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.

Online Cake Decorating Class

Comments

  1. 31

    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 :)

  2. 32

    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.

  3. 33

    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 :)

  4. 34

    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.

  5. 35

    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. =)

  6. 36

    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.

  7. 37

    Crystal says

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

  8. 38

    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

  9. 39

    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.

  10. 40

    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 :)

  11. 43

    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.

  12. 44

    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

  13. 45

    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.

  14. 46

    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

  15. 47

    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.

  16. 48

    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!

  17. 50

    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.

  18. 52

    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.

  19. 53

    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.

  20. 55

    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/

  21. 58

    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.

  22. 60

    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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>