What Is Shortening?
Shortening, by definition, is any fat that is solid at room temperature and used in baking. This actually includes a few things that you may have thought were definitely not shortening before–like lard, and margarine, and hydrogenated vegetable oils, for instance. Shortening helps give baked goods a delicate, crumbly texture. Shortening is a word that my deep South Carolinian grandmother used a lot while she was baking, and I am sure many grandmothers in the South did as well. In common terms, this word typically refers to Crisco® or another mass-produced brand you can find in your grocery stores, but that is not actually a correct usage of the term shortening. In fact, you have probably been misusing the term shortening for most of your life. I am fairly positive even my grandmother was misusing it after 30-40 years of using it in her over-the-top baked goods and pies. If you have also been misusing the term, or we just obliterated what you thought you knew about shortening in these first few sentences, then you are not alone. Luckily, we have figured out the true definition of the term shortening, and all the ins and outs of using it in your kitchen. Keep reading to learn more about what shortening really is, and how you can make the most out of it!
Is Crisco® the Same as Shortening?
In truth, referring to Crisco® as shortening is not 100% wrong. It just is not as inclusive as it should be. Referring only to Crisco® is shortening is the issue, because shortening actually encompasses a lot of other products too (and maybe some you thought were opposites of shortening). While butter technically fits the definition, being solid at room temperature and used in baking, most people still don't consider butter to be in the shortening family. In reality, shortening is more a type of ingredient than a specific ingredient.
How Did We Get So Mixed Up?
This is a fun one! The term shortening actually used to be reserved only for lard, because other fat products like Crisco and margarine simply did not exist yet. In 1869, a French chemist invented margarine, which came to be known under that label as well. In the early 20th century, scientists also invented hydrogenated vegetable oils, thinking it would be a good product for soap. It actually became more common as a lard substitute, going by the name “Crisco” as a shortened (literally) form of “crystallized cottonseed oil.” Crisco these days uses a mixture of hydrogenated soybean and palm oils, no longer cottonseed, but it remains the most popular brand in the United States. The reason hydrogenated vegetable oils caught on so quickly was that they are extremely cost-effective to produce and do not require refrigeration, like lard or margarine. With the rise of the food industry in the early 1900s, this was a popular low-cost option, so Crisco and other hydrogenated vegetable oils caught on quickly and with gusto, and soon enough, everyone mixed up shortening and Crisco, not even realizing that shortening existed well before Crisco did!
What Is Shortening Used For?
The long and the short of it (I could not resist) is that shortening serves a specific purpose in baking with doughs. A dough is considered “long” if it stretches and has elasticity (think pizza dough), but it is considered “short” dough if it is more crumbly, mealy, or even flaky. While you may not necessarily think of apple crumble dough being “short,” it does make sense in comparison to “long” dough that you can stretch, roll, and shape all over the place. Some recipes just work better with shorter dough that keeps its shape a little more and does not have any elasticity. This works well for cake, certain cookies, and desserts like crisps or crumbles.
So how does it work exactly? There is some interesting science behind the process of shortening, actually. We have written a lot about gluten, and we are sure you have heard a lot about gluten in the last few years, but to understand shortening, you have to really understand what gluten does for a dough as well. Gluten is found in the wheat (typically the flour) that you use in your dough, and it is a protein that grows and forms a matrix during the kneading, shaping, and baking processes. This gluten matrix then traps the gasses that are released during dough making, creating little gas pockets. The gas escapes during baking, but the gluten matric retains its shape, thus leaving you with a beautifully elastic, deliciously textured baked good. If you think about bread and how certain kinds seem to be full of more “holes” than others, this starts to make a little more sense. Gluten is wholly (or hole-ly) responsible for the texture of these baked goods, and making sure they retain their shape throughout baking.
Now, I thought we were talking about shortening, not gluten! You are correct: the purpose of shortening in a recipe is to impede the formation of these gluten matrices. Depending on the recipe, you will want certain levels of gluten formation in your dough. If you prefer really elastic, chewy dough, then you probably won't use a lot of shortening, if any. However, if you want a shorter dough that is crumbly, crisp, and keeps its shape, then your recipe will likely call for some shortening. The fat that is in shortening melts above room temperature and then seeps into the dough, creating a physical barrier between all the gluten molecules, causing them to not expand as much.
Shortening can also be used to keep your baked goods soft after baking. The fats in shortening remain intact after melting and reform into a semi-solid shape, which can help your baked goods to stay soft for longer. Butter is different, because it separates into oil and milk solids when it melts, which can make your recipe a little oilier and can harden after baking. No matter the reason for using shortening in your recipes, make sure you add it to your dough correctly, based on what the recipe calls for--there are a few different methods!
Cutting the Shortening
You may see a recipe that calls for you to “cut” the shortening into your batter. This is the best way to get the most effect out of the shortening and create the “shortest” dough. It is typically cut into a dry mixture, with your flour and any other dry ingredients you may be using. You will want to pay attention to your desired final size for the shortening, as that will determine your end result. For a flakier crust (like on a perfectly baked pie), use pea-sized pieces of shortening as your end goal, or if you want a crumblier texture (think streusel), then you will want your pieces of shortening cut to a coarse grain size. Basically, to cut the shortening into your mixture, you will just cut it into smaller and smaller pieces, coating each piece with the flour and other dry ingredients in between cuts. You can accomplish this with a couple of knives--literally cutting it in--or just use a food processor. Start by cutting your shortening into cubes that will fit properly and mixing the flour around them in the food processor. The blades of the processor accomplish the cutting much faster, but make sure you do not over-process your flour. Your recipe can guide you, but the size of the shortening pieces in the final mixture will have a dramatic effect on your overall texture, so pay attention to it! It should be noted that the friction of the food processor blades can melt the fat a bit. When using this method, it's best to start with cold shortening.
Shortening vs. Butter
The number one shortening debate is how it compares to butter, but there are a few important differences. Shortening contains 100% fat, meaning there is no water in it, unlike butter, which in the United States must contain at least 80% fat and can contain up to 16% water. In baking, no steam will be produced with shortening, but it will be with butter, which creates a slightly different effect. Cookies baked with shortening will likely be more tender and softer than those made with butter, but either will likely be delicious, especially right out of the oven! One significant difference between butter and shortening is that shortening tends to have no flavor. There are flavored ones on the market, but the basic hydrogenated vegetable oil shortenings do not contain much flavor. My Southern grandmother would probably agree that the flavor of butter is absolutely delicious in most baked goods, but if you are trying to cut out butter or simply prefer your goods without that flavor, then we definitely recommend shortening as an alternative fat!
Whether you are on team butter or team shortening--or some other team--we can probably all agree that baking fats are delicious and important! We always recommend paying attention to the recipe instructions as well as anticipating what you want your end result to be. For a flaky or crumbly dessert, shortening is probably your answer, and your family will thank you for those baked goods as soon as they get a taste!