What Is Shortening?
When we think shortening it’s Crisco that comes to mind, but it’s just one of several options. Do you know the rest?
By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen
Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.
Shortening is a very important ingredient in a baker’s pantry. It’s what makes many shortbread recipes short, pie dough recipes flaky and biscuits tender. The how and why are explained below, along with info on all the types of shortening, not just the white kind.
What Is Shortening?
The definition of shortening is any fat that is solid at room temperature. The list isn’t all that long, and you’re probably familiar with most of them. Lard, margarine and vegetable shortening such as Crisco are the most well known and most called for in recipes. Because butter is up to 20% water, it isn’t the best shortening out there, but in some recipes, it is used as shortening. Shortening’s job is to make doughs short. What exactly does that mean? Read on.
What Is Shortening In Baking?
Dough is referred to as short when the fat worked into the flour prevents long strands of gluten from forming as the dough is handled. Think about how crumbly and melty shortbread cookies are. They practically melt in your mouth, and if you break one with your fingers it will crumble. They're pretty much the opposite in texture from chewy bread, which does contain long strands of gluten, and is referred to as a long dough.
Shortening plays an important role in many pie crusts, making them extra flaky. Fat's purpose in pie dough is to separate flour and water into layers. The longer the solid fat is there, holding apart the matrix, the more air pockets - which we perceive as flakiness - form. Shortening stays solid longer than butter because it has a higher melting point.
Butter Versus Shortening
For pie crusts: Butter and shortening each have their own benefits.
It’s butter for the win if you’re looking for flavor. Butter yields a tender, flaky crust too. But it's not the best for making cut-outs and decorations because when the butter melts into the flour as it bakes, it softens and the crust “slumps’.
Shortening will give you a sturdier, flakier pie crust than butter, but vegetable shortening has no flavor. None. Zero. Zip. If you’re after flakiness and sturdiness in your crust (what you need for a custard pie such as pumpkin or pean), vegetable shortening is the better option.
For cookies and cakes: vegetable shortening and sugar can be creamed together, but the water in butter definitely helps that process along. And we keep coming back to flavor. For frosting, there are recipes that use only vegetable shortening, clear vanilla and confectioners’ sugar because they are looking for the absolute whitest frosting they can get. The visual appeal is understandable, but the flavor is, shall we say, lacking.
What Is a Vegetable Shortening Substitute?
There are vegetable and non-vegetable substitutes for vegetable shortening. All of them should be chilled before using to maintain their firmness.
On the vegetarian side, you can choose from coconut oil and dairy-free margarine for instances where you need a shortening that is solid at room temperature for pie crust, biscuits, cakes and cookies.
On the animal fat side of the list, your best options are butter and lard. Both will work when chilled, as that keeps the right consistency to cut into flour when making a pie crust.
Recipes with Shortening
Pre-baking the pie shell is one of the reasons this is The Best Pumpkin Pie (no soggy bottoms here), and heavy cream in the custard is another.
This may be the best pie dough recipe for any pie, not just a lattice. The butter-shortening combo gives you the best of both worlds.
This peanut butter topper for ice cream sets up and hardens just like the chocolate version. We think both at once would be excellent.
The crust for this pie is made with coconut oil, but vegetable shortening can stand in if you don’t have any.
This recipe uses the creaming method to blend the butter and sugars together before the flour is mixed in. Use a spatula or a spoon to mix the flour, not the mixer, so you don't develop gluten.