The Baking Science of Butter.


Butter block


Ever wondered how the ingredients you use for baking work? View this as your introductory guide to baking science. 😊 Over the next few weeks, in a series of posts, I’ll be breaking down all the important science bits of key baking ingredients. Starting with the baking science of butter, or baking fats.

Knowing these science basics will improve your baking,  help you to troubleshoot issues, and make informed decisions about which fat substitutions work best.


Why is Butter so versatile?


From pastry to bread, cakes to biscuits. Butter is often present in them all. Keeping our cakes tender and our pastry short. The physical properties of butter, its structure, and melting point make it an extremely versatile ingredient for baking. And of course, there’s it’s rich and creamy flavour that we all love. But unlike other baking fats e.g. vegetable spreads it has a low water content.


The Structure

When cold, molecules of water, which are distributed amongst the fat molecules, are held firmly in place. Locked in a rigid structure. As the temperature increases and the melting point is reached the water molecules can move freely. In pastry making it’s crucial to keep the butter as cold as possible to hold these water molecules in place.  Water combines with the flour in pastry to develop gluten. Gluten is stretchy and chewy. Words you never want to hear your pastry described as.


In comparison butter for making cakes is typically softened, melted even. In this form, it is easily absorbed by the starch in the flour which, along with the gluten that is developed, forms the structure of the cake whilst keeping it moist and tender as the water turns to steam in the oven.


Baking Science of Butter and Troubleshooting


Baking frustration


Tough and chewy pastry.

Due to over development of gluten in the flour, which can be a result of using fat with a very high water content. Keep the fat as cold as possible chilling after making the pastry, rolling and cutting out, and before baking. If you prefer not to use butter then use a substitute that has a high fat content and is in block form. Margarine spreads do not make great pastry due to their high water content.

And if all else fails try making your pastry with gluten-free flour. It makes great pastry because well…it doesn’t contain any gluten. So there’s no risking of developing too much.


Dense and oily cakes.

Often a result of not combining the fat and sugar together sufficiently before adding other ingredients. Recipes that instruct you to beat the fat with sugar only really work with a solid fat. As the sugar crystals need to cut their way through the semi-solid structure of the fat and in the process trap pockets of air. If you use a liquid fat or your fat is too soft this creaming process is less effective and your cake batter won’t have incorporated the amount of air it needs to rise and expand and give your cake that fluffy cakey texture.


Sloping cake sides.

I have to admit this one left me baffled for quite some time. One day my cakes started coming out of the oven with a 2-3cm difference in diameter between the top and the base. I eventually worked out that the additional liquid I was adding to my cake batter in an attempt to make a super moist sponge was resulting in this outcome. And when I used butter the difference wasn’t as noticeable. This is because baking margarine has a high water content. As this additional liquid turns to steam in the oven, it rises up to the top of the tin and the sides of the cake are pushed away from the tin, which makes the cake look narrower on the top.


Baking Science of Butter and Substituting other Fats.



Butter Substitutes for Pastry.

If you’re looking for a substitute for butter in baking, you need to appreciate the role butter plays in the recipe. Fat used for making pastry should have a low water content and be solid at room temperature or at least can be chilled to a solid-state. Vegetable shortening and block non-dairy spreads are good alternatives, but they will lack the flavour of butter.


Butter Substitutes for Cakes.


If you’re following a dairy-free diet, fortunately, they are many great alternatives for butter for making cakes. Non-dairy block fats, coconut oil, vegetable oils, mashed avocado, all work well. You will need to consider the method you will be following. If the recipe instructs you to mix the fat with sugar e.g creaming then it’s best to use a non-dairy block fat as the sugar needs to be able to cut through a solid fat and create air pockets as mentioned above. If your recipe is an all in one recipe any butter substitute should work fine, although solid fats will need to be softened first.


Butter Substitutes for Cookies and Biscuits


When making cookies or biscuits the fat you use will determine the final consistency of your bake. Solid fats tend to give a firmer crumbly texture whilst liquid fats will give a chewier texture to your cookie or biscuit. They will also cause your cookies to spread in the oven so make sure they are well spaced out if you’re using oil as an alternative to butter.


Top Tips for Butter Substitutions


  1. For pastry always use a block fat and use straight from the fridge. Block Stork is a great alternative to butter for pastry.
  2. When choosing a non-dairy fat look for one with a high-fat content of around 70%.
  3. If using vegetable oils or an equivalent use a volume that’s half the amount of butter required. e.g 300g butter would be 150ml vegetable oil.
  4. Take time to consider the method you will be using. Does it fit with the type of fat you will be using, e.g. solid fats needed for the creaming method.


Have questions about the information in this post, let me know in the comments or email 


Happy Baking!




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