Baking 101: The Differences Between Shortening, Butter, and Oils

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the possibilities that both oil and shortening can grant in your cooking life. The greatest thing about both is that they tend to be used for the same purposes, and can be used to substitute one another on any given day. The problem here is that all though it may appear that each contender is equal, it’s just not the case.

So, how do you know whether you should use peanut, olive, or vegetable oil? Where does shortening come into play? What are the health benefits of one versus another? Sometimes, you truly cannot sub one for the other, yet others—it’s totally acceptable.  See, in the cooking world, there are no rules, yet there are many.

One of those rules is to know your intention when cooking. This means know the purpose of what you’re trying to make. For example, are you deep-frying or baking in the oven? These questions and the answers they provide will knock down the gray area between shortening and oils, but can you sub out an oil for an oil in a recipe?

Know Your Oils

Let this be a lesson from one lover of cooking to another: you should have more than one oil in your kitchen. Some oils, such as canola, extra virgin olive oil, and coconut oil, can be used for various tasks such as baking or frying.

If you were thinking about frying something with flaxseed or olive oil — stop! These two oils have a much lower smoke point (the temperature at which it starts to burn) than its olive and grapeseed relatives. This translates to burnt or lifeless food and a house that will wreak havoc on your senses for the next five days.

However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have any other oils than the ones with high smoke points. For instance, butter is a great tool for low-heat cooking and baking, as well as olive and flaxseed oil.

For deep frying or high-heat grilling, stick with peanut or avocado oil, as their smoke points are 450 degrees fahrenheit and 520 degrees fahrenheit, compared to their low-heat friends of olive and flaxseed oil, whose smoke point is 320 degrees fahrenheit and 220 degrees Fahrenheit.

Why Shortening?

What can you use shortening for in cooking if oil seems to be covering the map pretty significantly overall? First, let’s talk about what shortening even is. Shortening’s greatest comparison is butter, in that they are both high in fat. But shortening is made of up vegetable oil and lard, or fat, to make it as close to 100 percent fat as scientifically possible. Now that we know what shortening is, we can get into the whys of the shortening world.

When it comes to baking, butter is known to be a ‘Winner takes all’, in that you probably always have a stick or two of butter in your fridge due to its usability outside of the baking world. Since this is the case, how does shortening even stand a chance?

Well, shortening and butter cook two entirely different ways. If you want something to be fluffy and moist, use shortening. Shortening has a higher melting rate than butter because it is 100 percent fat, meaning it’ll take longer to melt in whatever it is you’re baking. This in turn allows the flour and eggs in the mix extra time to get settled, creating volume and moisture.

The one complaint heard most about shortening in place of butter is its lack of taste, leaving you feeling as if something may be missing from your recipe. However, the shortening industry has created a solution to this issue: butter-flavored shortening. Ultimately, you have options when it comes to cooking, and it’s best to know all of them than to only know one or two.

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