All About Fat and its Function in Baking

  • Baking Fundamentals Lesson #11: All About Fat and its Function in Baking
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All About Fat in Baking Lesson Overview:

Today we are talking about fat in all its forms and how it functions in baking. Fat is an essential part of what makes baked goods tender and moist, but it also plays some more scientific roles in how our baked goods rise.

Today we will review how solid fats and liquid fats function differently and all of the roles fats play in baking.

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Function of Fat in Baking

Richness, Flavor, and Moisture

The first role of fat in baking is to add richness, flavor, and moisture to baked goods. Baked goods with a lot of fat have a more luxurious mouthfeel and just taste better. Plain and simple.

Creates Tenderness

Fat is a powerful tenderizer in baking. As we discussed in the lesson on how gluten develops, fat serves to coat flour to act as a barrier between the proteins and water, slowing down gluten development.

Furthermore, fat actually works to shorten gluten strands. This is why something like a cinnamon roll, which is a yeast bread made with fat, is much more tender than a baguette, which is a yeast bread made without fat.

Helps with Leavening

Fat also plays an important role in leavening our baked goods. When solid fat is creamed with sugar it supports the web of air that is beaten into the two ingredients which lifts and leavens our baked goods.

Butter also contains a percentage of water that evaporates off when it is baked, creating lift. This is seen very evidently when making puff pastry. Puff pastry is made by folding the pastry in a way that creates alternating layers of dough and butter (this is called lamination) and the layers of butter do all of the leavening in the pastry.

Types of Fat

There are two categories of fat used in baking: Liquid fats and solid fat. Solid fats can always be melted into liquid fat form, but they do re-solidify when cooled so they function slightly differently than true liquid fats.

Types of Solid Fats

There are 3 main types of solid fats used in baking: butter, vegetable shortening, and lard. Coconut oil is also a solid fat that is gaining popularity in baking.

Butter

Butter is the most common type of solid fat used in baking because it adds great flavor to our baked goods and the presence of water in butter makes it great for assisting with leavening. Butter contains about 80-82% fat. You can read more in depth about butter and its role in baking here.

Note: Margarine is not a direct substitute for butter because it can contain as little as 35% fat which makes it function much differently than butter. If you do want to use margarine in your baking it is best to find recipes that are written specifically to be used with margarine.

Vegetable Shortening

Vegetable shortening is a hydrogenated fat made from vegetable oils. Shortening contains 100% fat which means it creates baked goods that are even more tender than baked goods made with butter and can also lead to less shrinking in the oven. A pie crust made with all shortening will shrink less than a pie crust made with all butter because of the water evaporating out of the butter crust.

Vegetable shortening also has a higher melting point than butter, around 118 F. Due to this, shortening leads to less spreading in baked goods like cookies. This is because the cookie has time to set before the fat melts and spreads out. While this can be desirable for creating really thick cookies, the downside of shortening is that it can leave a really greasy mouthfeel. Where butter literally melts in your mouth, (melting point around 90-95F) shortening does not.

Lard

Lard is rendered pig fat and was widely used until the mid 20th century when vegetable shortening was developed and lard was advertised to be a less healthy option. Lard is also 100% fat, so it functions similarly to vegetable shortening though it has a lower melting point which makes it more desirable in baking.

Leaf lard is a snowy white form of lard that is extremely mild in flavor. High quality leaf lard is very difficult to find and typically needs to be ordered online, however it makes the absolute best biscuits in the world. You can read more about lard and how to render your own here. 

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is a solid fat with an extremely low melting point, so it is sort of on the edge between solid and liquid fats in the way it functions. Coconut oil has a melting point around 76 F, which is the lowest of all of the solid fats. But it can be creamed with sugar and does solidify so it falls in the solid fat category.

Types of Liquid Fats

Liquid fats are all of your oils. For baking you want to use a neutral flavored oil like canola oil, vegetable oil, or grapeseed oil. Olive oil is not desirable for baking, unless it is specifically called for, because it is very flavorful and can be off putting.

All oils function the same in baking as they are 100% fat. The main function of liquid fats (oils) is to add richness and tenderness, and because they do not solidify when cooled they create baked goods that are more tender than baked goods made with solid fats.

Oils cannot help with leavening, because they do not become solid, and therefore are typically not a good substitute for solid fats. All solid fats can be substituted for liquid fats by melting them first, however keep in mind that because the fat will solidify when cooled it will create slightly different final results.


Homework for this Lesson

For this lesson I want you to compare how solid fats and liquid fats function slightly differently. To do this, I want you to make 2 small batches of my easy drop biscuits. One batch will be made with solid fat and the other will be made with liquid fat. You can make both batches at the same time to compare the two. Each type is delicious, but the resulting texture is definitely different. Here is the recipe for this assignment:

Solid Fat vs Liquid Fat Drop Biscuits

This is a recipe for the role of fats in baking assignment.

Did you make this recipe?

Ingredients:

For the Solid Fat Biscuits

  • 1 cup (128 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 (7 grams) baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup (57 gr) cold unsalted butter, vegetable shortening, or lard
  • 1/2 cup (113 grams) milk of choice, cold

For the Liquid Fat Biscuits

  • 1 cup (128 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 (7 grams) baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup (57 gr) oil of choice
  • 1/2 cup (113 grams) milk of choice, cold

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F (205 C).
  2. Gather two mixing bowls. Mix the dry ingredients for each type of biscuits together in separate bowls. In one bowl, cut the fat into the flour using a pastry cutter or a fork until it is the texture of peas. In the other bowl, stir in the oil until completely combined.
  3. Add the milk into each of the mixtures and stir just until everything comes together. The oil biscuit mixture will seem too liquidy at first, but continue stirring until it thickens slightly. These are drop biscuits, so the consistency will be a thick batter.
  4. You can bake these on a baking sheet or in a cake tin or baking dish. Scoop about 1/4 cup of batter for each biscuit and drop onto your baking surface. You should get about 3 biscuits for each type of batter.
  5. Bake at 400 F (205 C) for 18-20 minutes, until lightly browned.
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2 comments on “All About Fat and its Function in Baking”

  1. WOW! I never knew the water to fat ratio and evaporation is what affected the baked goods texture and size. Makes sense! Thanks for enlightening us.
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