Picture this: you’re making your favorite baked good and following the directions word by word, only to realize you don’t have enough butter to match the recipe. Do you use what you have and hope for the best? Or should you use a substitute? And what if you just want to bake with less fat? In this article, we find out what happens if you put less butter when baking.
Butter serves several functions in baking, so if you skimp on the butter without proper substitution, your baked good is bound to come out lacking in more ways than one. The texture may turn out dry and crumbly, the flavor may not be as rich as expected, and/or your baked goods may fail to achieve the desired rise and end up a flat mess.
Does this mean you absolutely must use butter when baking? Is there a way to use less butter and still get the same result? Are there other mistakes you should avoid when baking with butter? Today, we’re answering all these questions and more, but first, let’s break down the role of butter in baking and what happens if you cut back on using it.
How Does Butter Affect Baking
Baking is a lot more about technique and knowing how the different ingredients affect the baked goods rather than a super-precise science that’s all about correct measurements.
So whether you’re aiming to bake healthier or just trying to avoid a trip to the grocery store, you need to first understand the function of butter in baking. This can help you decide if it’s worth using less butter and learn how to better substitute it in a recipe.
This one is a no brainer; adding flavor to baked goods is the most obvious role that butter plays in baking. There’s just something so distinct about that richness and creaminess that no other ingredient besides butter can bring to the table.
Be it cookies, cakes, pastries, or really any other baked good – you simply can’t mimic the exact taste of butter in them. You can certainly get very close, but you can never hit the bull’s eye.
Even with products that are labeled “butter flavored”, you can easily tell if the richness comes from real butter or not.
Now if you put less butter when baking or substitute it for another ingredient, such as oil, your baked good won’t have that distinct richness of butter. We’re not saying it won’t taste good, it’ll just have less of that flavor.
When it comes to the texture of baked goods, butter serves to make them softer. In fact, it’s not just butter; fat, in general, can make your baked goods more tender as they shorten gluten strands.
You see, butter (and any fat that’s solid at room temperature) falls under the category of the baking term: shortening. This term refers to the way that fat acts to shorten gluten strands. Without getting too sciencey about it, the process of gluten formation is inhibited when fat coats flour, creating a more tender product.
You can better understand the effect of butter on texture in baking when you compare the texture of a baguette to that of brioche bread.
On one hand, baguettes are considered lean bread because there’s no fat added to the dough. No fat means that nothing will slow down the formation of gluten strands. This results in bread that’s crusty on the outside and quite chewy on the inside.
On the other hand, brioche is a bread that contains fat in its dough. This gives it a softer and more tender texture.
With less butter in your recipe, you may end up with a dry and tough baked good.
Finally, a not-so-obvious function of butter in baking is to create steam to make baked goods rise. This process is also known as leavening.
Generally speaking, when you think about how to get something to rise in baking, butter isn’t the go-to answer. However, butter can be a crucial tool in leavening various baked goods.
Let’s take puff pastry for example. The sole contributor to its amazing rise is, in fact, the butter that’s added throughout the dough.
The reason behind the leavening powers of butter is being not entirely fat; there’s some water in there. So when cold solid butter meets a hot oven, the water content in butter starts to evaporate and the air bubbles get trapped in the dough which causes it to rise.
With less butter in your recipe, it won’t rise as much as it’s supposed to.
If you’re trying to bake with less fat, here are some tips to help you use less butter when baking:
- For baking cakes and muffins – you can try using applesauce or a fruit puree, such as pureed prunes, instead of some or even all of the butter. As a rule of thumb, use half applesauce or fruit puree and half butter.
- For baking cookies – when making cookies, you can simply try using less than the amount of butter required in a recipe. As a general rule, you can start by reducing the total amount of butter by half of what is needed. This may call for some experimentation, but the result should be fine.
- To bring back flavor – when you remove butter, you’re also removing a bit of the flavor. A few ways you can give your baked goods an alternate kick of flavor is by adding extracts, spices, or grated citrus zest. You can also toss chopped frozen, fresh, or dry fruit into the batter.
You should always use butter at room temperature, except when the recipe specifically requires cold or melted butter.
If you use butter that’s too cold, it won’t be able to get it to cream properly with sugar. This can affect the fluffiness and softness of your baked goods.
The same can happen if you use butter that’s too hot or runny. It won’t deliver optimum leavening, thus affecting the texture of your baked goods.
One of the most common mistakes we see is people using oil instead of butter because both are fats. However, these two ingredients are not the same.
For one, oil makes cakes extra moist with less flavor while butter makes them more dense and flavorful. If you must use oil in place of butter, the best thing to do is use half and half of the required amount.
To put it simply, your baked goods will come out salty and it’ll be too late to fix the damage. If you don’t know when to use salted or unsalted butter, then it’s best to go unsalted.
Most professional bakers prefer to use unsalted butter so they can control the amount of salt in their recipes. Remember, you can always add salt later but you can’t take it out if it’s already in the butter.
Your baked goods won’t come out fluffy enough. If you want a light and fluffy texture, make sure you allow enough time (5 minutes at least) for creaming butter and sugar together.
So what happens if you put less butter when baking? In short, your baked goods will turn out dry, less flavorful, and/or flat.