Alert reader Christy, (always wanted to use that…), writes, “What kinds of fats can be substituted for each other when baking and how do you do it? You used lard for the piecrust, which does make the best crust. Leaf lard is hard to find around here, though. I made a pie crust the other day using butter instead, but it turned out pretty tough. And then there are liquid fats such as olive oil and canola oil, etc.?”
Great question, so let’s wade in. For the record, I bake with butter, lard, and coconut oil pretty exclusively. I believe firmly that neither butter or lard are bad for you, eaten in moderation, and in fact, are healthier than most highly manufactured fats. I’ve covered this in other posts, so I’ll leave my position at that. Christy is a wonderful, agile cook, and if she or any of the rest of you want to know stuff like this, or need to for health reasons, then I’ll honor it and answer as best I can.
The primary issue when substituting oil for butter in a cake, cookie, or pie recipe is to fully understand the chemistry the fat facilitates within such things. In the broadest sense, fat contributes tenderness, moistness, and mouth feel to baked goods. There is also a flavor aspect involved, the rich nuttiness of butter and the salty tang of lard. Fats also contribute significant textural qualities to baked goods. Consider a recipe that has you creaming butter with a sweetener, like the gingerbread or the Nanaimo bar recipes we just posted. In both recipes, I wrote about whisking the sweet and fat ingredients together until a notable lightening of the texture is achieved; this is possible because the semi-solid fat traps tiny air bubbles in the matrix and physically lightens it, something that liquid fats don’t do very well at all. Similarly, consider something that depends on a loose matrix of fat and flour to derive a light, flaky texture, like a pie crust; again the property imparted by the semi-solid fat is an absolute necessity. The second consideration involves proportions, as virtually no alternative fat is a straight 1:1 substitution for butter or lard. Take muffins or pan breads as an example in this regard; reducing the amount of fat will will allow gluten to develop more freely, resulting in a notable tougher product.
A closer examination of the most commonly used baking fats will help to better understand what we need to emulate with a substitute. Fat content is the key in this regard. Butter is 80% + fat, with the rest made up of water and milk solids. True lard is virtually all fat; when I say true lard, I’m speaking of lard you yourself have rendered from pork, or lard you’ve bought that was kept in a dairy case, the leaf lard Christy referenced above. I know excellent chefs who swear by duck fat and schmaltz for baking as well, which is certainly food for thought.
If you’re buying the lard that sits out next to the shortening, stop doing that and don’t do it again. Those are vegetable or animal fats heated under pressure, with hydrogen gas introduced into it, usually with some form of nasty, toxic catalyst used to make it all happen faster. This process forces hydrogen atoms to latch on to carbon bonds in the fat in a crossways configuration, generating what’s commonly known as a trans fat. This is done not for our wellbeing, but so that said products can remain in solid form on an unrefrigerated store shelf and not go bad. That, for my mind, is reason enough to ban them from your kitchen.
In any case, the good news here is that the overall fat content of most of the healthy cooking oils and a few interesting non-oil alternative are comparable to butter, so successful substitution is certainly viable.
The first rule of subbing for butter or lard is that there is no hard and fast rule; it varies by recipe, and you need to experiment a bit to land on the winning formula. Here are some general guidelines to get you started.
Subbing liquid oil for butter works best in recipes that call for melted butter.
Subbing coconut oil, with its more solid form, works best in recipes that call for chilled butter. Keep in mind that coconut oil will go to liquid faster than butter will due to its lower melting point, so keeping it well chilled will serve you best when working with it in a recipe that calls for creaming, or in pie and tart crusts.
Start by subbing half the butter with your chosen alternative in a cake, muffin or cookie recipe; stick with butter or lard for pie crusts until you get a good, solid feel for how your alt choice behaves, then brave onward.
When you’re ready to 86 all the butter,
For olive, avocado, peanut, macadamia, walnut, or coconut oil, use .75:1 for the amount of butter called for.
For canola, grape seed, or hemp seed oil, use .625:1 for butter.
Consider these non-oil alternatives as well.
Applesauce, especially fresh, homemade, makes a fine butter alternative; it works best in cakes, muffins, and quick breads. Here again you can opt for the 50% butter, 50% applesauce route, or simple replace all the butter; doing so will yield a denser, moister product, but that’s rarely a bad thing.
Avocado is great in the same category of recipes. Avocado lowers the calorie content and yields a softer, chewier baked good.
Full fat Greek yogurt also makes a fine replacement. Use it in a 1.5:1 ratio for butter and again, you’ll lower the calories and saturated fat count of your recipe.
Closing thoughts on that tough pie crust made with butter, Christy. My first questions are; how old was the butter and the flour, what kind of flour did you use, and how cold was the butter and water? Next would be was this made by hand or machine assisted?
I like whole wheat pastry or whole wheat white flour for pie crust. Much better results than AP in my experience.
I make crust by hand, exclusively. Flaky crust requires pretty big chunks of fat and a relatively loose dough; I get the best feel for that by hand.
Machines can and will heat up your ingredients, and cold is kind when it comes to flaky crust.
Finally, keep in mind that butter has a lower melting point than lard, so it will break down to smaller sizes faster. Cut your butter into 1/4″ cubes and stick it in the freezer for about 15 minutes before you combine flour and fat.