Butter, Margarine, Shortening, Oils

Only butter can create the most superior texture in baked goods, particularly homemade cookies. It provides softness, tenderness, and volume. Its low melting point of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, same as our body temperature, enables a minimal amount of it to still have a pleasant melt-in-your-mouth effect.

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When sold in the United States in sticks of 1/2 cup or 4 oz each, butter consists of 80% butterfat and 20% water, proteins, lactose, and minerals combined. These components separate into three layers when heated. The top and bottom layers contain whey proteins, water, and milk solid particles. The middle layer is a clear, clarified, golden liquid that is 100% pure fat. Cookies made with this layer are crisp and have a wonderful nutty taste.


“Softened” generally refers to butter at room temperature which is normally about 66-70 degrees Fahrenheit. It is perfect for baking when you can easily bend but without breaking it in half.

In sweet cream butter, bacteria have not yet converted lactose to lactic acid. Otherwise, we can detect a sour flavor similar to sour cream. In some part of Europe, it is made by adding a bacteria culture to pasteurized cream, and thus is also
known as “cultured” butter.

Unsaturated liquid fats such as oils are generally healthier, but not always good for baking cookies because:

  • They do not hold air and, therefore, can not give the same result as solid fats when creamed with or without sugar.

  • They also makes cookie dough soft and very difficult to handle.

Liquid oils can be converted to solid fats through a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenated or trans fat can:

  1. Delay the process of staling, and

  2. Prevent homemade or commercially-made cookies from being too greasy.

Hydrogenating solid fats

Hydrogenation of Liquid Oil to Solid Fat
Courtesy of How Baking Works by Paula Figoni

Starting July 1, 2008, however, all baked goods including cookies, that are commercially produced in New York City, will not contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or trans fat. You can reasonably expect other cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and Seattle to implement similar ban in the near future.


Shortening is 100% fat, made from partially hydrogenated soybean oil, vegetable or animal fat. It is usually white, bland without any flavor.

Its high melting point is desirable in helping homemade cookies develop volume. A good shortening does not melt until after cookie dough has risen and set. Cookies made with vegetable shortening tend to have a crispy texture, and are less likely to spread.

When a cookie recipe calls for both vegetable shortening and butter, the latter is for flavor and shortening is to prevent spreading and to help cookies retain their shape.

Margarine is imitation butter without the superior flavor and pleasant mouthfeel. Like shortening, it is also made from partially hydrogenated soybean oil, vegetable or animal fat. Unlike shortening, it has a low melting point, and is thus less desirable for baking homemade cookies.

vegetable oil

Oils are 100% liquid fats. They come from vegetable, seeds, or nuts, and are unable to trap air cells when creamed.

When a cookie recipe calls for oil, I like to use either canola or nut oils. Nutritionally, canola oil is very low in saturated fat, high in healthy mono-unsaturated fat. It also has a high amount of linolenic acid, a plant version of omega-3 fatty acids.

Store all fats and oils away from light, air, moisture, and strong odors to preserve two important properties: flavor and texture.

A good solution, when it comes to fats, is a moderate amount of the healthy kind. With that attitude, enjoying even fried cookies is a delightful, guilt-free experience.