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.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas I bake 200 loaves of bread. —Douglas Jennings, Ottawa, Kansas
I love peanut butter and chocolate, so I combined recipes to blend the two. This cake is heavenly served plain or topped with ice cream. —Lisa Varner, El Paso, Texas
These lemon squares are a delightful recipe from my mother's file. I've been serving it for many years. This lemon bar recipe has a wonderful tangy flavor, and they're always a hit. The color and shape make them a nice addition to a platter of cookies. —Etta Soucy, Mesa, Arizona
I always make this bread pudding recipe for my dad on his birthday and on holidays. He says it tastes exactly like the bread pudding with nutmeg he enjoyed as a child. —Donna Powell, Montgomery City, Missouri
As someone who grew up in the country, I love getting out into nature whenever I can. I also love home-style recipes, including these yummy brownies. —Carol Prewett, Cheyenne, Wyoming
When you tuck into this warm and comforting fresh peach cobbler, you won't miss the extra fat and calories a bit! —Mary E. Relyea, Canastota, New York
Chocolate lovers will go crazy over these cookies that feature loads of chocolate! When friends ask me to make "those cookies," I know exactly what recipe they mean.-Rebecca Jendry, Spring Branch, Texas
A friend gave me this recipe several years ago, and it's my favorite. I love to serve the melt-in-your mouth corn bread hot from the oven with butter and syrup. It gets rave reviews on holidays and at potluck dinners. —Nicole Callen, Auburn, California
These easy-to-make cookies simply melt in your mouth! I've passed the recipe around to many friends. After I gave the recipe to my sister, she entered the cookies in a local fair and won the "best of show" prize! —Sylvia Ford, Kennett, Missouri
Similar to an almond crescent, this coffee cake is light and flaky, with a rich almond center. It's so versatile you can serve it for dessert, breakfast or brunch. It will taste as if it was made from scratch at a bakery, yet the packaged puff pastry makes the recipe quick and easy. —Gina Idone, Staten Island, New York
Here’s a simple cake that’s rich, elegant and over-the-top chocolaty. For finishing touches, add powdered sugar, cocoa or liqueur-flavored whipped cream. —Marie Parker, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
My family's holiday meal consists of different soups and breads. This is one of the favorite breads during that meal. —Bonnie Myers, Callaway, Nebraska
On a sizzling day, we crave something light, airy and cool. Nothing says summer like cream puffs stuffed with peaches and whipped cream. —Angela Benedict, Dunbar, West Virginia
When I make these slightly sweet biscuits, sometimes I cut them and fold over one side about a third of the way for a more traditional look. —Carol Holladay, Danville, Alabama
Here's a basic yeast-risen white bread that bakes up deliciously golden brown. I enjoy the aroma of freshly baked homemade bread in my kitchen. —Sandra Anderson, New York, New York
I always prepare this roll recipe from my husband's family for our church conferences. Serve them with scrambled eggs, and you have a filling breakfast. As a variation, you can replace the cinnamon filling with a mixture of raisins and pecans. —Shenai Fisher, Topeka, Kansas
There is a standing joke between friends that whenever I'm asked to bring a dish to a party, it always contains bacon. My partner loves bacon-wrapped dates and my grandmother got me hooked on date-nut bread, so I made a sweet and salty combination of these recipes. —Terrie Gammon, Eden Prairie, Minnesota
My kids love to help me make this delicious bread recipe. It's quite easy, and they enjoy the fact that they can be eating fresh bread in less than two hours! —Denise Boutin, Grand Isle, Vermont
I love this recipe because it combines three of my favorite flavors: coffee, hazelnuts and cherries. —Joan Pecsek, Chesapeake, Virginia
Creme brulee is our favorite dessert and we love Irish cream liqueur, so I decided to put them together for a dinner finale we truly love. With a last name like Moynihan and a husband named Patrick, you can tell St. Patrick's Day is a very big holiday in our house! -Joyce Moynihan, Lakeville, Minnesota
To showcase abundant fall cranberries, make this beautiful lattice-topped pie. A dollop of orange cream complements the slightly tart flavor. &mash;Taste of Home Test Kitchen
For a change of pace, you can substitute fresh or frozen peach slices for the pineapple in this old-fashioned recipe. —Bernardine Melton, Paola, Kansas
Years ago, I drove 4-1/2 hours to a cake contest, holding my entry on my lap the whole way. But it paid off. One bite and you'll see why this velvety beauty won first prize. —Sandra Johnson, Tioga, Pennsylvania
I created this creamy cheesecake using two favorites—caramel and pecans. It's a stunning cake and rivals any I've tasted. —Deidre Sizer, Cedarville, Ohio
To surprise my banana-loving family, I made this dessert for a reunion, where it stood out among the usual fare. These special treats are something to look at and mouthwatering delicious. —Ruby Williams, Bogalusa, Louisiana
Why limit a great dessert to just one kind of citrus fruit? Thanks to orange and lemon, this lovely pie packs a bold sweet-tart flavor! -Barbara Carlucci, Orange Park, Florida
This golden bread has a soft, tender texture and the perfect amount of cardamom flavor in every bite. Slices are especially good with a cream cheese spread or fresh honey butter. Carla Miller, Pasco, Washington
I love serving impressive desserts that look like you spent hours in the kitchen when, in reality, they're really easy to make. This is one of those recipes. —Cheryl Lundquist, Wake Forest, North Carolina
This gorgeous strudel has just what you crave this time of year: thin layers of flaky crust and lots of juicy apples. —Darlene Brenden, Salem, Oregon