Can I Substitute Shortening for Butter?

Shortening and butter

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If you start a baking project and realize that you're out of butter or shortening, don't panic. For most recipes, you can substitute butter for shortening or shortening for butter. But before making that cake, pie, or cookies, you'll need to do a little math.

A tablespoon of butter is not equivalent to a tablespoon of shortening. This is because while shortening is 100 percent fat, butter is only about 80 percent fat. About 15 percent of butter is water and the rest is milk solids.

When substituting, you have to make some adjustments involving some very basic kitchen math. This math is much easier if you have a digital scale that can be set to grams. Weight (not volume measurements like cups) is a more accurate way to measure ingredients in baking.

Substituting Shortening for Butter

As an example, you have a cookie recipe that calls for two sticks of butter (1 cup or 226 grams), but you want to use shortening instead. There are two steps:

  1. Multiply the weight of the butter by 0.8, which gives you 181 grams. This is how much shortening you'll need.
  2. Multiply the weight of the butter by 0.15, which gives you 34 grams (approximately 2 tablespoons) of milk or water that you need to add to make up for the water in the butter.

You can technically leave out the extra liquid in step #2. As a result of having less liquid than the original recipe, your cookies will spread less and be chewier.

Some handy butter conversions from volume to weight:

  • 2 sticks: 1 cup, 225 grams, or 8 ounces
  • 1 stick: 1/2 cup, 113 grams, or 4 ounces
  • 1 tablespoon: 14 grams or 1/2 ounce
  • 1 teaspoon: 5 grams

Substituting Butter for Shortening

When substituting butter for shortening, you'll simply do the opposite math, accounting for the extra liquid. Let's say you have a cake recipe that uses 1/2 cup of shortening (95.5 grams), but you want to use butter instead.

  1. Multiply the weight of the shortening by 1.25, which gives you 114.6 grams. This is how much butter you will need to use.
  2. Multiply the weight of the butter by 0.15, which gives you about 10 grams of liquid, or about 2 teaspoons, that you'll need to subtract from the recipe.

It's a minor adjustment, but with baking, your ingredients need to be measured with precision if you want the recipe to turn out the way it is supposed to.

A Final Note on Substituting

It is worth pointing out that if you do substitute shortening for butter (or vice-versa) without making these adjustments, it does not necessarily mean that the recipe is going to turn out badly. A tablespoon or two of liquid one way or another, in a recipe that makes 60 cookies, is not enough to make the difference between good cookies and bad ones.

The texture of the cookies might be a little different—chewier or crispier, depending on which way you're substituting. The substitution will affect the flavor, since shortening does not have the same richness as butter. Rather, shortening allows the other ingredients to shine and take center stage.