Butter vs. Oil: A Baking Experiment

Today, let’s delve into the world of baking as we explore the age-old question: which is better for your baked treats — butter or oil?

Recently, I decided to revamp my Red Velvet Cake recipe. Previously, the recipe solely relied on oil as the primary fat for the cake layers. However, as I pondered how to enhance this recipe, I found myself contemplating the age-old debate of butter vs. oil in baking.

Fats play a crucial role in baking, offering various benefits such as tenderizing the texture, adding moisture, leavening, enhancing flavor, aiding in browning, conducting heat, and creating delightful creamy textures. With this in mind, I embarked on a baking adventure, conducting side-by-side tests to determine which fat reigns supreme.

The results were truly surprising and influenced my final decision for the Red Velvet Cake recipe. So, join me on this flavorful journey as we uncover baking secrets you never thought to ask!

Butter vs. Oil in Baking: The Battle Begins

Solid vs. Liquid: Understanding Saturated and Unsaturated Fats

Butter, a saturated fat, remains solid at room temperature. On the other hand, most baking and cooking oils, like canola, olive, and peanut oils, are classified as unsaturated fats. To a lesser extent, soybean, sunflower, and safflower oils (often referred to as vegetable oils) fall under this category as well.

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While avoiding the nutritional distinctions for now, it is essential to understand the fundamental differences between saturated and unsaturated fats. These variances play a significant role in how fats behave during the baking process.

Given its solid state at room temperature, butter serves as an excellent base for recipes that involve creaming butter and sugar. Creaming creates an airy batter or dough, resulting in a light and fluffy texture. Liquid fats like vegetable oils cannot achieve this effect. However, the side-by-side results of cupcakes made with butter and oil proved intriguing!

Butter, Coconut Oil, and Melting Points

Coconut oil stands out from other oils due to its solid state at room temperature. However, it must be noted that coconut oil’s solid form requires a cooler room temperature, as it begins to melt at 78°F. In comparison, butter’s melting point lies slightly below human body temperature, typically ranging from 90 to 95°F, depending on the style and brand. Shortening, with a melting point around 117°F, possesses an even higher threshold.

The solid state of coconut oil at room temperature arises from its classification as a saturated fat, similar to palm oil and cocoa butter.

It’s worth mentioning that refrigerating a baked good or serving it chilled might impact your choice of fat. When chilled, butter, coconut oil, and shortening harden and exhibit a greasier texture. Meanwhile, butter at room temperature offers a melt-in-your-mouth experience, along with a more pronounced flavor profile.

Unlike its solid counterparts, liquid oil products retain their liquid state even when refrigerated. Consequently, when you bite into something made with oil, it imparts a delightful sensation of moisture.

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Unveiling Butter’s Composition

It is crucial to recognize that butter is approximately 80% fat. The remaining 20% consists mainly of water, along with milk solids, flavoring ingredients, and salt. The exact composition may vary depending on the brand and style, with European-style butter containing about 82-85% fat.

Shortening: A Saturated Fat Option

Similar to butter, shortening remains solid at room temperature due to its saturated fat content. However, unlike butter, shortening contains no water. If you wish to explore a detailed comparison between shortening and butter, refer to my article.

The Baking Experiment: Butter vs. Oil

To truly understand the nuances of taste and texture, I gathered a team to conduct an experiment. Haley from team HTH, my food photographer Joanie, my food stylist Brendan, and culinary assistant Audrey joined forces as we baked two batches of brownies and cupcakes.

Each batch had a control group, adhering to the original recipe featuring butter, while the variable group replaced butter with liquid oil. Prior to commencing this experiment, I discovered the advice to slightly reduce the amount of oil in butter recipes. This adjustment arises from butter’s lower fat content, hovering around 80%. Accordingly, we reduced the oil in these batches by 15% compared to the initial butter quantity.

The results proved fascinating and somewhat unexpected. Of course, the group taste tests added an exciting element to the experiment!

Brownies: Butter vs. Oil

To ensure a comprehensive experiment, I included a butter-melting recipe and a creaming recipe for the brownies. In this particular experiment, we melted the chocolate separately and then mixed in the oil.

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Upon comparing the final brownies side by side, our team reached the following conclusions:

  • Oil Brownies: These brownies were chewier with crunchy edges and topping. They sported a matte finish on top, lacking the crinkly shiny ‘skin’ frequently found in brownies. In terms of taste, they resembled box mix brownies.
  • Butter Brownies: In contrast, the butter brownies were much fudgier, softer, and boasted a melt-in-your-mouth texture. With a noticeably shinier and crinklier crust, these brownies offered far superior flavor when compared to their oil counterparts.

However, through previous brownie experiments, I discovered that a combination of both fats can yield the best results. By incorporating both oil and butter, you can achieve a delightful blend of chewiness and fudginess, resulting in an exceptional treat like my popular Best Ever Chewy Brownie Recipe.

Cupcakes: Butter vs. Oil

Prepare for surprising revelations as we dive into the cupcake experiment. Considering that oil cupcakes would lack the aeration achieved through creaming butter and sugar, I expected them to appear shorter. However, the actual outcome proved quite the opposite — the oil cupcakes emerged taller! Moreover, the difference in tenderness astounded us.

  • Oil Cupcakes: These cupcakes showcased a coarser crumb, a spongy texture, and were far from delicate or crumbly.
  • Butter Cupcakes: The butter cupcakes, on the other hand, offered superior flavor, allowing the vanilla extract to shine. They were significantly softer, more delicate, crumbly, and boasted that delightful melt-in-your-mouth texture. Overall, they provided a smoother and more flavorful experience.

The Verdict: Butter Takes the Crown

No surprises here — butter triumphs over oil when it comes to baking recipes. Its flavor and melt-in-your-mouth texture elevate the final product. However, in recipes involving bold flavors such as chocolate, coffee, or citrus, butter might compete with the other ingredients. Consequently, you’ll often find oil replacing butter in certain recipes. For instance, in my Best Chocolate Cupcakes recipe, which features chocolate, cocoa, and espresso powder, oil is the preferred choice.

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Substituting Oil for Butter in Baking

For quick-breads like banana bread or muffins, you can easily swap oil in for butter. Remember that butter is only about 80% fat, while oil consists entirely of fat. To maintain a similar fat level, a general rule of thumb is to reduce the amount of oil by approximately 15% compared to the original butter requirement. Additionally, you can reintroduce some water, typically around 1 ½ tablespoons per 4-ounce stick of butter.

Choosing the Finest Butter for Baking

Oil’s ability to create a spongy texture and deliver moist flavors is undoubtedly advantageous in certain recipes. Moreover, oil proves to be more cost-effective and easier to work with. However, when it comes to flavor and that unforgettable melt-in-your-mouth sensation, butter always reigns supreme.

In many cases, combining both butter and oil in your recipes unlocks the best of both worlds, as evidenced by my Red Velvet Cake recipe!

Salted vs. Unsalted Butter in Baking

In my baking endeavors, I always opt for unsalted butter. This choice grants me full control over the total salt content of any given recipe. If you want to explore the intricacies of salted vs. unsalted butter further, be sure to read my informative article.

Expand Your Baking Knowledge

If you enjoyed this article, I have more science-driven baking content for you to explore:

  • Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder
  • How to Measure Flour
  • Everything You Need to Know About Sugar in Baking
  • Why I Hate Baking Substitutions
  • How to Prevent Cakes and Loaves from Sinking
  • Natural Cocoa vs. Dutch Process Cocoa Powder
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Recipes You’ll Adore

To further elevate your baking skills, I highly recommend trying these delightful recipes:

  • Bakery Style Chocolate Chip Cookies
  • Yellow Cupcakes
  • Brown Butter Brownies
  • Irresistible Chocolate Cake
  • Best Ever Pie Crust

Be sure to capture your baking adventures and share them with the world!

Photos by Joanie Simon | The Bite Shot

Family Cuisine

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