The Beauty of Butter

I'm late! I know last Thursday was the first Thursday of the month, which should've been my deadline for a new Oven Info post. But I've been juggling too many deadlines and I couldn't make it. (I didn't make any in the end actually) Anyway, a new post! This time I felt like butter! Are you with me?
One thing that surprised me -yet shouldn't have!- is the fact the effects of butter looks so much like milk! When you think about it, butter is made of milk, so you'll find a lot of similarities with the post on Milk.

Who doesn't love the flavour of butter? It gives a certain rich, sometimes sweet or nutty flavour to our baked goods. Most likely you will have thought of this already and I really don't need to explain the effects butter has on the flavour of our cakes, breads, cookies and other bakes.

To understand the effects of butter it is important to know the different components of butter. Butter is mainly just milk fat and water. Most commercially sold butters will contain around 80% fat and 15% water. The last 5% consists out of milk solids (proteins and lactose) and sometimes a whole lot of other stuff (like salt, vitamins and colouring). The fat in the butter coats the flour proteins en thus inhibits the formation of gluten. This process results in a soft and tender baked good. Just like in milk, lactose is also responsible for the inhibition of gluten formation. At the same time the small amount of milk proteins will form and toughen the gluten, thus giving a strong crumb to the end product.
          Another effect of butter on texture is its ability to moisturize. Think of the water in  butter, but also the fat can play a large role in binding the dry ingredients together to form a batter or dough. Some cookies rely solemnly on butter to moisturize and combine all the ingredients.
          Lastly, perhaps most importantly, butter also has an effect on the leavening process. Remember leaveners like baking powder and baking soda need a batter that is already aerated? By creaming the butter you beat air into the batter. These captured little air bubbles are later expanded by leaveners, creating the fluffy texture of a baked good. 

Let's again look at the components of butter. Lactose, being a sugar, will give a baked good a lovely dark golden colour. At the same time the fat in the butter prevents burning. The effects of butter on colouring can most easily be seen when you brush a bit of butter on top of a loaf. It will give a dark golden shine to it (as well as softening the crust and adding an extra dimension in flavour).

Anything else, dear?
There's one last thing that I have to mention: butter helps preserving the freshness of a baked good and helps extending the shelf life.

Butter vs. Margarine and Shortening
These are three different types of solid fats and can be used interchangeably. But the effect on the flavour is large. While (a solid) margarine might not be too bad, shortening will definitely not compare to the sweet, slightly nutty taste of butter. Substituting butter for margarine or shortening will also have an effect on texture. For instance, margarine and shortening cannot be creamed as easily as butter. When creamed they will create denser cakes and cookies that may dome or collapse after baking. Shortening is more easily distributed through a dough or batter and can more effectively coat the flour particles, thus minimizing gluten formation and maximizing the tenderness of the baked good. Shortening usually doesn't contain water and does not contain milk solids, so it has a different effect on colouring and moisturizing a baked good. Margarine does contain both fat, water and milk solids and can be more easily interchanged with butter. Yet, even though they can be substituted for one another without too many problems, neither will give the same results as a good butter. So if a recipe asks for a large quantity of butter or asks you to cream the butter, try to stick to real butter.

Other fats
Fats are generally divided into two categories: solid fats and liquid fats. The fats within each category can de used interchangeably. Substituting fats from one category with a fat from another is more difficult, especially when the amount exceeds 1-2 tablespoons. The main reason for this is the creaming process: solid fats can trap bubbles in the batter which is needed for leavening. On top of that a solid butter will return to its solid state after being baked. Even a melted butter will eventually solidify again, while a liquid fat can't provide the same strength and texture after baking. Even when these two components don't play a role, the results will be different. For instance, olive oil is better at coating the flour to prevent gluten formation and will thus give a moister result than butter does. At the same time olive oil as a glaze does not soften the crust, but gives more colour instead. Lastly, and perhaps most obviously, an olive oil or sunflower oil has a completely different taste than butter.

Butter, shortening and margarine (and a pack of frying-fat)
Salted or Unsalted?
Sometimes I feel like there's a debate going on about which butter is best. The salted butter-users vs. the unsalted butter-users. There is however no answer to the question which is better, so let me explain the difference to you instead. One of the most obvious differences between the two butters is the taste. Unsalted butter tends to have a sweeter and creamier taste than does salted butter. However, salted butter has double the shelf life of unsalted butter (5 months). Salted butter is less likely to pick up odors from other nearby products and the salt can mask any off-smells. On the other hand, salted butter burns more easily than unsalted butter. Salted butter often contains more water. Which of the two to use depends on personal preference and experience, just do not forget the importance of salt and add or omit salt accordingly!

You know, it's really hard to try and fit everything you want to say into a short article. There are so many things I've missed now! Yet I still think I've written so much already. Are you even still with me at this point? If you're not, don't worry! I'll summon it all up for you:
So basically butter has an effect on taste (you knew this right?), texture and colour. It tenderizes and moisturizes and aids in the leavening process of our baked goodies. It gives a nice golden colour while at the same time preventing burning!
Next, there are different kinds of fats, divided into solid fats and liquid fats. Solid fats can be used interchangeably, but substituting with a liquid fat will be harder. Obviously, every single fat product will have different effects on taste, texture and colour. Salted and unsalted butter can also be substituted for one another, just remember to adjust the salt content accordingly!

My References:
Bread by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter 
Bakken met plezier by H. Halverhout
Culinate - Kitchen Chemistry
Grondstof Belicht - Slagroom
Joy of Baking - Butter
baking911 - Fats


  1. Butter is the way to go! Unless you are making vegan baking, then I prefer using coconut oil or vegetable oil. Never, ever, ever, have I bought margarine or vegan margarine.

    1. It is! I actually never used coconut oil in baking o.o We only use that for cooking. And we use a spreadable margarine for on bread, but never ever ever in baking either. I think I'd rather die as well ;) Now I think about it, I have a lot of butters and fats in this house!

  2. This is such an informative post - so much great information! But really, I've gotta admit, my very favorite part might be the darling photos! It seriously never would have occurred to me to photograph butter in grass, but the contrast of creamy-golden butter against lush, dark-green grass is just gorgeous! And butter with a little heart carved into it? Too cute! Ok - I admit - these are probably things only another food blogger would notice! But regardless - great pics!!!! And great post, too, of course! :D

    1. Ooh, look at all those compliments! What to do with them? Haha, I'm really glad you like that picture btw.. I had to go outside in the freezing cold and misty rain because I decided it would be a brilliant idea if the butter, just like cows, would sit on grass :P


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