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What Is Shortening?

Nutrition and Diet

What Is Shortening?

Shortening is often used in recipes. From cookie recipes to cake batter, you may be asked to add some shortening. This ingredient is particularly common in older recipes. If you are dusting off your 1950s era cookbooks, don’t be surprised to see this addition to the ingredient list. Since many people do not always have shortening in their homes today, there are also some alternatives that you can use instead.

What Is Shortening?

Shortening primarily consists of vegetable oil. It may be cottonseed oil, soybean oil or another type of vegetable oil. This oil is then transformed into a solid fat that is known as shortening. The reason why it is known as shortening is because of what it does to flour. When added into a flour mixture, it shortens the strands of gluten.

Basically, shortening changes how the gluten matrix forms and functions. This changes the texture of baked goods so that you get that delicious fluffy, light texture. If you do not use shortening, your baked goods can end up being chewy, gummy or flat. The fat within the shortening ensures that the gluten strands do not stick to each other. This means that your baked goods are softer and crispier than ones that are cooked with standard butter.

Shortening is typically made of 100 percent fat. In comparison, lard and butter are just 80 percent fat. While this makes your baked goods taste amazing, it is not particularly good for your waistline. If you are concerned about your health, it is important to use a shortening alternative—although keep in mind that this alternative is probably going to be less delicious than actual shortening products.

How Is Shortening Used?

Before shortening can actually be used in your recipes, it will generally need to be modified. Your recipe will probably tell you to soften it, cream it or melt it. Once added to a recipe, the high-fat shortening will help to ensure crumbly, tender crusts. Often, you will have to cut the shortening with flour. Once you do this, you can use your hands, a food processor or a pastry cutter to work the flour. As you cut the flour-shortening mixture more, the fat gels are turned into smaller pieces. Ultimately, the quality of your finished food will be determined by how large or small these pieces are. Larger pieces (the size of a pea), make a flaky texture like a croissant. Smaller pieces the size of large grains of sand make a crumbly texture like streusel.

The History of Shortening

For years, shortening and lard were basically the same thing. In 1869, a French chemist created margarine. Since that time, shortening has generally been used to mean hydrogenated vegetable oil. This type of shortening is similar to lard because it has a high smoke point, is semi-solid and has less water content that makes it ideal for frying.

In 1902, Wilhelm Normann created the hydrogenation of fats. Five years later, a German chemist called Edwin Cuno Kayser moved to Ohio. He learned about Normann’s process and decided to do something similar. He ultimately sold two processes for hydrogenating cottonseed oil to Procter & Gamble. While he expected the resulting Crisco product to be used for soap making, Procter & Gamble decided to use it for cooking purposes instead.

What Are the Substitutes for Shortening?

Since shortening is completely made of fat, it is generally not a diet-friendly option. Whether you don’t have shortening at home or just want a healthier product, you may want to switch to a different option. The following food items can be used in place of shortening in a pinch.

1. Lard

Lard is decidedly not a healthy substitute, so do not choose this option if you want something that is diet friendly. It will impart a similar flavor to your baked items however. Use two tablespoons of lard for every one cup of shortening that is used in a recipe.

2. Cooking Spray

Obviously, you cannot pour cooking spray into a recipe and hope that everything will turn out. Cooking spray will only work as a substitute if the recipe uses shortening as a pan grease. If you just need to grease the dish or the pan, you can use cooking spray. Other than this purpose, you will need to find a different alternative.

3. Margarine or Butter

Margarine and butter have many qualities that are quite similar to shortening. For the most part, you can directly substitute either butter or margarine for shortening. If your recipe wants a cup of shortening, you can just use a cup or margarine. Keep in mind to use less salt in the recipe if you happen to be using salted butter.

If you use this option, you will also need to change how long and hot you bake the item for. Since butter browns faster than shortening, you will need to use a higher temperature for a shorter amount of time.

4. Cooking Oil

If you need to fry something up, olive oil or a similar cooking oil can be used. Since it is not a solid, cooking oil should only be used when shortening is needed in a melted form.

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