Shortening, butter or margarine: which is better for baking cookies?

There is so much controversy about what is best to use for baking cookies. You may find yourself scratching your head trying to figure out this dilemma. Which is healthier to use than the other? With a little research we can solve this dilemma.

First, what is shortening? It is a semi-solid fat and refers to a hydrogenated vegetable oil. There is so much controversy about what is best to use for baking cookies. You may be scratching your head trying to solve this dilemma. Hydrogenation is a process of bubbling hydrogen through vegetable oil, changing its chemical structure. This process turns the liquid into a solid at room temperature and below. Butter is 100% fat. Butter and margarine contain 80% fat. Hydrogenation produces trans fats, which are the unhealthy fats that cause heart disease. Shortening’s advantage over butter or margarine is its smoke point (higher temperature before burning). Another advantage is that it has a higher melting temperature. During the cookie baking process, it helps the dough keep its shape longer. This allows the flour and eggs to settle, preventing the dough from spreading too far. There are some new shortening products on the market that contain very little or no trans fat.

Second, what is margarine? Margarine is again made from vegetable oils and does not contain cholesterol. Margarine is high in good fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated), but it does contain some saturated fat. Some margarines are worse than others. Hydrogenation solidifies the margarine. The harder the margarine, the more trans fat it contains. Trans fats raise bad cholesterol levels and lower good cholesterol levels, making them worse than saturated fats. Stick margarine has less trans fat than stick margarine.

Thirdly, we all know that butter is created from the fat of dairy cow’s milk cream. Being that, it is animal fat, which is loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol. Butter and margarine are equal in calories and fat. Each contains about 35 calories and 4 grams of fat per teaspoon. Butter is believed to contain trace amounts of hormones and antibodies that are fed to dairy cows. On the plus side, butter contains fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.

OK, now that you’re confused now more than ever let’s compare. Margarine is better than butter when it comes to our hearts, but it fails in the flavor department. The butter also adds a creamy texture. The shortening helps keep the cookies from going flat or spreading, but again, it doesn’t improve the flavor. In fact, butter has no flavor. If you are a fan of fluffy cookies, use half shortening and half butter. You get the cookie lifted with the butter flavor.

Finally, what should you use, salted butter or unsalted butter. The salt in the butter acts as a preservative, so the butter won’t go rancid if left out at room temperature. The downside is that you are adding extra salt to your recipe. The problem with reducing salt in a recipe to replace salted butter is that different brands of butter have different salt contents. The general rule of thumb is when using salted butter, reduce the added salt by ½ teaspoon per cup of salted butter. The purist baker will always use unsalted butter. That way, they can control the salt that is added to the recipe. The salt in butter is also believed to add flavor, overpowering the sweet taste of butter and masking the smell of butter.

When it comes to decisions between shortening, margarine, salted butter, or unsalted butter, it’s a personal preference. But at least with information we can make an informed decision. The best way to decide what is best for you is to experiment. Try different ways to bake cookies and have fun. As they say, “The journey is the best part of the journey.”

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