Insights by Goldie: Holiday baking tips

by Goldie Caughlan

This article was originally published in November 2002

Q:   I’m getting ready to do some holiday baking. I have some family members that don’t use butter, yet I prefer to use some type of hard fat in some cookies and piecrust recipes to get the best “flakiness.” My dilemma is that I don’t really want to use hydrogenated-type margarines, and I don’t think Crisco®-type fat is any better, healthwise. Help!

A:   Your question is a good one and shared by many consumers. The following are four good products that work well as hard fats in baking, when butter is not an option for whatever reason.

About two years ago, Spectrum Naturals added a hard shortening and hard margarine to their product line. Neither of these is hydrogenated and both are certified organic. Spectrum also provides both organic and non-organic coconut oil, which work well in baking, and finally, the Earth Balance non-hydrogenated margarine works well.

Although Earth Balance is not organic, the manufacturer states it contains no genetically altered ingredients, always a concern when soy or corn oil is an ingredient in any product!

Better fats for great baking

“Spectrum Organic Shortening” is made of 100 percent organic palm oil. This is NOT oil from the palm kernel, which would be much more highly saturated and not heart-healthy. Don’t confuse this, or the palm-oil margarine mentioned below, with the “Spectrum Spread.” The Spread — also not hydrogenated and fine for a bread spread — does not work well for baking or cooking.

The “Spectrum Organic Shortening” is a terrific product, especially for pie crusts, with tender, moist and flaky results, but I do not recommend it for “butter” cookies or the “spritz” type.

For those not using butter, I also recommend “Spectrum Organic Margarine” because the flavor is more buttery and rich tasting. It definitely is not hydrogenated and is the same organic palm oil as in the organic shortening, with added natural butter-like flavors and natural coloring. It does contain a bit of non-GMO soy lecithin, which adds extra tenderness to products. For any who are soy-sensitive, the soy lecithin should not be a trigger, since it’s a lipid and has no soy protein or other soy solids.

Currently, although there are other brands of organic coconut oils on the market, PCC carries only “Spectrum Organic Coconut Oil.” We also carry their non-organic version, but I recommend the organic. Coconut oil is a delicious choice, always firm at room temperature, and lends a subtle coconut essence — which is very nice, especially in cookies, pie crusts or in some delicate cakes.

Earth Balance, a non-hydrogenated, soy-based margarine (which the company specifies is not from genetically altered soy) is firm, tastes fine and works well in baking. My advice would be to use it whenever the organic palm or coconut products mentioned above are not available.

Finally, whenever coconut or palm oil is mentioned, the question inevitably arises “Aren’t tropical fats bad for me?” We know this is controversial. The discussion between health experts is not settled, but it’s a fact that there has been a major shift in thinking within the progressive nutrition field within the past few years.

On the other hand, yes, these are saturated fats, whether there is agreement as to their affect on health. It is precisely their high saturated fat content which makes them the only forms of natural vegetable fats that will not become rancid at room temperature, and which makes them work so well in baking when a hard fat is desirable for texture and tenderness.

What are “hydrogenated” or “trans fats”? And what is wrong with them?

When hydrogen gas is bubbled through refined oil, it causes the oil to saturate artificially with hydrogen and resist oxidation (rancidity). Hydrogenated fat is very shelf stable, hard, and performs well both in baking and high temperature frying — all reasons it has long been used in standard margarines and “shortening.”

Hydrogenated fats contain what are called “trans fats,” sometimes referred to as “backward” fats, as a result of the manipulation. Although trans fats do occur in nature, (i.e., small amounts are found in butter, apparently the result of churning) they are mostly present in hydrogenated margarines and shortenings.

Hydrogenated fats long have been suspected of causing health problems. Early claims that hydrogenated margarines or shortenings were “heart-healthy” were based on their being plant-based fats. Recently, hydrogenated fats have been confirmed as raising blood cholesterol levels at least as much as animal fats.

In a definitive report from the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, released in the summer of 2002, research has confirmed that the trans fats present in hydrogenated margarine and shortening — and widely used in processed snack foods and desserts — are directly associated with heart disease. The report declared that there is no safe amount of trans fats in the diet. In other words, zero tolerance.

It also has been reported that the U.S. Food and Drug Association’s own research shows that requiring food labels to list the amounts of trans fats found in products could prevent 7,600 to 17,000 cases of coronary heart disease and 2,500 to 5,600 deaths annually. Such labeling may be called for next year.

Meanwhile, the safest route for anyone concerned about the issue is to avoid using any products that contain hydrogenated fats. Fast food and processed food manufacturers will eventually respond by reformulating products (i.e., McDonalds has changed the type of cooking oil it uses).

The final decision concerning use of margarines, butter and other fats is up to you, the consumer.

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