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Baking with oil instead of butter is faster, just as delicious

by The Washington Post | July 6, 2021 at 9:47 p.m. | Updated July 6, 2021 at 9:51 p.m.
Hazelnut Chiffon Cake With Nutella Ganache. (Photo by Scott Suchman for The Washington Post.)

I am the queen of the baking shortcut, for despite my deep and powerful love of all things sweet, I'm impatient and awfully fond of instant gratification. I gravitate toward recipes with short ingredient lists and instructions that don't require any heavy equipment (stand mixer, I'm looking at you) and can be assembled using only one or two bowls.

So, although I enjoy the texture achieved by creaming together butter and sugar in a mixer for a fluffy yellow cake or a chewy sugar cookie, what I really dig is a baked good that calls for oil rather than butter.

Baking with oil not only requires less work, and results in fewer dirty dishes, than butter, but it also produces tender, moist baked goods that get better with age and boast an impressively long shelf-life. As such, I not only search out baking recipes calling for oil, but when developing such recipes myself, which I do for a living, I try to create those that are oil-based.

Below is a breakdown of some of the impressive attributes of an oil-based baked good, as well as tips for substituting oil for butter in your favorite baking recipes.

Why you should be

baking with oil

Baking with oil is faster and easier than baking with butter. Because oil does not need to be melted and then cooled, or creamed for 5 minutes until fluffy, and is instead added straight-up to the recipe's wet ingredients, assembly is faster and there is no need to dirty a saucepan or pull out your mixer.

Baking with oil produces moist and tender baked goods. Because oil is liquid at room temperature, it produces exceptionally moist baked goods. Butter, on the other hand, is solid at room temp, and therefore baked goods made with it are (arguably) a tad more dry. Baked goods calling for oil are also extra tender because there is less opportunity to develop the gluten in the flour by overmixing the batter. Overmixing a thicker batter, like one with creamed butter, is hard to avoid and can result in a tougher treat. Moreover, butter contains water, which also contributes to gluten development. Oil, on the other hand, has no water and is 100% fat.

Baked goods made with oil have a long shelf-life and actually age better. A baked good made with butter typically begins to dry out after a day or two on the counter, while the flavor and texture of those made with oil intensify over time. In short, nothing says "make-ahead dessert" like an oil-based baked good.

How to substitute oil for butter

Substitute oil in any of your baking recipes calling for melted butter. I always get a little giddy when I see a recipe calling for melted butter, like a cake or even some cookies, because I know I can substitute oil in its stead. Because they are both liquid fats, not only will subbing oil for the butter not negatively affect the baked good, but it will actually improve it (for all the reasons listed above). However, if a recipe calls for creaming butter, you may indeed run into trouble if you substitute, as the texture of the baked good is probably dependent on that creaming process.

Substitute 3/4 of the melted butter in a recipe with oil. Because butter is about 80% fat and 20% water, and oil is 100% fat, when substituting oil for melted butter in baking recipes it is a good idea to use a little less oil, about 3/4 to 7/8 the amount of butter. So, if a recipe calls for 8 tablespoons of butter, you would substitute with 6 or 7 tablespoons of oil. Some bakers recommend a one-to-one substitution, but in my experience, a touch less is just about perfect.

Substitute the melted butter in your recipe with nut, seed or olive oil for more flavor. Adding flavored oils to baked goods makes them extra flavorful in ways butter can only dream about. For example, try substituting walnut oil in a banana bread that calls for walnuts and a peppery olive oil in a muffin recipe calling for cheese and prosciutto. Using a complementary flavored oil subtly enhances the ingredients already present, elevating them.

Substituting oil for butter when you bake contributes so much at every stage of the game: from assembly to flavor and texture to shelf-life. And on top of that, many consider oil to be a healthier alternative to butter (although I'm team "everything in moderation") and is a great choice when baking for someone with a dietary restriction that includes butter.

So consider giving oil a try the next time you come across melted butter in a recipe. You may discover that butter might just need to watch its back.

Hazelnut Chiffon Cake

With Nutella Ganache

Active time: 30 minutes Total time: 3 hours, 15 minutes (includes cooling time)

12 to 16 servings (1 large cake baked in a 10- to 12-cup tube pan)

A chiffon cake is a splendidly tall, wildly easy, oil-based cake. It is rich in flavor from egg yolks, yet wonderfully light in texture because of copious amounts of stiffly peaked whites. The cake is whisked together in a single bowl (you're welcome) except for the whipped whites, which get added at the end.

Here, ground hazelnuts replace some of the flour and contribute wonderful texture (and color) to the cake's moist, airy crumb. And a ganache made of Nutella, or your favorite brand of hazelnut chocolate spread, not only adds some welcome sweetness, but also beautifully compliments the toothsome, flavor and texture of the ground hazelnuts in the cake.

NOTES: Chiffon cakes are traditionally baked in an ungreased tube pan with a removable bottom, in a low oven, for a long time. And it is when the cake emerges from the oven that the drama really begins. Rather than cool the cake right-side up on a rack, the cake is turned upside down to cool. Many tube pans come with tabs or feet that allow you to invert the pan for cooling. If yours does not, suspend the pan on the neck of a bottle, such as a wine bottle. This will help the cake retain its height. (If you don't have a suitable pan or a bottle that works with your pan, the cake should deflate only slightly.)

There is no need to peel the hazelnuts, as the skins add color and texture, too. If you do not have a food processor, consider buying hazelnut flour.

Make Ahead: Make the cake up to 36 hours before you want to serve it and store it at room temperature, unglazed and covered with a large bowl or tightly wrapped in plastic wrap. Like other oil-based baked goods, it is even better on the second day.

Storage Notes: Leftover cake can be lightly wrapped in plastic wrap or covered with a large bowl, and stored at room temperature for up to 3 days.


7 large eggs, cold or at room temperature, whites and yolks separated

1 2/3 cups (335 grams) granulated sugar, divided

3/4 cup (180 milliliters) cold tap water

1/2 cup (120 milliliters) vegetable or hazelnut oil

1 tablespoon baking powder

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

2 cups (225 grams) cake flour

1 cup (130 grams) whole hazelnuts, finely ground in a food processor, or 1 1/2 cups (130 grams) hazelnut flour or hazelnut meal (see NOTES)

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

Chopped hazelnuts, for decorating


1 cup (285 grams) Nutella or another chocolate-hazelnut spread

1/2 cup (120 milliliters) heavy cream

1 tablespoon vegetable or hazelnut oil

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Have ready an ungreased 10- to 12-cup tube pan with a removable bottom.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks, 1 cup (200 grams) of the sugar and the water for about 30 seconds, until the mixture lightens slightly in color. Whisk in the oil, baking powder, vanilla and salt.

Sift the cake flour into the bowl, add the ground hazelnuts and whisk until just combined.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites and cream of tartar on medium-low until the egg whites become frothy, about 2 minutes. Next, whip the mixture on medium-high until, when you lift the whisk out, a soft peak forms and flop over at the tip, about 3 minutes.

With the mixer on medium, slowly add the remaining 2/3 cup (135 grams) of granulated sugar to the egg whites. Increase the speed to medium-high and continue whisking until stiff peaks form, about 3 minutes. If they flop over, they need more time; if they hold a point, you're set.

Gently fold a third of the whipped whites into the batter until they disappear. Be sure to fold with the lightest touch, so as not to deflate the whipped egg whites. Add another third and fold them in, followed by the final one, folding until just combined.

Transfer the batter to the pan, smooth the top with a small offset spatula and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until the top springs back when pressed with a fingertip and a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out with a moist crumb.

Remove from the oven and, if possible, invert the cake onto a thin-necked bottle, such as a wine bottle. Cooling the cake upside down keeps it from slightly deflating (see NOTES). Let cool for about 1 1/2 hours, or until it comes to room temperature.

To remove the cake from the pan, gently run a long knife around the outside edge of the cake and around the inside tube. Remove the sides of the pan, run the knife between the bottom of the cake and the pan and carefully lift the cake off the pan. Place it on a cooling rack set over a baking sheet.

To make the ganache, place the Nutella in a small bowl. In a small saucepan over medium heat, warm the cream until tiny bubbles appear around the edges, about 3 to 5 minutes. Pour the cream over Nutella and let it sit for about 1 minute. Using a fork, begin stirring from the center of the bowl until the cream and Nutella are thoroughly combined. Add the oil and continue to stir until emulsified.

Generously drizzle the cooled cake with the ganache, letting it decoratively drip down the sides. You will have some ganache left over. Let the glazed cake set briefly, about 15 minutes, before serving. Slice and serve with more ganache.

Nutrition per serving (1 slice), based on 16 slices from a cake baked in a 12-cup tube pan Calories: 406; Total Fat: 23 g; Saturated Fat: 8 g; Cholesterol: 92 mg; Sodium: 151 mg; Carbohydrates: 45 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugar: 31 g; Protein: 6 g


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