Margarine vs. Shortening–the debate continues

Margarine vs shortening, butter vs. shortening, butter vs. margarine…the debate continues. What do you use when?

This was the question I asked myself tonight as I began to whip up a batch of my famous Brown Eyed Susan cookies. The recipe called for margarine, but my margarine was in the fridge and I really didn’t have the patience to bring it to room temperature in order to cream, but I did have vegetable shortening at room temperature that was right within reach, so…

I measured out all the ingredients for my cookies, creamed the shortening with the sugar and other ingredients, added in the flour and mixed but…something just didn’t feel right. For some reason, the dough was just dry dust.

But wait! It wasn’t for just any reason! I took to the internet to find out whether shortening could be interchanged with margarine (up until this point in my baking life, I had just assumed it could, I know that’s a terrible confession to make), and found out there are actually good reasons to use shortening in some recipes and margarine/butter in others. And if you haven’t, well, there are ways to try to make things better.

According to Crisco, shortening has no water in it, while margarine and butter are about 85% fat and 15% water. The water in the butter and the margarine seems to make all the difference–cookies made with butter/margarine may be softer and spread out more, while (obviously) pastry made with shortening will be flakier than pastry made with butter/margarine. Most times (other than in no-bake cookies, candies, and fudge where you really need to use butter/margarine because of the melting points of margarine and butter) it won’t matter too much whether you substitute shortening or margarine for the other in recipes for cakes or breads.

If you do make the substitution of shortening for margarine/butter, you may need to add more liquid to your recipe in order to compensate for the extra liquid in the butter/margarine. Take a look at this handy-dandy table from Crisco on how much water to add if you’ve used shortening in place of margarine.

After this discovery, I fixed the shortening recipe with the amount of liquid required by the Crisco website, and decided to make two batches of cookies–one with shortening, and one with the traditional margarine–to see which one I liked more. My vote? Well, the margarine cookies were way easier to roll and flatten, and the shortening cookies just seemed like little bricks to me. But the taste? Mmmm, I think I’ve come down on the side of shortening over margarine. I can taste the full flavours of the cookie more than the margarine-base shortbread, and the texture is less grainy. I may have just become a new shortening convert…

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