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Chat leftovers: Shortening vs. butter for cookies

This week's Free Range chat was heavy with holiday baking questions. And because it was the day of our annual Holiday Cookie Guide, lots of those questions were about cookies. If you've got cookie conundrums, don't forget to join us next Wednesday at 1 (back to the regular time) for the chat and the chance to win a cookbook. Meanwhile, here's a question we couldn't get to this week:

I’m about to start baking Christmas cookies, and one type I’m making is spritz cookies. The recipe is from the little booklet that came with the decades-old cookie press I inherited from my grandmother, and it calls for shortening. Can I substitute butter, or will the shortening make an essential difference that I’d want to keep?

This is a common question, and a good one. Some people, like you, want to ditch shortening, which is essentially flavorless, to get the delicious taste of butter. Others, maybe vegetarians or the cholesterol-conscious, want to replace butter with vegetable shortening. In some recipes, the two ingredients are fairly interchangeable. But they aren't identical, and they perform a little differently in the oven. The bottom line: Cookies made with shortening tend to be higher, softer, chewier; cookies made with butter are flatter, harder, crisper.

The main reason has to do with melting points. Butter starts melting before shortening does; a cookie made with butter will sink and flatten because its fat is giving out before the cookie's structure has had a chance to set. Shortening melts at a higher temperature; when melting begins, the cookies will have been in the oven longer and will be set, so they'll keep their shape better. With your cookie press, it's possible that with butter you'll be less able to make a nicely defined, sharp shape. But plenty of cookie press recipes call for butter, so clearly it's not out of the question.

Another factor to keep in mind: Shortening is pure fat, while butter contains other components, one of which is water. (Read the nutritional labels on the packaging and you'll see that a tablespoon of Crisco shortening has more fat than a tablespoon of Land o' Lakes butter.) That could affect the texture of your dough, which will be slightly moister when butter is substituted. Some bakers advise that if you are replacing butter with shortening, you should add a little water or egg to the dough to make up for the lost moisture. In your case, you might have to experiment with adding flour to offset the butter's added moisture.

In any case, cookie dough isn't expensive to make, so you don't have a lot to lose. Why not pull out the cookie press and bake up a half-batch using butter? Or you can compromise and start with half butter, half shortening, and see how that goes. If it doesn't work well in the press, you can always turn the dough into drop cookies. It's one experiment that should taste pretty good, even if it fails.

-- Jane Touzalin

By Jane Touzalin  |  December 10, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Chat Leftovers  | Tags: Chat Leftovers, Free Range, Jane Touzalin  
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Next: Tales of the Testers, failed-cookie edition


I usually substitute 1/4 to 1/3 of the butter with shortening, but it's just enough to give the dough some height and chewiness without too much of the "bad stuff." Another tip: Keeping your dough cold can sometimes help with those low-melting-point problems that come with butter. However, a shape cookie probably needs more than that--the structure that shortening will give to the dough will render a nicer-looking cookie.

Posted by: OneSockOn | December 10, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

What does adding corn syrup do a) butter and b) shortening?

Posted by: fran426 | December 10, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse

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