The Building Blocks of Baking – Part 4 Butter

Butter … mmmm yummy yellowy delicious butter drizzled on hot sodabread straight from the oven …  It tastes delicious but does it really matter what you use in your baking?

I LOVE butter.  Real yummy delicious butter.  I must admit I have been brainwashed into thinking that butter is bad, butter is evil and even though I love it, I don’t tend to eat it!  So I’m going to start by researching and looking at all things buttery.  Should I use butter or is margarine better for my baking (and me!).

Also I will share with you to make your own butter?

Butter v’s Margarine

Butter is made from cream that is aged and agitated and contains a minimum of 80% fat.  Now if you would like to know more about the manufacture of butter have a look at Watsons Dairy Consulting.

But I want to know one is actually better?  Nutritionally it doesn’t seem to really matter which brand of butter you buy, they have all more or less the same nutritional content.

British butter is much richer, creamier and darker in colour than continental butter.  Our climate helps make some of the most delicious butters.  Just think of Ireland and the amazing butters they produce.

Butter and a butter knife

Butter and a butter knife (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Margarine is an imitation of butter but is lower in saturated fats than butter but soft spreads can can contain trans fats (which are not good for you).  Margarine tends to have no cholesterol   But margarine can imitate butter very successfully with as high a fat content that is perfect for baking.

Low fat and fat free spreads exists but because they have a high water content they are a poor substitute in baking and while I have used them.  I would only do so if i had no other choice.

Without getting all technical about butter v’s spread and their different water content – I would recommend using real butter in baking where you want a buttery taste or it’s the main component of your baking.  Say in buttercream, shortbread and pastry.  The butter taste will have a much improved impact on the flavour. BUT if you only have margarine/baking spread then you can still use it in your pastry and it won’t be the end of the world.

Buttercream roses

Buttercream Roses made with real butter

However using a good quality baking spread as a substitute for butter in cake baking will deliver delicious results that will be almost 100% as good as using real butter.  Also baking margarine tends to be cheaper than real butter.  So that is another bonus

I can’t recommend any particular butter in the supermarket.  They are all more of less the same.  It depends on what you want to achieve.  If you prefer to be organic you can buy organic unsalted butter.

Friends of Butter are a fantastic organisation who love all things buttery.  Their website compares butters and spreads in the UK and you can view their nutritional content.  They don’t have shop own brands which is a shame as these are usually cheaper.  Friends of butter has a fab blog that looks at everything to do with butter and has lots of the most delicious butter recipes.  I will certainly be going back!

I personally look for the best deals on unsalted butter.  Because I bake in large quantities value for money is very important to me.  But I am loyal to no particular brand.  I use real butter in pastry, buttercream, shortbread and other recipes I need to actually taste the butter.

I use margarine spread in general baking.  Something like stork works perfectly well in baking.  I’ve been using stork for many many years and it’s always stood me in good stead.  They have both a buttery stork product for pastry and a spread.  They have launched a new stork liquid but I have yet to try it and would have to be convinced!

Vanilla and Raspberry Sponge Cake using stork

Vanilla and Raspberry Sponge Cake using stork

So they both win!

Salted Butter V Unsalted Butter

Salted butter is mostly for everyday use with unsalted for baking.  However you could substitute occasionally if you don’t have unsalted.  Just omit half a teaspoon of salt from the recipe.  I would say it is better to buy unsalted here as it could be tricky to get it right but the pastry police won’t be after you if you get it wrong.  The amount of sweetness in the cake will mask any salt taste.

Recommendation – use unsalted in all your baking unless totally desperate and don’t mind it tasting a little salty.


Shortening is 100% fat and contains no water.  Something like Trex or in America Cristo.  You can get liquid shortening and hard shortening.  Now I do use shortening sometimes in buttercream.  It gives a delicious flavour and a perfectly white appearance.  If you use butter or spread in buttercream it will be a yellowy colour.  All the major supermarkets sell shortening if you need to get hold of it.  You can substitute butter or margarine for shortening if you wish.  It will slightly alter the flavour but for home baking it will make no discernible difference.  Substitute like for like,  I’ve done this and the world didn’t end.

A 1918 advertisement for shortening.

A 1918 advertisement for shortening.


Lard is rendered meat fat and is 100% fat and probably not that good for you.  Sounds a little icky when described as meat fat but by gosh lard makes amazing pastry.  I rarely use it however as alot of my customers are vegetarian. Lard has been refined and modified over the years.  It is fantastic for making flaky, puff and shortcrust pastry.  I have never used it in a cake but I believe you can.  You can also use half and half lard and butter or lard.

I would recommend:

Pastry – Lard and unsalted butter

Cakes – Baking margarine

Buttercream – Unsalted butter

Shortbread – Unsalted butter

But don’t forget if you use a substitute I bet you it will still taste delicious!


Next topic in the series will look at ovens.  The difference in fan and conventional and how to interchange between both without a panic.  Which oven is best for baking – if any?


About Claire Sullivan

Bake - Slice - Eat - Enjoy! An Irish girl living in Norfolk, sharing everything I know about baking and everything I learn along the way. The beautiful County of Norfolk is full of wonderful gems and I can't wait to share them with you.
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