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5.3.3: Functions Affecting Baking

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    Functions of Fat in Baking

    The following summarize the various functions of fat in baking.

    Tenderizing Agents

    Used in sufficient quantity, fats tend to “shorten” the gluten strands in flour; hence their name: shortenings. Traditionally, the best example of such fat was lard.

    Creaming Ability

    This refers to the extent to which fat, when beaten with a paddle, will build up a structure of air pockets. This aeration, or creaming ability, is especially important for cake baking; the better the creaming ability, the lighter the cake.

    Plastic Range

    Plastic range relates to the temperature at which the fatty acid component melts and over which shortening will stay workable and will “stretch” without either cracking (too cold) or softening (too warm). A fat that stays “plastic” over a temperature range of 4°C to 32°C (39°F to 90°F) would be rated as excellent. A dough made with such a fat could be taken from the walk-in cooler to the bench in a hot bakeshop and handled interchangeably. Butter, on the other hand, does not have a good plastic range; it is almost too hard to work at 10°C (50°F) and too soft at 27°C (80°F).


    In dough making, the fat portion makes it easier for the gluten network to expand. The dough is also easier to mix and to handle. This characteristic is known as lubrication.

    Moistening Ability

    Whether in dough or in a cake batter, fat retards the product from drying out. For this purpose, a 100% fat shortening will be superior to either butter or margarine.


    As one of the three major food categories, fats provide a very concentrated source of energy. They contain many of the fatty acids essential for health.

    Major Fats and Oils Used in Bakeries


    Lard is obtained from the fatty tissues of pigs, with a water content of 12% to 18%. Due to dietary concerns, lard has gradually lost much of its former popularity. It is still extensively used, however, for:

    • Yeast dough additions
    • Pie pastry
    • Pan greasing

    Lard has a good plastic range, which enables it to be worked in a pie dough at fairly low temperatures (try the same thing with butter!). It has a fibrous texture and does not cream well. It is therefore not suitable for cake making. Some grades of lard also have a distinctive flavor, which is another reason it is unsuitable for cake making.


    Butter is made from sweet, neutralized, or ripened creams pasteurized and standardized to a fat content of 30% to 40%. When the cream is churned or overwhiped, the fat particles separate from the watery liquid known as buttermilk. The separated fat is washed and kneaded in a water wheel to give it plasticity and consistency. Color is added during this process to make it look richer, and salt is added to improve its keeping quality.

    Sweet (or unsalted) butter is made from a cream that has a very low acid content and no salt is added to it. It is used in some baking products like French buttercream, where butter should be the only fat used in the recipe. Keep sweet butter in the refrigerator.

    From the standpoint of flavor, butter is the most desirable fat used in baking. Its main drawback is its relatively high cost. It has moderate but satisfactory shortening and creaming qualities. When used in cake mixing, additional time, up to five minutes more, should be allowed in the creaming stage to give maximum volume. Adding an emulsifier (about 2% based on flour weight) will also help in cake success, as the butter has a poor plastic range of 18°C to 20°C (64°F to 68°F).

    Butter and butter products may also be designated as “whipped” where they have had air or inert gas uniformly incorporated into them as a result of whipping. Whipped butter may contain up to 1% added edible casein or edible caseinates.

    Butter and butter products may also be designated as “cultured” where they have been produced from cream to which a permitted bacterial culture has been added.


    Margarine is made primarily from vegetable oils (to some extent hydrogenated) with a small fraction of milk powder and bacterial culture to give a butter-like flavor. Margarines are very versatile and include:

    • General-purpose margarine with a low melting point, suitable for blending in dough and general baking
    • Cake margarine with excellent creaming qualities
    • Roll-in margarine, which is plastic and suitable for Danish pastries
    • Puff pastry roll-in, which is the most waxy and has the highest melting point

    Margarine may be obtained white, but is generally colored. Margarine has a fat content ranging from 80% to 85%, with the balance pretty much the same as butter.

    Oil content claims on margarine

    The claim that margarine contains a certain percentage of a specific oil in advertisements should always be based on the percentage of oil by weight of the total product. All the oils used in making the margarine should be named. For example, if a margarine is made from a mixture of corn oil, cottonseed oil, and soybean oil, it would be considered misleading to refer only to the corn oil content in an advertisement for the margarine. On the other hand, the mixture of oils could be correctly referred to as vegetable oils.

    It used to be that you could only buy margarines in solid form full of saturated and trans fat. The majority of today’s margarines come in tubs, are soft and spreadable, and are non-hydrogenated, which means they have low levels of saturated and trans fat. Great care must be taken when attempting to substitute spreadable margarine for solid margarine in recipes.


    Since the invention of hydrogenated vegetable oil in the early 20th century, shortening has come almost exclusively to mean hydrogenated vegetable oil. Vegetable shortening shares many properties with lard: both are semi-solid fats with a higher smoke point than butter and margarine. They contain less water and are thus less prone to splattering, making them safer for frying. Lard and shortening have a higher fat content (close to 100%) compared to about 80% for butter and margarine. Cake margarine and shortenings tend to contain a bit higher percentage of monoglycerides than margarine. Such “high-ratio shortenings” blend better with hydrophilic (attracts water) ingredients such as starches and sugar.

    Health concerns and reformulation

    Early in this century, vegetable shortening became the subject of some health concerns due to its traditional formulation from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils that contain trans fats. The apparent link between trans fats and adverse health effects has raised alarm bells. Consequently, a low trans-fat variant of Crisco brand shortening was introduced in 2004. In January 2007, all Crisco products were reformulated to contain less than one gram of trans fat per serving, and the separately marketed trans-fat free version introduced in 2004 was consequently discontinued. Since 2006, many other brands of shortening have also been reformulated to remove trans fats. Non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening can be made from palm oil.

    Hydrogenated vegetable shortenings

    Hydrogenated shortenings are the biggest group of fats used in the commercial baking industry. They feature the following characteristics:

    • They are made from much the same oils as margarine.
    • They are versatile fats with good creaming ability.
    • Their hydrogenation differs according to the specific use for which the fat is designed.
    • They are 100% fat – no water.
    • They keep well for six to nine months.

    Variations on these shortenings are: emulsified vegetable shortenings, roll-in pastry shortenings, and deep-frying fats.

    Emulsified vegetable shortenings

    Emulsified vegetable shortenings are also termed high-ratio fats. The added emulsifiers (mono- and Diglycerides) increase fat dispersion and give added fineness to the baked product. They are ideal for high-ratio cakes, where relatively large amounts of sugar and liquid are incorporated. The result is a cake:

    • Fine in texture
    • Light in weight and of excellent volume
    • Superior in moisture retention (good shelf life)
    • Tender to eat

    This is also the fat of choice for many white cake icings.


    It is probably safe to say that most fats are combinations or blends of different oils and/or fats.

    They may be all vegetable sources. They may be combined with vegetable and animal sources. A typical ratio is 90% vegetable source to 10% animal (this is not a hard and fast rule). Formerly, blends of vegetable and animal oils and fats were termed compound fats. Nowadays, this term, if used at all, may refer also to combinations of purely vegetable origin.

    Functions of Salt in Baking

    Salt has three major functions in baking. It affects:

    • Fermentation
    • Dough conditioning
    • Flavor

    Fermentation is salt’s major function:

    • Salt slows the rate of fermentation, acting as a healthy check on yeast development.
    • Salt prevents the development of any objectionable bacterial action or wild types of fermentation.
    • Salt assists in oven browning by controlling the fermentation and therefore lessening the destruction of sugar.
    • Salt checks the development of any undesirable or excessive acidity in the dough. It thus protects against undesirable action in the dough and effects the necessary healthy fermentation required to secure a finished product of high quality.
    Dough Conditioning

    Salt has a binding or strengthening effect on gluten and thereby adds strength to any flour. The additional firmness imparted to the gluten by the salt enables it to hold the water and gas better, and allows the dough to expand without tearing. This influence becomes particularly important when soft water is used for dough mixing and where immature flour must be used. Under both conditions, incorporating a maximum amount of salt will help prevent soft and sticky dough. Although salt has no direct bleaching effect, its action results in a fine-grained loaf of superior texture. This combination of finer grain and thin cell walls gives the crumb of the loaf a whiter appearance.


    One of the important functions of salt is its ability to improve the taste and flavor of all the foods in which it is used. Salt is one ingredient that makes bread taste so good. Without salt in the dough batch, the resulting bread would be flat and insipid. The extra palatability brought about by the presence of salt is only partly due to the actual taste of the salt itself. Salt has the peculiar ability to intensify the flavor created in bread as a result of yeast action on the other ingredients in the loaf. It brings out the characteristic taste and flavor of bread and, indeed, of all foods. Improved palatability in turn promotes the digestibility of food, so it can be said that salt enhances the nutritive value of bakery products. The lack of salt or too much of it is the first thing noticed when tasting bread. In some bread 2% can produce a decidedly salty taste, while in others the same amount gives a good taste. The difference is often due to the mineralization of the water used in the dough.

    Using Salt in Fermented Dough

    The average amount of salt to use in the dough is about 1.75% to 2.25% based on the flour used. Some authorities recommend that the amount of salt used should be based on the actual quantity of water used in making the dough, namely about 30 g per L (1 oz. per qt.) of water.

    During the hot summer months, many bakers find it advantageous to use slightly more salt than in the winter as a safeguard against the development of any undesirable changes in dough fermentation. Salt should never be dissolved in the same water in which yeast is dissolved. It is an antiseptic and dehydrates yeast cells and can even kill part of them, which means that less power is in the dough and a longer fermentation is needed. In bread made by the sponge dough method and in liquid fermentation systems, a small amount of salt included in the first stage strengthens the gluten.

    Milk in Bread Baking

    In the dough stage, milk increases water absorption. Consequently, dough made with milk should come softer from the mixer than dough made with water. Other aspects of milk in yeast doughs include:

    • Dough may be mixed more intensively.
    • Milk yields dough with a higher pH compared to water dough, and the fermentation will be slower.
    • Fermentation tolerance (the ability of the dough to work properly in a range of temperatures) will be slightly improved.
    • Bench time will be extended as the dough ferments more slowly at this stage. (Final proof times will be about the same, as by this time the yeast has adjusted to the condition of the dough.)

    Bread made with milk will color faster in the oven and allowance should be made for this. If taken out too early after a superficial examination of crust color, it may collapse slightly and be hard to slice. The loaf should be expected to have a darker crust color than bread made without milk.

    In the finished product, milk will make bread that has:

    • Greater volume (improved capacity to retain gas)
    • Darker crust (due to the lactose in the milk)
    • Longer shelf life (due partly to the milk fat)
    • Finer and more “cottony” grain
    • Better slicing due to the finer grain

    If skim milk or skim milk powder is used, some of the above benefits will not be so evident (e.g., longer shelf life, which is a result of the fat in the milk).

    The type of sugar found in milk, lactose, has little sweetening power and does not ferment, so in dough made with skim milk powder, sugar has to be added or the fermentation will be very slow. While lactose is not fermentable, it caramelizes readily in the oven and produces a healthy crust color. The recommended amount of skim milk powder used in fermented dough is 2% to 8% based on flour, and up 15% in cakes.

    Buttermilk and sour milk are used to make variety breads. They have a lower pH and require a shorter fermentation for good results.

    This page titled 5.3.3: Functions Affecting Baking is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by BC Cook Articulation Committee (BC Campus) .

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