The Science of Baking: Fats

Butter, shortening, or oil tenderize baked goods because fats keep the bonds from sticking together. Think of fats as edible WD40. Another way to remember what fats do is to look at the name “shortening.” Fats literally shorten the gluten strands. Shorter gluten strands are more tender than long gluten strands. Short gluten strands are good in cakes, pastries and quick breads whereas longer ones give the toothsome mouth feel desired in breads.

At higher altitudes, it is helpful to reduce the amount of fat in a recipe as it can weaken the structure too much.


Composition: The USDA requires that butter have a minimum of 80% butterfat. The remaining ingredients are water (approximately 16%), non-fat milk solids, salt, and air.


Margarine has a similar composition to butter except it does not contain the milk solids.


Shortening is made from vegetable fat, water, emulsifiers (mono and diglycerides), and air (~12%.)

Vegetable Oil

Vegetable oil is made from any non-animal source (canola, corn, cotton, olive, peanut, soy bean.) Unlike the other fats, oil is 100% fat and does not contain any air. Oil yields a coarse, often tender, dense crumb.


  1. Improved keeping quality of products by trapping moisture
  2. Improved taste
  3. Enhanced eye appeal
5 Basic Types:
  1. American- butter, shortening, powdered sugar. Milk or egg whites to improve texture and shine; a little bit lemon juice can be added too.
  2. German- butter, shortening, fondant
  3. Swiss- Swiss meringue and butter
  4. French- pate a bombe and butter
  5. Italian- Italian meringue and butter. Good keeping qualities; can be kept out for 2 weeks.

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