The Role of Fats in Baked Goods

The Role of Fats in Baked Goods

Fats, whether it’s butter or oil, play a crucial role in the texture, flavor, and overall quality of baked goods. However, have you ever stopped to think about why they are so important and what they really do? In this article, we’ll explore the reasons why you shouldn’t omit fats from your baking recipes and provide tips to help you make the best choices when using fats in your cakes, cookies, or in this case, waffles.

Before diving in, it’s important to note that there are two different types of fats: solid fats and liquid fats. Solid fats such as butter or shortening are able to stay solid at room temperature and are typically made from animal byproducts. Solid fats can also be made using vegetable oils through hydrogenation–the process of solidifying liquid oils through the addition of hydrogen, via On Food And Cooking by Herald McGee. Liquid fats, on the other hand, are not able to solidify on their own and are always in a liquid state at room temperature.

The Effect of Fat on Texture & Structure

First and foremost, fats play a significant role in tenderizing and moistening baked goods, creating the light and airy texture that we associate with some of our favorites. In waffles, for example, fats help to create a crispy and golden brown exterior and a soft and tender crumb.

According to Love Food Love Science, when fats are added to a recipe, they coat the flour particles, preventing them from soaking up water and forming gluten strands. This process is important because without fats, baked goods would be much more dense, heavy, and flat. With that being said, solid and liquid fats have slightly different effects on the texture of baked goods. Butter, for example, contains water and creates steam in the oven, which helps the dough to rise. Butter also helps to create soft and delicate crumbs. On the other hand, the oil adds more tenderness to baked goods than butter but cannot support the web of air that’s created in the dough, which is necessary for the rise of baked goods. Therefore, baked goods made with oil might not rise as well as those made with butter (via TastingTable).

The Effect of Fat on Flavor

The choice between fats in baking can affect the taste of baked goods. Different types of fats have different flavors and can either enhance the taste of other ingredients in a recipe or mute them. Butter has a rich and creamy flavor that adds an undeniably delicious taste to baked goods. However, butter can sometimes compete with other bold flavors such as chocolate or coffee. Vegetable oil or shortening, on the other hand, has a more neutral flavor that can allow other ingredients to shine through, says Tessa Asias of Handle the Heat.

Fat and Aeration of a Batter

Fat also plays an important role in the aeration of a batter. The easiest way to explain this is to provide you with the example of creaming together butter and sugar. At first, it might not look like anything, but once a minute or two has passed, the butter and sugar become light and fluffy and pale in color. The butter traps air and creates little air pockets, which then help to give the cake or baked goods volume and structure. It also keeps the baked good from collapsing in the oven. The creaming ability of fats is especially important for cake baking, as the better the creaming ability of the fat, the lighter the baked good will be. Basically, while fats have no aeration function, they help to retain gases that are released during baking, providing a good texture to the cake.

How to Choose the Right Type of Fat

When it comes to choosing the right fat for your recipe, there are several things to consider. Butter is a classic choice that helps to make baked goods taste rich, creamy, and buttery, and is commonly used in cupcakes, cakes, and flaky pastries. Vegetable and canola oil, on the other hand, have a neutral flavor and are often used in baked goods such as brownies, muffins, and quick breads. Coconut oil is another popular choice, but keep in mind that if you do use it, you’ll most likely notice a coconut flavor and/or aroma. Other plant-based fat sources that are commonly used in baking are avocado, nuts, and plant-based yogurts.

In addition to creating texture and flavor, fats also play an important role in the shelf-like and freshness of baked goods. They help to keep baked goods moist and prevent them from becoming stale too quickly. Baked goods made using butter usually start to dry out after sitting at room temperature for a day or so, while those made with oil tend to last a bit longer.

Fats: Strawberries & Cream Stuffed Waffle

Here you’ll find the link to our Strawberries and Cream Stuffed Waffle, which uses melted butter as its main source of fat, along with whole milk. Butter often makes for a softer waffle (versus crispy), so keep that in mind as you follow the recipe. If you prefer a crispier waffle, feel free to experiment by swapping out vegetable or canola oil for the butter at a 1:1 ratio.

Nea Arentzen
Nea is a food writer, recipe developer/editor, and content creator based in New York City. Her writing, video content, and recipes can be found on Martha Stewart Living, Food52, The Spruce Eats, EatingWell, Allrecipes, and more.
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