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.


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