When it’s time to make chocolate chip cookies, what ingredients do you reach for? Chocolate chips, sugar, eggs, flour, and of course, butter, an ingredient that most bakers consider essential for cookies. But butter isn’t the only option when it comes to choosing which fat to use in your chocolate chip cookies. Take a few of our most loved cookie recipes: They use shortening, olive oil, or a even combination of fats.
There’s even variability among butter-based recipes: room temperature, melted, and browned butter are all called for on occasion. Which led me to wonder: How would all these different fats affect my go-to chocolate chip cookie recipe? Are these ingredients interchangeable in a recipe, or will the results be drastically different? What are the pros and cons of each fat choice?
I did some testing to find out.
Setting the stage
To ensure that all of the fats had a fair chance at showing what they could bring to chocolate chip cookies, I started with our Basic Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe and made just one change in each batch: the fat, substituted by volume.
The lineup of contenders:
Room temperature butter, as called for in the original recipe
In all the tests, I let the scooped cookies chill for 30 minutes before baking to ensure the softer doughs had a chance to firm up and hold their shape when baked. I also skipped the optional 2 tablespoons of milk called for in the recipe (for cakier cookies) in every test batch. And lastly, all the cookies were baked at 375°F for about 12 minutes in the same oven on the same pan to keep variables limited. This is cookie science, after all!
Chocolate chip cookie testing
After making five test batches of chocolate chip cookie dough and comparing both the unbaked and baked results, here’s what I found, in order of most pleasing cookies to least:
Cookie fat #1: Room temperature butter
The most common fat called for in chocolate chip cookie recipes is room temperature butter, and for a good reason! It yielded the best results in terms of appearance, texture, and flavor.
Why does butter make the best cookies? It contains about 18% water, which results in the perfect amount of spread: cookies that aren’t too tall or too flat. Butter also contains naturally occurring milk sugars in the form of lactose. These sugars caramelize during baking, which lends excellent flavor and helps with browning.
Appearance and texture: Golden brown, slightly crispy edges with lighter-colored, softer centers. The cookies were a bit crumbly with a small degree of chewiness.
Flavor: Buttery (not surprising!) with flavor notes of toasted milk solids; not too sweet.
Pros: Room temperature butter delivers the buttery, nostalgic taste of classic chocolate chip cookies, and it creates a range of textures that can please both crispy and soft cookie-lovers.
Cons: It takes time to bring butter to room temperature, so you need to plan ahead.
Cookie fat #2: Browned butter
Browning butter is an example of using the Maillard reaction to impart even more flavor. When butter is cooked over low heat, the roughly 18% water content disappears through evaporation. At that point, the milk solids begin to toast (or “brown”) taking on a deeper, more complex flavor.
For this test, I used a combination of half browned butter (made using our standard brown butter technique), then I added an equal amount of cold, un-browned butter to help cool the mixture to room temperature. (It has a semi-set consistency after the cold butter is combined with the hot browned butter.) I expected these cookies to look the most similar to the room temperature butter-based batch but with more complex flavor thanks to the addition of brown butter.
Appearance and texture: Evenly golden brown from edge to center; these cookies spread the least. The texture was pleasantly soft with only the very edges having a bit of crunch to them.
Flavor: Rich and nutty; the other flavors present in the cookie (sweetness, saltiness, bitterness) tasted more enhanced than in other versions. This was the winner in the flavor category for me!
Pros: The toasty aroma and deep flavors that brown butter imparts are unrivaled by any other fat that was tested.
Cons: It takes time to brown the butter in advance and also to let it cool to room temperature before using. The cookies don’t spread very much or gain a lot of variability in texture from the edges to the center. (This could easily be remedied by adding about 2 tablespoons of water or milk to the dough at the end of mixing — my plan for future batches!)
Cookie fat #3: Shortening
Shortening has a similar consistency to room temperature butter, though it has a higher melting point. (Shortening melts at around 117°F to 119°F, as opposed to butter’s lower range of 90°F to 95°F.) Knowing this, I anticipated the cookies made with shortening to spread less than the butter cookies.
Appearance and texture: Slightly pale in color with a craggy/cracked, matte top. The cookies were soft and tender; almost a melt-in-your-mouth texture.
Flavor: The shortening added a neutral taste that was unexciting; the flavor wasn’t as rich or satisfying as the butter-based cookies.
Pros: Shortening is a pantry staple that’s easy to have on hand, and you don’t have to wait for it to come to room temperature. Depending on the brand, it tends to be less expensive than the other fats that were tested. Plus, it doesn’t contain any dairy ingredients, so it’s allergen-friendly.
Cons: You miss out on the rich, buttery flavor that’s present in butter-based cookies.
Cookie fat #4: Olive oil
Olive oil was the only fat I tested that was liquid at room temperature, which lead me to believe the cookies made with olive oil would spread the most and perhaps look and taste greasy. I chose virgin olive oil (rather than extra-virgin or plain vegetable oil) because of its mild yet slightly fruity flavor. (Extra-virgin olive oil is unrefined and can have a distinct olive-y flavor.)
Appearance and texture: Shiny, crackly top crust with the most amount of spread out of any of the tests. The cookies were a bit crunchy and homogenous in texture from edge to edge. Despite looking very appealing, this batch didn’t deliver the chewiness I look for in chocolate chip cookies.
Flavor: Tasted a bit sweeter and more floral than other tests with a subtle aftertaste of olive oil.
Pros: The cracked appearance that olive oil imparts is unique and attractive. There’s the opportunity to experiment with different types of olive oil (both virgin and extra-virgin, as well as infused olive oil) to create a customized flavor. It’s also dairy-free.
Cons: The soft dough doesn’t hold its shape until after it’s chilled, so waiting at least 30 minutes before scooping is a necessary step.
Cookie fat #5: Coconut oil
Unlike most oils, coconut oil is stable at room temperature. Its melting point is 78°F, so it doesn’t take much heat for it to soften and become more liquid in consistency. Depending on the kind of coconut oil used, it can have a strong coconut flavor and aroma (unrefined, “virgin” coconut oil) or be relatively neutral (refined coconut oil, which is more processed and removes most coconut flavor).
Appearance and texture: Lots of little cracks on the surface with a matte finish; low amount of spread. The cookies were cakey in the center with crunchier edges; slightly dry texture overall.
Flavor: The cookies had a slightly rancid, bitter flavor that came through at the end. I found this off-putting, but it could have just been the type of coconut oil I used for this test.
Pros: Coconut oil can be creamed like butter and shortening to create a light and fluffy base because it’s solid at room temperature. It can add subtle, pleasing coconut flavor as an additional tasting note to cookies, as long as you find coconut oil that tastes good to you.
Cons: Coconut oil varies in flavor and can taste soapy; it also becomes rancid more readily than other kinds of fat.
A final note
While this chocolate chip cookie testing revealed that fats can sometimes be successfully substituted for one another, you should expect differences in the final appearance, texture, and/or flavor of your cookies.
Bakers create recipes with specific ingredients in mind and account for their properties and characteristics during development. For best results, start by following the recipe as written and then explore using other fats in your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes to ultimately end up with the best combination of flavor and texture for your palate.
What do you look for in the best chocolate chip cookies? Crispy edges? Soft centers? Lots of chocolate? Let us know in the comments below.
For more side-by-side comparisons and test kitchen deep dives, check out our full series of Baking Trials posts.