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Oil vs. Butter in Muffins, Cakes, etc.

Some muffin and cake recipes call for the creaming method (start by creaming softened butter and sugar, continue from there). Others just use vegetable oil to provide the fat for the recipe. I've had variations of both that are tasty, and so would like to know more about what each method accomplishes. How does the resulting cake/muffin/baked good differ depending on the method you use, i.e. oil vs. butter/creaming method?

Thanks!

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  1. Oil can never taste as good as butter. I have seen a recipe for an olive oil cake but haven't tried it.

    My other nickname is The Butter Queen!

    1. I was just wondering this myself because I'm inundated with zucchini from our garden and so many zucchini bread recipes call for oil, not butter and I just have a mental block on this ingredient although I do use it. Happily, I came across a recipe from Cooks Ilustrated that calls for butter. Gave it a try and it's fabulous and will replace all my other recipes which call for oil. It still leaves us wondering......why oil and not butter?? What 's the benefit??

      I do have a conversion chart for subing olive oil for butter although I've yet to use it. My very favorite stone fruit recipe is Amanda Hesser's peach tart which calls for olive oil in the crust and it's wonderful but it's really the only time I bake with evoo.

      4 Replies
      1. re: tweetie

        Here's an answer: http://whatscookingamerica.net/Q-A/Bu...

        I recently took butter and milk out of my husband's diet to see if he was lactose intolerant and/or allergic to milk and had pretty good success with soy milk and oil for muffins. I have a recipe for gingersnaps that uses only oil and they are heavenly. I think the oil vs butter is more a matter or personal taste than anything else.

        1. re: Texchef

          Could you share that gingersnap recipe?

        2. re: tweetie

          I would say that you should be extremely careful when baking with evoo, because it has such a strong and unique flavor. I once made Trader Joe's cornbread mix with evoo instead of veg oil b/c I only had the former on hand, and I really regretted it. The evoo flavor permeated the bread completely and totally overshadowed the lovely cornmeal flavor that I was so craving. I can't imagine that using evoo in sweet preparations would be a good idea, although I can see how it might work in a tart crust as the crust itself doesn't necessarily need to be sweet. I'd be interested in hearing more about your experiences baking w/ evoo though! :-)

          1. re: Aloo0628

            Just a side note, since I couldn't help adding a personal experience to your post. One time my brother (who was old enough to know better) made a boxed brownie mix with olive oil instead of veg oil. OMG, were they ever terrible!!

        3. I have a recipe for carrot cake that uses vegetable oil, and I'm wondering if I switched the oil for butter would it be the same? Could I taste it?

          2 Replies
          1. re: chef chicklet

            I'd love to find out the result; please let me know what happens if you give it a try! :-)

            1. re: chef chicklet

              Oil adds moistness, butter adds flavor. Therein lies the choice. Do you prefer the buttery flavor or the moistness?

            2. Melted butter can be used just like oil in the 'muffin method'. So if you want the butter flavor, go ahead and substitute.

              paulj

              1. Hi guys, OP here; thanks for your input! I think I should clarify my question though. I understand that oil and butter have very different flavors (and of course, will always choose a buttery flavor over oil.) However, the method involved in using butter when baking is very different from that using oil, and so I assume that the two methods yield different results in the finished product. When you bake with butter, you cream the sugar and the softened butter before adding the rest of the ingredients. However, when you use oil, you basically just pour and mix. I know that I could just melt butter and use it in place of oil, but that's not what I'm asking about. I'm asking about the difference between using the creaming method with butter vs. just mixing oil into a batter. Sorry for the confusion! :-)

                5 Replies
                1. re: Aloo0628

                  I bake Martha Stewart's banana bread a lot and it uses butter. However I do notice a dark layer on the bottom every time. It doesn't taste different or bad, just visually odd. Part of me has always thought it's because of the butter, maybe separating during cooking and solids sinking to bottom? I always want to try oil for a more consistent product but it's so good already I just live with it.

                  1. re: Aloo0628

                    Looking at couple of my general purpose cookbooks, I find that the 'creaming method' is generally associated with the finer, tender crumb of cakes, while the 'muffin method' produces a coarser crumb, and is more suitable for hearty and moist breads like banana, pumpkin, and whole grain.

                    Here's a web site that compares the two:
                    http://www.baking911.com/quikbrds/101...

                    I suspect Alton Brown has an episode or two that deals with the topic. One of his favorite food scientists has written about the subject.

                    paulj

                    1. re: paulj

                      I agree with Paul. Oversimplified, butter, creamed results in cake. Oil in a one bowl method gives you something more like a muffin.

                    2. re: Aloo0628

                      Creaming the butter will yield a cake-like muffin. Adding melted fat (oil or butter) will result in a more traditional muffin crumb. I prefer that latter, but it's a matter of taste.

                      1. re: Aloo0628

                        I think you may find this helpful: I baked a carrot cake yesterday following the recipe using vegetable oil only. It was so bland that I am in the process of making it again with butter (the creaming method) I also plan to substitute brown sugar for white sugar. I checked this message board to find out if my substitution today will make a difference. I plan to go forward with the butter and let you know how it compares to yesterday's bland Carrot/Oil cake.

                      2. Butter gives a lighter and firmer crumb because it contains some water... it develops the gluten in the flour. Oil has no water so it gives a moist/oily texture with larger crumbs. That's why the creaming method calls to lightly fold in the flour at the end as mixing (such as in a recipe with oil) would make the gluten develop too much and render the cake hard.

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: Twintrix

                          You have just explained to my late mother why I could make better cakes than she. She had far more arm strength than I did as a teen, and would beat her batter vigorously, 350 strokes with a wooden spoon. I'd manage maybe a third of that. When she noticed that my cakes had better texture and rise, she regarded it as some sort of injustice. When I innocently suggested that maybe there was such a thing as beating it too much, I think it offended her German work ethic!

                          1. re: greygarious

                            Funny. My grandmother made the lightest, most ethereal biscuits imaginable. None of us could ever reproduce. She was a dainty, delicate woman, diagnosed in the early 1960's w/ a heart condition and ordered by her doctor to quit her job. (teaching algebra was too rough?) Anyhow, i've always attributed to her cold hands and wan strength the light texture of her baking.

                            BTW, she lived 2 months shy of 100, makes me think there is some benefit to taking it easy.

                            1. re: danna

                              God bless her. Cold hands are a very desirable quality for pastry chefs and brute strength, rather than a tender touch, is not always the way.

                              Aside from that, "algebra was too rough", it nearly killed me.

                          2. re: Twintrix

                            I haven't heard this explanation before. Does that mean that adding liquid to a recipe using oil could give it a similar texture to recipes using butter?

                            1. re: Pia

                              No, it's the process of creaming the butter and sugar that gives a cake-like texture; whereas the "muffin method" of just mixing all the ingredients together gives a more coarse-textured muffiin. You can use melted butter with the "muffin method" but you still get a more coarse-textured muffin. Similarly, you can cream shortening with sugar and get a cake-like muffin but without the buttery flavor. The water in the butter helps provide some structure to a cake-like muffin, along with whatever other wet ingredient(s) are used for the recipe (milk/buttermilk/sour creeam/yogurt). For "muffin method" muffins, there's plenty of liquid contained in the wet ingredients to provide the needed support.

                              In muffins, butter enhancess the flavor while oil enhances the moistness.

                          3. I substitute butter for oil all the time. I like the flavor better and the texture is also less oily.

                            If it's for a cake I'd cream the butter and sugars. But for muffins or a quick bread I'd use a pastry cutter and cut the butter into the flour.

                            If you're going the other way and substituting oil for butter, I'd add it with the liquids.

                            1. I generally prefer oil in cakes and quick breads. It yields a softer, fluffier texture and more boxed-cake like texture. The crumb is much lighter. Depends on what you're looking for, but cakes made with oil also have less cholesterol and keep much better (http://thepaperseed.com/?p=266).

                              As a side note, I almost always include some yogurt or buttermilk in my cakes made with oil, which maybe gives them a more complex dairy flavor that they'd otherwise get from butter.

                              1. One major difference is how the baked good ages. Generally speaking, those made with butter dry out and those made with oil remain moist. As moisture leaves the product, the room-temperature-liquid oil keeps things soft.

                                Creaming ensures a good rise when using solid fats; the sugar creates air pockets in the batter that allow for the leavening gasses to expand. Without good creaming, you'll get a poor rise and uneven air holes. But it's not strictly necessary, as using melted butter in a cake recipe doesn't require creaming.

                                I prefer oil in cakes that benefit from extended flavor marination, like spice cakes or banana/zucchini/etc. breads. All these cakes taste much better the second day, and oil ensures they'll be just as--if not more--moist. This may be my imagination, but I believe oil's liquid state also allows for better flavor marination.

                                As for flavor, the more heavily spiced a cake is, the less you'll care about the missing butter. Butter's delicious, but it doesn't belong in every baked good no more than in every savory dish.

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: MFalk

                                  If I wanted to make a biscotti that was soft and tender, could I substitue oil for the butter. Most call for citrus zest or almond or vanilla extract so the loss of flavor from the butter might not be noticed so much. Would you agree?

                                  Has anyone done this type of substitution or know of a recipe that I could at least try?

                                  1. re: VMA

                                    I've never heard of soft biscotti. Aren't they supposed to be crunchy and hard?

                                    1. re: ChristinaMason

                                      yea, like teeth chipping cracking hard :(

                                    2. re: VMA

                                      I'm Latina... we have a Mexican Christmas cookie that's like a shortbread but also made with anise like biscotti. It's called a Biscocito. It's ONLY made with lard. If you melt the lard first then cream it with sugar, you get the lighter consistency. I've had friends try to make it with canola oil, crisco and/or butter because lard is sooo unhealthy but nothing comes out with the flaky, light consistency or taste. You might want to try it!

                                  2. apart from butter, look into substituting oil with LARD. ideally i try a good fifty-fifty mix of butter and lard to replace one hundred percent oil in cakes and pastry.

                                    1. If your recipe calls for creaming butter and sugar, stick with a solid fat. If it calls for oil (added to the liquid ingredients, the muffin method), you should be able to substitute melted butter without problem. I would not recommend trying to adapt a creaming method recipe to using liquid fats, or v.v. A good cookbook should have a discussion of the creaming (sometimes called cake) method v muffin method.

                                      Most written discussions say that the cake method produces a finer and more tender crumb, while the muffin method produces an uneven mix of voids. The sugar/butter mix creates a matrix of evenly distributed voids that the leavening CO2 can expand.

                                      The amount of oil or melted butter used in hearty quick breads or muffins does not seem critical, especially if using purees as well (banana, pumpkin).

                                      1. Creaming creates air bubbles, which lead to a lighter texture. Oil coats the protein molecules in the flour more quickly, preventing the formation of gluten, making the final product denser, but moist and tender.

                                        1. I made Hazan' polenta shortcake which has oil and no butter and loved it. See attached for some comments and a couple of pix.

                                          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/325705

                                          1. Here is a recent thread about baking w/o butter. The reasons to do so would be health-related, to cut down on saturated fat. I have heart problems, so it's a mandatory for me. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7038...

                                            I've had great luck baking with oil - a lot of the recipes from my blog are posted on this board. But it's critical to use high-quality oil, such as an organic canola oil or macadamia nut oil.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: cathyeats

                                              In what way is the type of oil critical? taste? baking quality? or health wise?

                                              1. re: paulj

                                                I was referring to the taste. Cheap oils can have an off taste, and a really good oil can add a bit of flavor.

                                                But health-wise too, because poor quality oil is really not healthy. It can be processed with a lot of chemical, etc.

                                            2. I love a really good olive oil muffin. If it's the good quality perfumed kind, I think it's a wonderful change from the other using butter.