Dear Home Ec 101,
What is all the hoopla about butter, shortening, and margarine. Does it matter if I substitute one for the other?
And lard? Ew!
I’ll address lard at the end. There are many differences between the other three, but I’ll try to keep this short rather than delving into the many nuances. In baking the top concerns are melting points and flavor. Commercially the chief concerns are price and shelf stability. From a nutritional standpoint one considers the type of fats involved.
Butter has the lowest melting point, which causes baked goods to spread before the binding agent, such as egg or gluten becomes firm. Margarine’s melting point is only slightly higher than that of butter. Shortening’s melting point is significantly higher, reducing the spread of baked goods in the oven.
Commercially hydrogenated vegetable oil is extremely cheap and shelf stable. The taste is “improved” with extra sugar. Draw your own conclusions.
Research is changing the nutritional view of butter, margarine, and shortening. As a consumer label reading is crucial. Margarine is a term that includes a lot of different manufacturing processes some contain partially hydrogenated oils.
New processes for creating shortening use fully hydrogenated vegetable oil which does not contain trans fat. Fully hydrogenated shortening alone is too solid for cooking, so it is blended with oils such as safflower and cottonseed to produce the proper consistency. This is being touted as a more healthful approach, but for years margarine was said to be more healthful than butter.
Now about lard. Lard is simply rendered pork fat. Suet is beef or sheep and Kosher varieties can be used when necessary. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? It is a marvelous fat for certain types of baking. It produces beautiful crusts for savory pies (tomato pie anyone?). When properly rendered it is a flavorless fat that is solid at room temperature, it does not contain water, like butter, which improves the texture of pie crust. It also does not contain trans fat. While lard is a useful fat, be careful to label baked goods as containing animal or pork products if you may be serving vegetarians or those who practice Kosher or Halal diets.
My personal view is that baked goods should be a treat and not a staple. I prefer moderate consumption of real foods over indulging in more artificially created products.
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