What Is Shortening?

Buying, Baking, and Recipes

A bowl and spoonful of shortening with a description

The Spruce / Lindsay Kreighbaum 

By definition, shortening is any type of fat that is solid at room temperature; lard, hydrogenated solidified oils, margarine, and even butter can be used as shortening. However, in the modern kitchen, the word "shortening" mainly refers to hydrogenated oils, such as vegetable shortening. Similar to lard, vegetable shortening is a semisolid fat with a high smoke point and low water content, making it a safe choice for frying. It is also used in baking to create tender results. Shortening is 100 percent fat, doesn't have any odor or flavor, and does not require refrigeration.

Fast Facts

  • Made Of: Soybean, palm, or cottonseed oil
  • Storage: In the pantry
  • Grocery Aisle: Cooking oil
  • Substitutes: Butter, lard, vegetable oil

What Is Shortening?

Vegetable shortening, or hydrogenated vegetable oil, was created in the early 1900s as a soap product before it was found to be useful in cooking. Prior to this, lard was the primary fat that went by the name shortening, which came about because of how it "shortens" or cuts through the dough. Popular brands, such as Crisco (short for "crystallized cottonseed oil"), soon became a staple in kitchens as an inexpensive alternative to lard and butter, and, for some Americans, Crisco is now synonymous with the "shortening" name. Though it varies by brand, most modern vegetable shortening is made with hydrogenated palm, soybean, and vegetable oils.

Varieties

There are four types of shortening: solid, liquid, all-purpose, and cake or icing shortening. Solid is sold in either a can or similar to butter as "baking sticks" and is best used in pie crusts, pastries, and bread recipes. Liquid shortening is ideal in recipes calling for melted shortening, like cakes, and is convenient when deep-frying; it is commonly made of soybean oil and is sold in boxes and plastic jugs. Mostly for professional use are all-purpose and cake or icing shortenings. The all-purpose does not contain any emulsifiers, while the cake shortening has emulsifiers added, which helps the cake retain more moisture. Organic shortening is also available, and some brands are offered in butter flavor.

Shortening Uses

Shortening has its place in both cooking and baking recipes. In order to understand how shortening is used in baking, it is necessary to understand how gluten works. Gluten creates a gummy or chewy end product, which is desired in elastic "long" doughs, such as pizza crust, but not in flaky or crumbly "short" doughs like pie crust. When shortening is cut into a dough, it creates a barrier between gluten molecules, preventing gluten formation.

Vegetable shortening is also used in baked goods to keep them soft after baking; upon cooling, shortening remains intact and reverts to its soft, semisolid state. 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 also a preferred fat for frying. It is safer because there's less chance of spattering or popping under high temperatures due to the high smoke point and no water content. This also allows food to be cooked quickly at high temperatures without burning the oil, which causes an unpleasant flavor.

It is also used in place of butter when making frosting. It creates a snowy white color, fluffy texture, and results in a frosting that is better at withstanding the heat. Sometimes recipes simply call for greasing the pan with shortening.

How to Cook and Bake With Shortening

In order to create a shortening effect in dough, 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. The fat is repeatedly cut into smaller pieces and coated in flour. The final size of the 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.

To fry with shortening, place the required amount in a heavy, high-sided frying pan and allow to melt and reach the desired temperature. Add the food to be fried, without crowding the pan, and cook until golden brown.

What Does It Taste Like?

Unlike butter or lard, vegetable shortening has a neutral flavor, unless butter-flavored shortening is being used. This makes it useful for applications where strong fat flavors are not desired.

Shortening Substitutes

There are quite a few substitutes for shortening. Lard, what was originally shortening before hydrogenated vegetable shortening was invented, is the best option for producing flaky results. It should be used in lesser amounts, however, removing 2 tablespoons from every cup for 1 cup of shortening.

Butter and margarine can be used in the same amount as shortening called for in a recipe. One thing to keep in mind is that butter contains water, producing a denser dough (as liquid activates gluten) and creating steam when baking, resulting in a flatter and crispier cookie.

Cooking oils are a natural substitution for shortening when frying. Vegetable and peanut oils are best and can be swapped equally with shortening. Another solid fat is coconut oil, but it does have a significant flavor.

Shortening Recipes

Shortening is often on the ingredient list in certain traditional Southern recipes, like fried chicken and flaky biscuits, and is the key to perfect pie crust and tender sugar cookies.

Where to Buy Shortening

Vegetable shortening will be found next to the cooking oils at the grocery store. For specific organic brands, a health food store or online is a better bet.

Storage

Shortening has a long shelf life; its low moisture level delays rancidity and increases the stability of the fat, allowing it to be used repeatedly with less degradation. Unopened, vegetable shortening can last for up to two years; once opened, it will stay at its peak for about a year. It should be stored in a cool, dark place and requires no refrigeration. Shortening has gone bad when it develops an off smell, taste, or appearance.

Nutrition and Benefits

Because it is 100 percent fat, vegetable shortening is high in calories and fat, containing around 113 calories and 12.7 grams fat 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.