and color from butter.

  3. 4

    Kim Losee says

    I have had the same experience with using oil in my cakes too.
    I am wondering if you substitute equal amounts of oil to butter in a recipe?
    Did you try using 1/2 oil and 1/2 butter…. maybe something to try.
    Thanks for the great information!

  4. 6

    raeesah says

    °̩ wonder what result ul get if u go half/half , butter η oil ? ..interesting …hmmmmm .. Mayb I’ll giv it a shot

  5. 7

    Jennifer says

    I have tried to sub oil in a vanilla butter cake and it did not turn out at all. Did you make a 1=1 substitution in this comparison? How you were able to make it work makes no sense to me – it would throw the baker’s percentages of your recipe off and since oil is a liquid fat, not a solid fat it should not sub at equal ratios. It should have also completely change the structure of your cake into a more greasy sponge. Or so my experiments and research have lead me… would love more info on how you did it though, especially since you are suggesting that people can easily sub these different fats in their recipes with no issues! Or are you using a chiffon recipe?

  6. 8

    Laura says

    I’m just a beginner, so I’m wondering how to substitute? If my recipe calls for 2 sticks of butter, how much oil do I use?

  7. 11

    Rich Huhn says

    Very interesting, but you omitted two (at least) items that would be important for replicating your results. First, what type of oil and other fats did you use (e.g., “vegetable” oil can be many things). Second, how did you determine the equivalent amounts to use (weight would probably be best but even so, the different fats have different desities and dissolved gases which could have influenced the results). I will try a similar experiment with scones and if you send me your e-mail address I can can provide the results.

    • 12

      Linda Bennett says

      She stated in the post that it was a Canola oil that was used in the “oil” cake.

      Thank you for doing this Comparison, it was very interesting

  8. 14

    natalie says

    That was really great information. Thank you for taking what I am sure was a lot of time to share that great information.

  9. 15

    Erin Gardner says

    I do a butter / veg oil combo. Gives you the great butter flavor, and nice moisture from the oil.

  10. 17

    Carrie Sellman says

    I’ve always wondered if butter is really better… and it looks like you’ve been wondering too!

    While I personally can’t answer all of your questions – I’d like to take a moment to thank Summer for all of the time and effort she put into this article. It has us all talking!

  11. 18

    Trish Riemer says

    I always use veg oil, and I always make an “extended and enhanced” recipe with a box mix, which used to include buttermilk in place of the water or milk, and I used sour cream. I tried Yoplait Vanilla Yogurt (smooth), and now I use half water/milk, oil, box of pudding mix, and a cup of yogurt … getting lots of praises. So moist.

  12. 19

    Christine Shen says

    Thank you so much for this! I usually shy away from baking cakes that require oil as the fat but will now give them a try! Strictly butter in my house, too! :)

  13. 20

    Jessie Yee says

    I just baked yesterday with combination of canola oil 120ml and 100g butter.It tasted great and moist!

  14. 21

    Danalinn says

    I love the cakes that I make with oil, they are much more moist. When you use oil do you sub out the exact about of butter for oil? And if you do a combo do you use 1/2 of each?

  15. 22

    Stéphanie says

    Hi Jessie Yee, when you use 120ml canola oil and 100g of butter i was wondering for what type of fat and qty you use those quantities? Please don’t look at my english because it’s not my main language! Thanks

  16. 23

    says

    Fantastic article. I’ll definitely be considering oil as a half substitute in the future.

    A couple of questions though..
    1. Here in the UK we have a brand of baking margarine, Stork. It doesn’t have salt in it. Or, if it does, it doesn’t have the same amount as regular margarine therefore not salty. Do you have something similar there and if so, I’d be intrigued as to the taste results with baking/cake margarine.
    2. Which type of oil was used? There are so many.

    Thanks again,
    -Lisa.

  17. 24

    says

    I use oil all the time i find it make the cakes last longer and keep moist.Oil i have used veg,corn,olive,all these work but i do tend to stick to veg as the others do have a slight taste and for every 500g of dry ingredients i use, i add 200ml of water and 60ml of oil,it is so quick just put all the dry ingredients in a bowl then add water/oil and mix i always add any fruit,nuts choc after hope that helps

  18. 25

    Summer says

    Thank you for all of your kind and inquisitive comments. I substituted by volume in the experiment. So yes, the amount of fat in each product will vary slightly due to water content and aeration/gas content, but I determined that it would be easiest for readers to implement the results of a direct volume comparison. And I did substitue cup for cup with each of the fats. Also, yes you can easily do a half and half butter and oil cake. Most of the cakes I bake are butter based but use at least some oil. If I try a new recipe and it is a bit dry I usually add oil in, 2 tablespoons at a time (for a 9-inch round cake), until the moisture is correct. The oil I used was canola oil but any mild flavored oil would work. Lastly, we do carry some unsalted margarines here in the states but I have not used them in cake baking. If salt is an issue it could be adjusted from the ingredient list but the texture of the margarine cake was more of the deciding characteristic for me. I hope this helps. Happy baking!

  19. 27

    says

    I prefer to bake with butter but have had some success with oil based cakes. The next experiment could be to compare different types of oils …

  20. 29

    SugarRose says

    I use the Magnolia Bakery vanilla cupcake recipe for all my cupcake bases and sponge cakes. The recipe requires 226g butter. I use 113g butter and 113g sunflower oil. Not particularly scientific but it is highly successful and I will now never use anything else. The cakes are moist, light and with a lovely crumb.

  21. 30

    Mercy says

    It was no surprise to me. I bake most of my cakes with corn or sunflower oil and have always gotten great results.

  22. 31

    says

    Hi, what a great article, informative and interesting. Thank you for adding in the comment later regarding the volume substitution queries Summer :)

    I have personally used oils in place of butter numerous times and the result has been great so far.

    One thing that I want to check is the comparison between baking soda and baking powder, I’ve noticed that cakes with soda rise more and are lighter but with a slight soda-ish scent, while baking powder is not that efficient compared to soda. Is that correct? or maybe I need to try some other brands of baking powder 😉

  23. 32

    Cupcaker13 says

    If you want a healthy and delicious substitute for oil or butter in almost any baked good, try applesauce or mashed bananas. These both Give great texture without a noticeable flavor difference in most cases. I’d be interested to see this same test done with a fruit substitute.

  24. 33

    simplysweet says

    Great comparison, thanks! If you’re worried about losing some of the buttery yumminess (aka- flavor) in your cakes, you could add some butter flavoring :)

  25. 34

    says

    Fascinating experiment! Thanks! I was so happy to see this since my 5 y/o is allergic to dairy and so many cake recipes call for butter.

    I’ve always been curious about substituting oil since cake mixes are very light and tasty and they use oil. Also, my carrot cake recipe uses oil and it’s moist and really good. I never wanted to waste all the ingredients on a test though. :)

    I also second the request for the experiment with half the oil substituted with bananas and/or applesauce! I’ve done that often and it really does come out great. I’d love to see side by side pictures.

  26. 35

    says

    I’m just using magarine, because of the sweet and fluffy taste. The results are absolutely interesting, so I’m thinking about using oil or shortening for the next cake. Thank u very much for your totally good job :)

  27. 36

    Tracy says

    This is great! I have been researching how to make my favorite butter cake full-proof moist. This morning i experimented by simply adding one tablespoon canola oil to my “from scratch go-to butter cake recipe” and it came out beautifully. Same wonderful flavor and soft crumb as before but with just the perfect amount of added moisture. It’s like tweaking something that’s already great.

  28. 37

    Sophia says

    My corn cake, i use both butter and oil, its a delicious combo. i use oil in the batter, but i melt butter in the bottom of the pan, and put the batter into the butter, but i do not mix it in. i get the wonderful flavor of butter, and the lovely texture in the cake still from the oil. =)

  29. 38

    says

    Well, it always depends on what you want to make, doesn’t it? Shortening is nice if you make pie crusts and things like that. If you want a dry dough then you wouldn’t use oil and the other way round. Margarine ist just – I am sorry to say that – kind of garbage. I read some articles about margarine and I will never use it again.

  30. 39

    Crystal says

    Wondering…if you used oil…could you use some Butter extract for the flavoring? Luv’d your article.

  31. 40

    shingo yabuki says

    why do I have the feeling that you said you love butter just to try to prove that oil is better? why cupcakes are always baked with butter then? seems odd to me

  32. 41

    says

    Some of my recipes call for butter, some, oil. my red velvet and chocolate recies use oil and they’re super moist! I have switched from using soybean Vegetable oil to using Canola oil recently and I still get the same amazing taste and texture. My vanilla cake uses butter and it is a bit drier, but most at the same time…. if that makes sense. Maybe coarser, but moist. Not sure how to describe it other than yummy. I’ve never tried it with oil because I love the butter taste.

  33. 42

    Ana says

    In Spain we always use light olive oil or sunflower oil, these are the most popular. And it has always been fine for me, when I cook an american recipe I use butter as you, but if I’m short of or I don’t have any, I change it for our oil and it’s perfect :)

  34. 45

    says

    What about non-dairy “butter” like Earth’s Balance? Thats what we usually use b/c my son is allergic to dairy. If we use oil, we do 1/2 applesauce.

  35. 46

    Elida says

    My mom uses olive oil in her cakes … and so do I.

    Yogurt Cake:
    1 yogurt (plain or lemon)
    3 yogurt pot measures of flour
    2 yogurt pot measures of sugar
    1/2 yogurt pot measure of olive oil
    3 eggs
    grated lemon zest (1 lemon)
    2 teaspoons baking powder
    a pinch salt
    (optional) lemon juice

    or swap the lemons by oranges

  36. 47

    says

    I have just discovered your website and I am totally wrapped, it is so up my alley!
    I live in New Zealand so all my cakes had to be adjusted to sea level. I have experimented with a mixture of Butter and Grapeseed oil. It is moist and still have the butter flavour as some comments have stated.

  37. 48

    says

    I’ve been doing this replacement for years. I replace butter with strongly-flavored olive oil. This really give the cake a DELICIOUS flavor without that extra “umph” being pegged as “olive oil”. Then, I replace the sugar with honey – it depends on what I’m making but I usually use the light-colored honey – for flans I use dark deeply flavored honies (like chestnuts or millefiori).

    No more softening, beating or melting butter – though measuring honey in cups is a bit tricky!!

    Great post,

    L

  38. 49

    Norika says

    Just bake a cupcake like this;

    250g of self- raising flour
    250g of unsalted butter
    250g of caster sugar
    2 eggs
    1. Soften your butter.

    2. Whisk your ingredients all together.

  39. 50

    Norika says

    3. When there is no sight of small chunks of butter anymore, put them in to cupcake cups.

    4. Put the oven heat to 4.

    5. Bake for 15 min.

    6. Check if it’s a fox color and check if it is hard enough to cone out by tapping it with a fork.

    7. It’s done! You can decorate it however you like!

  40. 52

    Amy says

    I loved this comparison so much my daughter and I used it as a basic idea for our school Science Project. We used straight 1-1 substitution and added a couple of other fat ideas and then had a family taste test. We learned a lot and it turned out great. I do not recommend Lard or Applesauce. My daughter loves butter by the way, but I liked oil. Thank you for such great information and inspiration.

  41. 54

    says

    My family have always used stork margarine , I prefer Flora ( sunflower oil margarine) as it doesnt alter the flavor of the cake.
    I used butter yesterday as that was all I had in and the cake is heavier than usual , but tastes nice.

  42. 55

    Peggy Bowles says

    Have you ever tried using apple sauce in place of oil. My niece swears by it. Keeps your cake moist for a longer pierod of time.

  43. 57

    says

    Don’t give up on butter! Butter is much better for your body than many standard grocery store oils, tons better than shortening, and still better than margarine. I’d love if you compared butter to coconut oil, olive oil, and perhaps lard. These are all real foods that our bodies can process, while harshly extracted oils (such as canola oil and vegetable oil), chemically produced shortening, and chemically ladened margarine are not processed well by our bodies and lead to weight gain and a poor digestive system. Here are some of my favorite sources to do with why butter is good for you:

    Food Renegage – Why Butter Is A Health Food
    http://www.foodrenegade.com/why-butter-health-food/

    Butter Believer – Butter is Better!
    http://butterbeliever.com/butter-is-better/

  44. 60

    says

    Between you and me, I always add a quarter cup of veggie oil with every half cup of butter to my cake recipes. I always have the moistest cakes with a fine crumb and very nice volume.

  45. 62

    says

    I was a butter only advocate until 10 years ago when I started my specialty cake business. When I gave samples to brides and potential clients, 90% of the time they chose a cake that was oil based. Americans seem to prefer the lightness and moistness of a cake made with oil. I was saddened at first, then realized it was a great revelation and proceeded to change all of my cake recipes to oil. My fillings are still all butter based; no changes necessary there! Thank you for confirming my unscientific survey.

  46. 63

    Donna says

    Can you substitute a few tablespoons of the butter for oil or would that throw off the ratios in your recipe? Or, maybe add a bit of oil?

  47. 64

    says

    I like to homogenize the oil in a food processor. I place my sugar and eggs in a food processor. Pulse a few times that turn it on. Then slowly add the oil through the feed shoot. This will insure that the oil stays in the cake and doesn’t work it’s way to the bottom of the cake. Makes the perfect Carrot Cake.

  48. 65

    Nneoma says

    Please,what type of oil and other fats did you use (e.g., “vegetable” oil can be many things).How did you determine the equivalent amounts to use (weight would probably be best but even so, the different fats have different desities and dissolved gases which could have influenced the results)Please reply ASAP

  49. 66

    says

    great findings! thanks! i always wanna make a really moist butter cake,somehow hard to get a really good one. yeah,probably i will try looking out for the recipe that uses oil. :)

  50. 67

    Rosa R. says

    This helped me out a lot. I found it during a search trying to decide which Italian cream cake recipe to use. Some of them use 1/2 butter and 1/2 oil, and some use 1/2 butter 1/2 shortening. I think I will be going with the oil thanks!

  51. 68

    Ketutar says

    I would like you to add a couple more fats to this:
    How will avocado work as substitute for butter?
    How about suet?
    How about coconut oil?

  52. 71

    says

    The butter is really good among the other ingredients also the reason it is commonly used by many people when baking but doesn’t mean that the remaining ingredients is totally inappropriate in baking but the idea her is to explore other baking method that is appropriate for this kind of ingredients. Kindly visit http://www.megaoils.com/butter-oil/

  53. 72

    Anndze Tan says

    Hi Summer, do you have a good classic butter cake recipe you can share? My 82 year old mum loves butter cakes which are rich, moist, fine and fluffy but I cant seem to get the right one. I have tried more than 5 recipes taken from internet but all of them failed. They are either dry, too dense, tasteless and no butter aroma at all. :(
    Appreciate if you have one that I can try. Thanks in advance.

  54. 73

    says

    I love this article! Eventhough margarine has a bad reputation, i can’t help to think that it has somewhat similar qualities to a butter cake in terms of the crumb texture and fluffiness, yet they are notorious to leave a lot of greasy oily residue at the bottom of the cake while butter diminishes and has a nice texture both inside and out. I grew up eating both margarine and butter cakes and sometimes i cant taste the difference, but to me oil cakes always have given a nice fluffy cloud-like bounce in chiffon cakes. Have u tried olive oil? i heard its better then regular oil.

  55. 74

    faten says

    i made oil cakrs many times it works great & never disappoint me ,but when i sub. Butter with oil i use 200g oil in place of 225g butter , coz butter contain protine & water while oil & shortining are 100% fat

  56. 75

    anonymous says

    Thank you so much for your amazing experiment! I used your experiment to formulate my experiment which (*YAY*) was accepted into my state’s science fair. My experiment was: The Effect of Type of Fat on Cupcake Height. Still surprised that olive oil resulted in a taller cupcake than butter. Also, I’d be interested to see what your recipe for the cakes was, they look fabulous.

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