As a cook, you should know and love fat. That’s right—fat! It shouldn’t be a scary word, especially in the kitchen. It’s your best tool for imparting richness, flavor and helping you achieve everything from perfectly roasted veggies to cakes (like this chocolate beauty) that demand a second slice. Knowing the differences between the kings of fat—butter, margarine, lard and shortening—can help equip you to create some unforgettable dishes.
What is butter?
Butter is a fat that is made from cream that’s been churned into a solid state. It’s versatile, reliable and can pack a dish with flavor. Typical butter is around 80 percent fat—the rest is water and milk solids. With this ratio, butter can hold its own in a variety of situations, whether you’re frying eggs or whipping up chocolate chip cookies (or baking these decadent chocolate peanut butter brownies).
Butter comes salted or unsalted. Though we know it’s easy to reach for whatever’s on hand, don’t mistake the two for nearly identical products with different packaging. There’s a huge difference. Using salted butter when unsalted is called for isn’t going to turn a sweet dish savory, but it may not reach its full potential. Salted butter can function fine in cakes, cookies and similar baked goods (just make sure you eliminate the additional pinch of salt), but you’ll want to go to salt-free and be able to control the saltiness for things like sauces or this chicken in lime butter.
Why do we love butter so much? Because we don’t think it can be beat when it comes to adding flavor to cakes or cookies, especially these big, soft ginger cookies.
What is margarine?
Originally invented in the 1860s as an inexpensive butter substitute, margarine is a trickier beast to cook with. Margarine is created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil. It’s often heavily diluted—especially the kind found in tubs. You can be working with something that’s as low as 35 percent fat. (Remember, fat = flavor.) This means it’s not a very reliable option for baking but will still work fine in other cooking.
Psst! Most margarine is packed with trans fats, which are best avoided; if you do choose to use margarine, look for one that is completely free of trans fats and go to town on delicious recipes like these creamy caramels.
What is lard?
Julia Child once said, “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.” We hope that when it comes to cooking, you’re not afraid of butter or butter’s big sister, lard. (Even if it has suffered from a not-so-favorable reputation.) Though it’s made from raw or rendered pig fat, don’t worry, it won’t taste like pork. We’re excited that its virtues are once again being celebrated, as it’s entirely versatile and great for frying, roasting, or making some of the flakiest pastries you’ve ever tried. We love it in pie crusts (like this cinnamon sugar apple pie), crispy vegetables, biscuits, or collard greens everyone will actually want to eat. For sweet treats, it will make for more shortbread-style cookies or tender, but less rich, cakes.
Extra tip: Lard will make for some of the best Mexican tamales you’ve ever had.
What is shortening?
The word “shortening” actually refers to all fat and oils, but is most commonly associated with Crisco and other vegetable oil products. To make shortening, oils like soybean, cottonseed or palm are hydrogenated (read: a scientist adds the chemical hydrogen) so they stay semisolid at room temperature. Like lard, shortening is 100 percent fat, but unlike lard, it was enjoying a period of popularity in recent years. We love what it adds to our favorite sugar cookies.
However, newer research has found it might be less healthy. A lot of shortening is packed with artificial trans fat, so to protect your health be sure to look for options that are not hydrogenated. Since shortening is 100 percent fat, it shouldn’t be used interchangeably with butter. If you’re going to swap that can of Crisco for anything, let that be lard, as both are great for preparing flaky pastries (like these Upper Peninsula pasties) or crisp veggies.
Knowing what butter, margarine, lard and shortening bring to the table (pun intended) will help you finesse your favorite recipes and master a wide range of dishes across the cooking gamut.