Shortening is any type of fat that is solid at room temperature. It's used to prevent the formation of a gluten matrix in baked goods, allowing for the creation of non-elastic pastries like cakes. Lard, hydrogenated solidified oils, and even butter can be used as shortening. However, in the modern kitchen, the word "shortening" refers to hydrogenated oils, such as vegetable shortening.
What Is Vegetable Shortening?
Vegetable shortening, or hydrogenated vegetable oil, was originally created in the early 1900s. It was intended as a soap product before it was found to have use in the kitchen. Prior to that, lard was the primary fat that went by the name shortening. Popular brands, such as Crisco (short for "crystallized cottonseed oil") soon became a staple in kitchens as an inexpensive alternative to lard and butter. It also didn't take long for Crisco and other hydrogenated vegetable oils to take over the "shortening" name. For some Americans, the word Crisco is even used generically to refer to any vegetable shortening.
Though it varies by brand, most modern vegetable shortening is made with hydrogenated palm and soybean oils. Vegetable shortening is 100 percent fat and doesn't contain the water found in margarine or butter, so it's safer for frying because there's less chance of spattering or popping under high temperatures. The low moisture level also delays rancidity and increases the stability of the fat, allowing it to be used repeatedly with less degradation and leads to its long shelf life. It is extremely shelf-stable and requires no refrigeration.
What Does Shortening Taste Like?
Unlike butter or lard, vegetable shortening has a neutral flavor. This makes it useful for applications where strong fat flavors are not desired. However, some vegetable shortenings have artificial butter flavor added and are used as an inexpensive replacement for butter. If you want to avoid the buttery taste, read shortening packages carefully.
The Process of Shortening
Like its noun form, the verb "shortening" refers to the process of a fat interfering with gluten formation in a dough. This process is important for many baked goods that are intended to be flaky or crumbly, such as pie crusts. Gluten creates a gummy or chewy end product, which is desired in elastic "long" doughs, such as that used for pizza crust. For flaky or crumbly "short" dough, the fat is worked into dry flour and creates a barrier between gluten molecules, thus preventing them from cross-linking once a liquid is added.
To create a shortening effect, a solid fat is “cut” into flour or a dry flour mixture. This can be accomplished with a pastry cutter, two knives, a food processor, or even your hands.
Next, the fat is repeatedly cut into smaller pieces and coated in flour. Keep in mind that the final size of the fat pieces will determine the final texture of the baked good. For instance, pea-sized fat pieces tend to create a flaky product, such as a pie crust or croissant. A texture that resembles coarse sand or cornmeal will create crumbly mixtures like streusel.
Softer Baked Goods
Vegetable shortening is also used in baked goods to keep them soft after baking. Unlike butter, which separates into oil and milk solids when melted, shortening remains intact and reverts back to its soft, semi-solid state upon cooling. For this reason, cookies and other baked goods made with shortening tend to be soft, while those made with butter have a crispier texture.
Vegetable shortening is high in calories, containing around 113 calories per tablespoon. There are no carbs, protein, vitamins (with the exception of vitamin K, though it's minimal), or minerals in vegetable shortening. Past iterations of shortening earned a reputation for being high in trans-fatty acids. Realizing this didn't appeal to many consumers, most shortening manufacturers reformulated their products to reduce trans fats or eliminate them entirely.