April 3, 2010

Cooking School: Shortening vs. Butter

I am a sucker for the check-out aisle baking magazines. My favorites are the Better Homes & Gardens Special Interest Publications, like Ultimate Desserts (on sale starting last month). But upon purchasing and studying this "bookazine," it left me wondering why so many cookie recipes in it called for shortening. As a cake decorator, I am stumped by the fact that so many of my brethren choose to make "Criscocream" frosting instead of real buttercream. Cheaper, I'm sure, but way too synthetic for my book. I do like going halfsies in pie crust. (See my post Pie Crust Primer for the perfect pastry crust.) But my affinity for using vegetable shortening in cooking and baking pretty much stops there. I'm all butter, all the way after that.

So I decided to do some research into why the BH&G kitchens use shortening sometimes instead of butter in baking, especially with cookies. Camilla at Enlightened Cooking investigated the dilemma in depth in this post. Butter naturally contains water and shortening doesn't, so shortening yields a higher, lighter texture and butter generates a flatter, crispier little number. But if it's flavor you're really going for, stick with butter. You'll notice the difference. She also conducted a comparison test using her double chocolate cookie recipe, which proved that although the shortening version had a lighter, puffier texture, the butter version was tastier and more flavorful. I guess it's really just what you go for in the end (or perhaps what's stocked in your fridge or pantry!).

My recommendation would be, as she suggests in her post, to make note of how much a role the butter plays in your recipe and go from there. If it's a central role (1 stick or more), you may want to go with butter. That much butter in a recipe means to be part of the flavor profile as much as the structure. Also, there's nothing wrong with going halfsies on buttercream too, if you're needing to save a buck or you notice your audience actually prefers Criscocream. That's what the grocery stores use, and sadly, what some people are used to these days. Real buttercream might throw your group for a loop, believe it or not!


Jennifer said...

I think I finally got the (butter) buttercream right for my Easter chick cupcakes, but it still pales in comparison to yours. By the way, how long does Crisco last in the fridge? I still have a bunch left over from our last pie crust.


This is from Crisco's site: http://www.crisco.com/About_Crisco/faqs.aspx#faq_long. It claims 2 years, unopened, but I think that's a rather long time. Considering berry season is just around the corner, I think you'll be using that Crisco sooner rather than later. ;-) I'd go with 6 months to a year to be safe.