Vegetable shortening to the rescue
As vegan and dairy-free diets become increasingly mainstream, finding a good butter substitute is more important than ever. Butter can be hard to replicate. A water-in-oil emulsion, butter is solid when cold, and soft at room temperature. Oil seems to be a natural substitution for butter, but unfortunately many recipes for baked goods can’t be adapted to swap liquid oil as their fat component.
Enter Crisco. While you may think of Crisco as that weird oily stuff your Grandma always used in pie crust, the vegetable shortening is actually completely vegan and a great option for non-dairy treats.
Of course, shortening used to be synonymous with lard, the fudgy pig fat that’s solid at room temperature but can be rendered into liquid with heat. The invention of margarine (or vegetable shortening)—suspending oil droplets in water—led to Crisco, a plant-based product that acts similarly to lard in baked goods like scones and pie crust.
While many vegans use coconut oil as a butter replacement, the ingredient can be finicky when baking. It can be used as a 1:1 substitute for butter, but coconut oil’s sensitivity to temperature (melted coconut oil will quickly seize when mixed with cold ingredients like milk or maple syrup) novice bakers may find it frustrating to work with. Unlike coconut oil, Crisco acts more forgivingly like real butter when cut into dry ingredients for pastry dough or creamed into sugar for cookies.
Of course, "vegan butter" also exists and is sold as such, and therefore may have you thinking it’s a healthier option than vegetable shortening. However, the two are actually almost identical. Let’s compare: Crisco contains soybean oil, fully hydrogenated palm oil, palm oil, mono and diglycerides, TBHQ, and citric acid (preservatives). Popular vegan brand Earth BalanceVegan Buttery Sticks’s ingredient list reads: vegetable oil blend (palm fruit, canola, soybean, flax, and olive oils), water, salt. The list then states that the product contains “less than 2 percent of” natural flavor, soy protein, soy lecithin, lactic acid, and annatto extract (for color).
Ultimately, the lists read really similarly, with Crisco using a bit more processed ingredients. However, it’s good to know that Crisco is slightly cheaper—Crisco baking sticks are $0.20 per ounce, while Earth Balance Buttery Sticks are $0.26 per ounce via Amazon Fresh.
Of course, even if you’re not vegan you may want to consider baking with Crisco over butter. Since the vegetable shortening has a higher melting point, the eggs and flour in your dough have time to set and stabilize in the oven. Compared to items made with butter, which spread quickly in the oven as the butter melts, Crisco-made bakes stay tall and sturdy.