The word “biscuit” means different things in different countries. The root of the word means “twice baked,” suggesting a crunchy and dry snack, according to food science writer Harold McGee. In the US, the term has evolved to refer to a tender pastry. American biscuits typically get their flakiness from a solid fat, such as vegetable shortening. While vegetable shortening has a mild taste and a long shelf life, concerns about its trans fat content and health effects might make you seek a substitute.
You can trade an equal amount of stick butter for the amount of vegetable shortening called for in a biscuit recipe. The results won’t be exactly the same. For one thing, butter is usually only 80 percent fat, while vegetable shortening is 100 percent fat, so the texture of the biscuits will be dryer. Shortening does help biscuits brown more, too. Butter will also add a buttery flavor to the finished biscuits. You need to keep the butter cooler when adding it than you would shortening, as it melts more quickly, which will change the texture of the finished biscuits.
If you are not a vegetarian and do not avoid pork products, you can trade the vegetable shortening called for with an equal amount of lard. Like shortening, lard has a mild flavor, so it won’t change the taste of your biscuits. Using lard instead of butter results in a softer biscuit, according to Sam Sifton of “The New York Times.” Lard has a different fat makeup than shortening or butter. It is actually lower in saturated fat than butter.
Stick margarine, like butter, is at least 80 percent fat. It does not have the same flavor as butter, though, and has a lower melting point than vegetable shortening, so some cooks prefer not to use it. But, if you are avoiding dairy or animal products and are concerned about trans fat in vegetable shortening, margarine can be a suitable substitute. Choose the margarine you use carefully, as some brands do contain trans fat. Others might contain animal-derived ingredients, such as casein or whey, which you need to look out for if you are vegan. Avoid using spreadable margarines, as they are combined with air to give them a softer texture and do not work well in baking.
There is a big difference between solid fats and liquid fats. Using a liquid fat, such as olive oil or canola oil, as a substitute for shortening can be tricky. Since oil is liquid at room temperature, if you use an equal amount as a substitute, you will end up with a greasy biscuit. Oil won’t give the biscuits structure the way a solid fat will, either. Some types of oil, such as extra virgin olive oil or sesame oil, will give the biscuits a distinct taste and aren’t ideal.
References and ResourcesOn Food and Cooking; Harold McGee
American Heart Association: Baking Without Trans Fat
King Arthur Flour: Fats
NY Times: You Are Making Your Biscuits Wrong