There is a lot of controversy over what is best to use for baking cookies. You may scratch your head trying to solve this dilemma. Which one is healthier to use than the other? With a little research we can solve this dilemma.

First, what is shortening? It is a semisolid fat and refers to a hydrogenated vegetable oil. There is a lot of controversy over what is best to use for baking cookies. You may be scratching your head trying to solve this dilemma. Hydrogenation is a process of bubbling hydrogen through vegetable oil, changing its chemical structure. This process turns the liquid into a solid at room temperature and below. Vegetable shortening is 100% fat. Butter and margarine contain 80% fat. Hydrogenation produces trans fats, which are the unhealthy fats that are known to cause heart disease. The advantage of shortening over butter or margarine is its smoke point (higher temperature before burning). Another advantage is that it has a higher melting temperature. During the cookie baking process, it helps the dough hold its shape longer. This allows the flour and eggs to settle, preventing the dough from spreading too much. There are some newer shortening products on the market that contain little or no trans fat.

Second, what is margarine? Margarine is made again from vegetable oils and does not contain cholesterol. Margarine is rich in good fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated), but it does contain some saturated fats. Some margarines are worse than others. Hydrogenation solidifies the margarine. The harder the margarine, the more trans fat it contains. Trans fats raise bad cholesterol levels and lower good cholesterol levels, making them worse than saturated fats. Tub margarine is lower in trans fat than stick margarine.

Third, we all know that butter is created from the fat of cow’s milk cream. That being, it is animal fat, which is loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol. Butter and margarine are equal in calories and fat. Each contains approximately 35 calories and 4 grams of fat per teaspoon. Butter is believed to contain trace amounts of hormones and antibodies that are fed to dairy cows. On the plus side, butter contains fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Okay, now that you’re confused now more than ever, let’s compare. Margarine is better than butter when it comes to our hearts, but it falls flat in the flavor department. The butter also adds a creamy texture. The shortening helps keep the cookies from deflating or spreading, but again it doesn’t improve the flavor. In fact, butter is tasteless. If you are a fan of fluffy cookies, use half shortening and half butter. You get the raised cookie with the buttery flavor.

Finally, what should you use, salted butter or unsalted butter? The salt in butter acts as a preservative, so the butter won’t go rancid when left at room temperature. The downside is that you are adding extra salt to your recipe. The problem with reducing salt in a recipe to substitute salted butter is that different brands of butter have different salt content. The general rule of thumb is that when using salted butter, reduce the added salt ½ teaspoon per cup of salted butter. The purist baker will always use unsalted butter. That way, they can be in control of the salt that is added to the recipe. The salt in butter is also believed to add flavor, overpowering the sweet taste of the butter and masking the buttery smell.

When it comes to decisions between shortening, margarine, salted butter, or unsalted butter it’s a personal preference. But at least with information we can make an informed decision. The best way to decide what is best for you is to experiment. Try different ways to bake cookies and have fun. As they say, “The journey is the best part of the journey.”