Stories from the Lab: Butter vs Crisco for Biscuits

CIA culinary science students doing food science experiments.

Butter or Crisco? The never-ending debate. Which gives the most height? Which has the most flavor? In my Culinary Chemistry class, we experimented to find out. In this lab exercise, we tested the limits of liquid to gas phase changes. There are so many useful applications in the culinary world that require and benefit from volume changes. All liquids expand in volume when they change phases and transition into a gas. That’s actually what is occurring on the molecular level of biscuit baking. Chefs can find this useful when creating other desserts such as pie crusts and puff pastries.

So, are you ready? Let the comparison begin!

Here’s what we used:

Ingredients Amounts
Butter 85 grams
Crisco 85 grams
AP flour 600 grams
Salt 4 grams
Whole milk 360 grams
Baking soda 20 grams

And here’s how we did it:

  1. Cut butter and Crisco into 1 cm cubes and chill.
  2. Preheat oven to 230°C.
  3. Add 300 grams of flour each into two large mixing bowls. Add 2 grams of salt and 10 grams of baking soda to each bowl.
  4. Add 85 grams of butter to one bowl and 85 grams of Crisco to the other. Distribute evenly throughout the mixtures until there are no big pieces.
  5. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and add 180 grams of milk to each. Mix to combine and until the dough is one even mass; knead sparingly.
  6. Flatten out both doughs to a height of 1.5 cm for cutting. With a round ring cutter, punch out the biscuits.
  7. Cook in the oven for about 8 minutes, or until golden brown.

After the biscuits finished baking, the height and flavor profiles were measured, analyzed, and recorded. Flavor-wise, the Crisco biscuits seemed to be drier and had a pastier flavor profile compared to the butter biscuits. My team members and I also found that the biscuits made with Crisco produced the greatest height. However, other teams found that the biscuits made with butter produced the greatest height. The varying results could be because of over-kneading of the doughs or the doughs not being flattened to exactly 1.5 cm. But according to our professor, Marisa Monaghan, the butter should have been the rising champ.

CIA Culinary Science student experiments comparing biscuits made with butter vs. shortening.
Another CIA Culinary Science student team experiment comparing biscuits made with butter vs. shortening.

Why, you ask?  Well, let’s talk science. Butter contains water. During baking, this water evaporates during its phase change from a liquid to a gas. This causes the gluten strains to stretch in the dough, usually resulting in the greater height. Crisco is the result of hydrogenation. Hydrogenation is the removal of double bonds in fats by addition of hydrogen molecules. Crisco does not have any water incorporation, which ultimately shortens the gluten strands of the dough.

If you aren’t familiar with gluten, here’s a short summary. According to the CIA’s Baking and Pastry book, gluten is the protein component in wheat flour that builds structure and strength in baked goods. It is developed when the proteins glutenin and gliadin are moistened or kneaded. It provides the characteristic elasticity and extensibility of doughs. That being said, typically in the baking process, liquids provide the moisture necessary for the hydration of the dough, which in turn aids the gluten development and rising.

Participating in this biscuit-making lab was so exciting. I previously never used Crisco at all before this experiment, so it was interesting to see exactly what it was capable of doing. The texture reminded me of coconut oil, yet it didn’t have a set distinctive smell. Moving forward, whenever I make biscuits, I know that butter is the way to go. Try this experiment out yourself if you are curious. Crisco may be beneficial for other baking applications, but for biscuit making, butter is the ultimate champion!

By Majestic Lewis-Bryant

Majestic Lewis-Bryant