What is Shortening?
For many, the word shortening refers specifically to hydrogenated vegetable fat, but technically, shortening can be used to identify any of the fats that are solid at room temperature and used in baking, including butter, lard, margarine, and vegetable fat. Lard was the most commonly used shortening until 1911 before the popular brand of all-vegetable shortening, Crisco, was created. After that, the brand became so popular that the words Crisco and shortening soon became synonymous. Today the word shortening describes any brand of hydrogenated, all-vegetable fat used in baking.
What is Vegetable Shortening?
Vegetable shortening is vegetable oil that has gone through the process of hydrogenation, which turns it into a solid. It's usually made from soybean, cottonseed, or palm oils. Shortening is white in color and has the consistency of soft butter. You can find it packaged in resealable canisters or baking sticks. Unlike butter, shortening won't impart any flavors to baked goods because it has a neutral taste.
One of the advantages of vegetable shortening is that it doesn't require refrigeration. Unopened, shortening may be stored in your pantry for up to two years without spoiling. Another benefit of vegetable shortening is that it can be used as an alternative to butter in vegan baking.
How Did Shortening Get its Name?
Shortening got its name because its purpose is to cause a shortening of the gluten fibers in dough. Wheat gluten forms elastic fibers and produces a dough that stretches, which is preferable for foods like pizza dough that need to be stretched and shaped. These types of doughs are called "long dough." When shortening is added to the mix, it breaks up the gluten fibers and creates a "short dough." Short dough produces a crumbly, flaky texture that is perfect for pie crusts. You'll often see pie crust called shortcrust for this reason.
When to Use Shortening
The most common use of shortening is to bake pie crusts. Because of its high melting point, shortening is easy to incorporate into the dough. It won't melt as you work the dough with your hands, as with butter. The high melting point also makes shortening a great choice for buttercreams that will hold their shape, even on a hot day. When used in place of butter, shortening produces cookies that are fluffy with a crumbly texture and cakes that are light and tender. The major disadvantage of shortening when compared to butter is the lack of flavor, but the benefits are stability, texture, and convenience.
How to Cut In Shortening
The method for adding shortening to your pastry dough is called cutting in. Instead of mixing, shortening is cut into the flour with the use of two knives or a pastry blender. To perform this method with two dinner knives, hold a knife in each hand and cross them over the shortening and flour. Pull the knives across each other to make slices in the mixture.
As you perform these cuts, the flour proteins become coated with shortening, and gluten formation is prevented. For most recipes, you will cut in the shortening until the mixture resembles particles the size of peas or small crumbs. This method is the best way to achieve a flaky pastry or pie crust.
Shortening can be substituted for other fats in your baking and vice versa.
Shortening vs Butter
Shortening and butter can be used interchangeably for most baking recipes with some slight adjustments. Because vegetable shortening is made of 100% fat, and butter contains water, it's not a one-to-one exchange. For every cup of shortening, you need to use 1 cup of butter plus 2 tablespoons. Pie crusts made with butter won't be as flaky as a crust made with shortening, but they will have rich, buttery flavor. For the best of both worlds, shortening and butter can be combined in your recipes.
Shortening vs Lard
Lard is made of 100% pork fat so it can be used as a one-to-one substitute for shortening when making pie crusts or other pastries. High-quality rendered lard from around the pig's kidneys has a neutral flavor just like shortening, but it also has the richness of butter. Use it to make tender, flaky crusts.
Shortening is especially useful in a commercial kitchen or bakery thanks to its long shelf life. Lard and butter may keep up to 6 months when refrigerated, but vegetable shortening can last up to two years before spoiling. It requires no refrigeration and can be purchased in bulk and placed in dry storage until needed.