Tips & Techniques

Skip Butter in Baking (Samin Says, Sometimes)

April 22, 2017

Occasionally, I am absolutely seized by an overwhelming, out-of-the-blue urge to make a chocolate cake—a real cake, with two layers and chocolate frosting like the one Bruce Bogtrotter eats in Matilda, and big plans to eat fat slices cold from the fridge (which is the best way to eat chocolate cake, if you ask me).

I have flirted with recipes here and there, but the one that hangs in my memory like the Ghost of Good Cakes Passed is one my mother made: boxed chocolate cake mix beefed up with boxed chocolate pudding mix, sour cream, and hot coffee, with a slick of marmalade between the layers and orange zest in the chocolate frosting. Part of this is the winning combination of flavors—chocolate and orange, I mean, c’mon—but part of it is in the cake’s texture: Tender and moist and light all at once.

I had never made the connection between the oil called for on the box of cake mix and the cake’s unbeatable tenderness—just as Samin Nosrat, author of the cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, came to connect the dots between carrot cake, olive oil cake, Chez Panisse’s Fresh Ginger and Molasses Cake, and her friend Lori’s Chocolate Midnight Cake: Oil (and specifically, a combination of oil and water), not butter, is the key to super-moist, light-textured cakes. Butter, on the other hand, makes for rich and richly flavored pound cakes, polenta cakes, and other cakes that are just right for a cup of tea in the afternoon.

Nope, no butter found here. Photo by James Ransom

Why? Samin turns to science to break it down:

“Oil efficiently coats flour proteins and prevents strong gluten networks from forming, much like soft butter does in shortbread. Gluten development requires water, so this oil barrier significantly inhibits gluten formation, leading to a tender, rather than chewy, texture. As an added bonus, less gluten means more water in the batter, and, ultimately, a moister cake.”

Realizing this helped Samin predict what a cake’s texture might be just by looking at the recipe—and now we can too. Substituting oil for butter in a cake recipe one-for-one may have mixed results; you’ll have to experiment a little if you want to try swapping in a favorite recipe. But while you may not know the exact measurement of oil needed, you will be able to anticipate what the cake’s crumb will be like.

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What’s more, making the switch from butter to oil changes things up big time in the flavor department, freeing the cake from capital-B Butteriness. Not like butteriness is bad, of course—but in addition to the textural properties butter lends, it has a distinctive taste that can fog up the mirror for other flavors. Trade butter for a neutral oil like safflower or sunflower or another vegetable oil and the cake’s flavor—sunshiney lemon or deep chocolate or toasty espresso or sweet, delicate coconut—will sing clearly.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Chocolate cakes are VERY frequently made with oil and water, not an ounce of butter, except in the frosting. I use hot fresh triple-strong coffee instead of water. Wonderful flavor, very soft, tender cakes.”
— rob
Comment

And neutral oil is only the beginning: A coconut cake will be made only more coconutty with coconut oil. Pistachio oil would make for a nuanced, curious vanilla cake (especially if some ground pistachios found their way into the batter). And grassy olive oil would play up the flavors in a lemon and rosemary cake. This is another benefit of oil cakes: The oil is yet another flavor variable to play with. If you're looking for a few cakes to try out a swap (you're studying!), here are a few to start with:


Tender Dreamboats


Buttery and Better Alongside a Cuppa

Photo by James Ransom

All April, Kitchen Confidence Camp takes us through the four essential elements of cooking, inspired by chef and author Samin Nosrat's cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Follow along here.

30 Comments

Mye April 18, 2018
Hi Caroline, occasionally when I found the recipe I like, I just jump right through it, but I read the entire article. Your way of writing is like a crumb, so delicate and light. It's refreshing to read. I enjoyed it. :)
 
Author Comment
Caroline L. April 18, 2018
Thanks so much for your nice words, Mye!
 
Laura415 May 7, 2017
I bake gluten free. My cakes are always tender since there is no gluten to create a structure. I will use oil in a cake if it's a flavor element like an olive oil cake. However, butter in a GF cake helps the structure if you add air by creaming the butter and sugar, then whipping the eggs in to get as much air in the batter before baking. With GF baking it's good to know a little science though so thanks for this tutorial.
 
kim April 27, 2017
I am sold, especially since I started making Maialino's Olive Oil Cake since you published it a few years ago. It's a favorite; and it ships beautifully because it stays moist for days and days. My son just got one for his birthday, and is requesting another. Can't wait to try more oil cakes!
 
Helen S. April 27, 2017
When I first started baking professionally a long while ago, I thought I had to use butter for the best cakes. However, since I was selling wholesale the product had to last longer because no matter how much you wish it most restaurants don't sell a whole cake a night. After a lot of experimentation, I found that oil based cakes lasted much longer in the refrigerator or out for that matter. For a white cake with oil, use a white chiffon such as this one for the coconut cream cake - http://pastrieslikeapro.com/2014/10/coconut-cream-cake. There is also a Lemon Blueberry Cake using the white chiffon as well as a chocolate chiffon and orange chiffon. Our base chocolate cake was our workhorse as it could be used in endless variations and was both tender and long lived. The Espresso Fudge Cake was a good example of a non chiffon cake using oil. It can be found at http://pastrieslikeapro.com/2014/09/espresso-fudge-cake. <br />
 
Debbi S. April 27, 2017
Helen, I saw a lot of butter in that link to choc coffee cake...6 cubes
 
Helen S. April 27, 2017
Hi Debbbi - There is 3 sticks or 340 grams, 12 ounces in the buttercream for sure. But the Chocolate Cake itself has none. Click on the link for the chocolate cake and you will see it is made with oil only. I was referring to the cake not, the buttercream or glaze since we were talking about cakes made with oil. This was one of our top sellers at the bakery.
 
Debbi S. April 27, 2017
You are right, I didn't read far enough!
 
Helen S. April 27, 2017
Not a problem - just wanted to make sure you saw the cake. Thanks for letting me know.
 
C April 26, 2017
Has anyone ever successfully used oil in a vanilla/white cake recipe? Or does oil work best in chocolate cakes?
 
Cecilia June 20, 2017
My favorite white cake recipe is oil-based! http://www.sweetamandine.com/2009/04/to-pistol-packin-patriot-on-his-26th.html<br /><br />My favorite vanilla/white cakes are all chiffon-cakes, which all use oil, or a combination of oil and butter. Simply do a search for a yellow/white chiffon cake and you're sure to come up with a wealth of options!
 
HalfPint April 26, 2017
I've always preferred oil cakes because they have a much softer texture. <br /> That's why Hershey's Perfect Chocolate cake (made with oil) is my go-to chocolate cake recipe. <br /><br />Obviously, butter all the way for pound cakes and frosting :)
 
Mona P. April 25, 2017
Anyone have the recipe for the doctored cake mix chocolate cake with the marmalade that the author references? I want to try that one!
 
Cecilia April 23, 2017
I've always preferred the texture of oil cakes (chiffon cake when I want vanilla); my understanding, however, is that this is not simply a function of the oil coating the flour and inhibiting gluten formation, but, rather, the temperature at which oil/butter is solid. For a cake you'd like to eat chilled (which is my preference for all cakes, really), you want to use a fat that is liquid at lower temperatures for a moisture mouthfeel; this is why butter cakes/yellow cakes tend to taste dry to me. <br />In fact, if your goal is, as the article mentions, coating the flour with fat efficiently, you can use butter to similar effect by creaming the butter together with the flour and sugar very well before adding a drop of liquid (I believe that this is sometimes called the "reverse creaming" method). While butter does have a small amount of water, if you keep the butter solid while doing this, you shouldn't have to worry about that water binding with the flour to create gluten. Of course, some gluten is necessary for structure and lift--otherwise, you would end up with a very dense cake (this is often why oil cakes add extra leaveners--to compensate for less gluten formation and also to compensate for the lack of an air bubble network created by creaming butter and sugar together). But, again, sometimes you want a dense, fudgy texture. That's why I love understanding the science behind baking--it really lets you tune ingredients/methods to get exactly what you want!
 
jpriddy April 27, 2017
smart<br />
 
Erica May 7, 2017
Cecilia, you are my kind of person. Thanks for the insight!
 
Cecilia April 23, 2017
I've always preferred the texture of oil cakes (chiffon cake when I want vanilla); my understanding, however, is that this is not simply a function of the oil coating the flour and inhibiting gluten formation, but, rather, the temperature at which oil/butter is solid. For a cake you'd like to eat chilled (which is my preference for all cakes, really), you want to use a fat that is liquid at lower temperatures for a moisture mouthfeel; this is why butter cakes/yellow cakes tend to taste dry to me. <br />In fact, if your goal is, as the article mentions, coating the flour with fat efficiently, you can use butter to similar effect by creaming the butter together with the flour and sugar very well before adding a drop of liquid (I believe that this is sometimes called the "reverse creaming" method). While butter does have a small amount of water, if you keep the butter solid while doing this, you shouldn't have to worry about that water binding with the flour to create gluten. Of course, some gluten is necessary for structure and lift--otherwise, you would end up with a very dense cake (this is often why oil cakes add extra leaveners--to compensate for less gluten formation and also to compensate for the lack of an air bubble network created by creaming butter and sugar together). But, again, sometimes you want a dense, fudgy texture. That's why I love understanding the science behind baking--it really lets you tune ingredients/methods to get exactly what you want!
 
rob April 23, 2017
Been in the baking business for over 40 years. Butter is delicious in a cake. BUT it will make the cake firmer. I have nearly always substituted about 20% of the butter out for oil in a yellow or pure white cake, one can go as high as 33%, the oil will help carry some of the butter flavor, and will always make the cake more moist, however, I do stick with 4% milk. Chocolate cakes are VERY frequently made with oil and water, not an ounce of butter, except in the frosting. I use hot fresh triple-strong coffee instead of water. Wonderful flavor, very soft, tender cakes.
 
Cait April 23, 2017
I need the recipe for the stunningly beautiful cake in James Ransom's photo in this article. Is there someone who can help a gal out!?
 
Cait April 23, 2017
Aaaaaand, with the help of a creative (ahm, common sense) google search: https://food52.com/recipes/34817-perfect-chocolate-cake
 
Matt H. April 23, 2017
Chiffon cakes—baking powder and egg risen cakes with oil as the fat—have a very neat history as the most recent cake invention in 100 years. Surprised that they weren't mentioned in this article.
 
Windischgirl April 22, 2017
Thanks for this article! I figured that the form of the fat at room temperature would reflect the texture of the baked good, so that butter-based cakes would be firmer and denser than oil-based cakes. Plus it is fun to play with the flavor of the fat in contrast with the other ingredients! How about walnut oil in a carrot cake, or avocado oil in chocolate cake? Mmmmmm...
 
Windischgirl September 13, 2017
I actually did a side-by-side with an old family recipe. I personally prefer the Revisited version with oil, but I'd appreciate feedback on what others think.<br />https://food52.com/recipes/32610-mrs-shunke-s-apple-kuchen<br />https://food52.com/recipes/32477-mrs-shunke-s-apple-kuchen-revisited
 
Fresh T. April 22, 2017
I actually knew this one! I'm patting myself on the back.... don't worry the smugness will pass in a second. Every now and then I get to "yay!"
 
Smaug April 22, 2017
At least there are two of us who like chocolate cold.
 
Victoria B. April 22, 2017
Thanks for the tip. Where would I find the recipe for the dark chocolate cake in the article? I might have to make that for my husbands birthday next week!
 
chris April 22, 2017
I was searching for the link, too! The dark chocolate cake sounds lovely ... did we overlook the recipe?<br />
 
Ali S. April 22, 2017
Right this way: https://food52.com/recipes/34817-perfect-chocolate-cake
 
chris April 22, 2017
A thousand thanks ... :)<br />
 
Elizabeth April 23, 2017
Thank you for that bit of scientific knowledge! As someone who's on a gluten free diet...I now know why my homemade almond butter cookies seem so beneficial.