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?

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.

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.

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.

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.


  1. 62

    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?

  2. 63


    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.

  3. 64

    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

  4. 65


    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. :)

  5. 66

    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!

  6. 67

    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?

  7. 70


    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/

  8. 71

    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.

  9. 72


    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.

  10. 73

    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

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