Vegetable Shortening Vs. Butter: How Do They Compare?

Vegetable shortening and butter are two of the classic baking fats. Shortening and butter are used in many of the same applications; each has been deemed healthier than the other at different points in history. Is one more versatile than the other? Can one completely replace the other? Let’s see in this SPICEography Showdown.

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How does vegetable shortening differ from butter?

Vegetable shortening has a different composition than butter. Vegetable shortening is made of fully hydrogenated vegetable oil — the oil is heated in the presence of hydrogen along with a catalyst; butter consists of the fat and protein from cow’s milk.

Vegetable shortening and butter do not look alike. Vegetable shortening is an opaque, waxy white, while butter can be varying shades of yellow depending on the amount of beta-carotene it contains. The more beta-carotene, the brighter the yellow.

Vegetable shortening and butter differ in terms of their effects on health. The old process for making shortening by partially hydrogenating vegetable oil resulted in the production of trans fats believed to contribute significantly to heart disease.

The new hydrogenation process involves fully hydrogenating the oil. Fully hydrogenated oil does away with the trans fats but creates a harder shortening that has to be softened with liquid vegetable oil. The softened product consists of interesterified fat, which may also cause health problems like inflammation.

Butter has been considered healthier because it lacks trans fats though it does contain natural saturated fats, which some experts believe are less dangerous. Butter also contains moderate amounts of essential nutrients like vitamin A and potassium; it contains higher levels of the two primary nutrients found in vegetable shortening: vitamins E and K. Vegetable shortening contains more calories than an equal amount of butter.

Vegetable shortening and butter have different smoke points. Vegetable shortening usually starts smoking at a point above 400 degrees, depending on its constituent oils. Butter’s smoke point is notoriously low at about 302 degrees.

Vegetable shortening’s higher smoke point means it is better for high-temperature frying; food fried in vegetable shortening is also said to be less greasy than food cooked in other cooking fats.

Vegetable shortening and butter have different flavor profiles. Like the vegetable oil from which it is made, vegetable shortening has a neutral flavor. Butter is rich and milky because of the fats and proteins it contains.

Vegetable shortening and butter have different costs, with shortening coming in at a lower price than butter.

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Can you use vegetable shortening as a substitute for butter? And vice versa?

Vegetable shortening is a good substitute for butter in most baked goods. The items will have a similar or slightly better texture than those made with butter while lacking butter’s characteristic flavor and color.

Butter is a good substitute for vegetable shortening if you want a spread instead of cooking fat. It will also give a creamier flavor to certain baked goods. Butter won’t be a good substitute if you plan to deep fry.

When should you use vegetable shortening? And when should you use butter?

Use vegetable shortening for pie crusts. The fact that it contains no water — unlike butter — means that it will create a flakier and more tender crust; butter’s water content creates steam that makes the crust tougher. Shortening is good for pastries where the flavor of the fat is not supposed to be the star of the show. Use butter for cookies, cakes, and frostings that need the butter flavor.