Baking Fat Basics

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Fats play many roles in baking. They add moistness and tenderness. They create barriers between layers of flour, letting crispy pastries develop. They help gluten stretch in bread, and stop things from sticking to pans.

Unsalted Butter

What is it?A golden block of dairy goodness made from churning cream to concentrate the butterfat. It is an emulsion of butterfat (about 80%), water, and milk proteins. Unsalted butter is normally used in baking, having a sweeter flavor.

What is it good for?The most common baking fat, butter is solid at room temperature and can therefore be used to make all kinds of flaky pastries. It melts at body temperature, so it doesn’t taste greasy.

Is it good for me? Along with suet, butter is mostly saturated fat and is therefore high in calories. These foods used to be considered the devil’s work, but they are all natural and recent nutritional research suggests that (within reason) they will probably do us less harm than processed alternatives. Because it is a saturated fat, butter can also be heated without changing its structure and becoming more harmful. Butter contains little lactose and is therefore rarely a problem for people with lactose intolerance.

Salted Butter

What is it? Butter that has had salt added as a preservative and to change the flavor.

What is it good for? Generally, we prefer the sweeter flavor of unsalted butter in baking and desserts. Occasionally the stronger flavor of salted butter gets the green light.

Is it good for me? Much the same as unsalted butter. If you need to watch your salt levels, choose unsalted butter.

Coconut Oil

What is it?The oil extracted from coconut meat.

What is it good for?It is liquid at body temperature, but just about solid at room temperature. This makes it a possible substitute for butter in many applications (but, as you will see from the recipes, you must handle it differently). Its melting point (about 73°F) is much closer to room temperature than butter (about 90°F) or cocoa butter (about 93°F), which gives it unique qualities. Coconut oil frosting, for example, melts in the mouth differently than the richer buttercreams. (If you have ever tried Lindt Lindor chocolates—which contain a lot of coconut oil—you will recognize the sensation.)

Is it good for me?There is a great deal of debate over this. When people started cutting dairy out of their diet, coconut oil was seen as a perfect substitute. However, nutritionists pointed out that it was also high in calories and saturated fats. More recent evidence has shown that coconut oil promotes good cholesterol and that it is easily metabolized into fuel (rather than deposited as fat). Of course, this is only useful if you need the fuel. Our feeling is that it is a good fat; some people say it will make you chubby, but many nutritionists disagree. Read labels carefully, because some coconut oil is still hydrogenated. Always choose organic and unrefined.

Olive Oil

What is it? The oil extracted from olive flesh.

What is it good for? It is liquid at room temperature and therefore less versatile in baking than other fats discussed here. We use it in breads and pizza doughs and to toast granola.

Is it good for you?Yes. It is high in monounsaturated fats that may help protect against heart disease. It also contains a useful source of omega-6 fats, which we must eat because our bodies cannot make them from other foods. (Make sure you get the cold-pressed type.)


What is it? Raw beef (and sometimes sheep) fat, often taken from around the kidneys, also known as beef fat or kidney fat. It’s available in large chunks or sometimes shredded from some butchers. You can replace it with shortening from a meat or vegetable source, but choose carefully—look for ones with reduced hydrogenated trans-fats.)

What is it good for? Making traditional English steamed puddings. The suet is hard and therefore forms hard pockets in the pastry. When the pudding is cooking, these melt away, leaving air pockets and a wonderful light, spongy texture.

Is it good for me?It is a high-calorie saturated fat. However, the link between saturated fat and heart disease is now under dispute, with recent studies pointing to manufactured trans-fats and sugary foods as the real villains. Therefore: Don’t eat suet every day, but it’s fine as an occasional treat.


What is it?Pig fat, often rendered (melted slowly), purified, and then reset.

What is it good for? Generally used to make really flaky pastries (for example, the hot water crust pastry used for pork pie). It is solid at body temperature and has a distinct, soft porky flavor. We don’t use it much.

Is it good for you?Very calorific, but probably not as sinful as its reputation would suggest. Eat it about as often as you would suet.


What is it? A butter substitute originally manufactured from beef fat but now more commonly made by thickening vegetable oils and dying them yellow.

What is it good for?Absolutely nothing. We don’t think that any recipe tastes better when made with margarine.

Is it good for you? Traditional margarines, made from hydrogenating vegetable oil, were marketed as a healthier and cheaper alternative to butter. We now know that the manufacturing process created deadly trans-fats, and these types of margarines have disappeared from the shelves. More recent manufacturing methods have produced a slew of products with their own advertised “health benefits.” However, they have only recently entered the food chain and we would advise caution. Our general rule of thumb is: Avoid cooking with any ingredient that was invented in the last 1,000 years.

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Excerpted from Leon Happy Baking, by Claire Ptak and Henry Dimbleby. Published by Conran Octopus Limited © 2019 by Leon Restaurants Ltd 2011, 2019. All rights reserved.

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