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Shortening 101: An ingredient that works wonders in baked goods

Posted: Oct 09, 2023 8 minute read SMART 3803 views

From giving pie doughs and shortbreads their signature crumble to leaving biscuits with a softer and lighter texture, shortening is the secret ingredient behind many recipes. This semi-solid fat possesses a remarkable ability to form a tender, flaky, and melt-in-your-mouth texture for a wide array of baked goods.

The idea of shortening dates back to at least the 18th century, before the invention of modern, shelf-stable vegetable shortening. However, as dietary preferences have evolved and consumer demands for convenient food products, including bakery products, have increased, this ingredient has undergone a transformation. Read on to delve into the world of shortening, exploring its origin, characteristics and uses, and the role it plays in modern pastry and bakery.

What is shortening?

Shortening technically refers to any type of fat, derived from animal fat or vegetable oil, that is solid at room temperature, including butter, margarine, lard, and hydrogenated vegetable oils. Today, most of what people refer to as “shortenings” are made from vegetable oils like palm oil, soybean, or cottonseed.

Because most vegetable oils are liquid at room temperature, they must go through a unique manufacturing process called hydrogenation to become solid at room temperature. This transformation gives it a butter-like texture with virtually no flavour or odour.

Did you know?

Lard was the dominant choice for shortening until 1911, when the well-known all-vegetable shortening brand, Crisco, made its debut.

After that, the brand became so popular that the words Crisco and shortening became synonymous.

Today, the term “shortening” broadly refers to any hydrogenated, all-vegetable fats used in baking.

Vegetable shortenings are a popular choice for recipes involving high fat-to-flour ratios, like pie crusts. It’s preferred for its ability to coat the flour and prevent water from setting off the formulation of gluten. In essence, vegetable shortening “shortens” gluten strands by preventing them from forming in the dough.

Another advantage of using vegetable shortenings in baking is that, as a solid fat, it doesn’t fully blend with the dry ingredients. This results in solid fat streaks distributed throughout the dough, which contributes to the desired light and flaky texture in the final product.

What is shortening used for?

Shortening is primarily used in baking, and to grasp its role, it’s essential to understand how gluten works. Gluten forms elastic fibres which gives food a sticky or chewy texture – a quality sought after in stretchy “long” doughs like pizza crust. However, when shortening is incorporated into the dough through cutting or mixing, it forms a barrier between gluten molecules, preventing gluten formation. This, in turn, leads to the creation of “short” doughs that are flaky and crumbly – characteristics desired in pie crusts, cookies, and biscuits.

In baking, vegetable shortening serves another function, which is to maintain the softness of baked goods once they cool down. After baking, the shortening retains its original soft, semi-solid form when it cools. Consequently, cookies and other baked items prepared with vegetable shortening typically have a soft texture, whereas those made with butter often end up with a crispier consistency.

Beside baking, vegetable shortening is also a great choice for frying, primarily because it is safer in high-temperature cooking. Its high smoke point and absence of water content reduce the likelihood of splattering or popping, making for a safer frying experience. This characteristic also enables food to be cooked rapidly at higher temperatures without causing the oil to burn and create an unpleasant taste.

How is vegetable shortening different from other fats?

Vegetable shortening, butter, lard, and margarine might appear interchangeable to many, especially since they are solid at room temperature. However, they each possess unique characteristics, composition, and culinary applications. Explore the following table to discover the differences among them and to identify the best one for your baking needs.

Vegetable Shortening Butter Lard Margarine
Sources Vegetable oils, such as palm oil, soybean oil, or cottonseed oil Dairy-derived fat from churning cream or milk Pork fatty tissue Vegetable oils, such as palm oil, canola oil, soybean oil
Composition 100% hydrogenated vegetable oil and contains no water 80% butterfat, 18% water, and 1-2% milk protein 82-88% fat and 12-18% water 80-90% fat and 10-20% water
Impact on Texture Crispy, flaky, crumbly Tender, flat, and thin Extra flaky Soft and dense
Colour Opaque, waxy white Pale yellow Creamy white colour Brighter yellow
Flavour Flavourless Creamy and rich Ranges from mildly porky to neutral and flavourless, depending on the variety and brand Flavourless
Suitable Uses Pie crusts, shortbreads, cookies, biscuits Soft cookies, buttercream frosting Pies, cookies, biscuits, tamales Cakes, muffins
Vegetable Shortening Butter Lard Margarine
Sources Vegetable oils, such as palm oil, soybean oil, or cottonseed oil Dairy-derived fat from churning cream or milk Pork fatty tissue Vegetable oils, such as palm oil, canola oil, soybean oil
Composition 100% hydrogenated vegetable oil and contains no water 80% butterfat, 18% water, and 1-2% milk protein 82-88% fat and 12-18% water 80-90% fat and 10-20% water
Impact on Texture Crispy, flaky, crumbly Tender, flat, and thin Extra flaky Soft and dense
Colour Opaque, waxy white Pale yellow Creamy white colour Brighter yellow
Flavour Flavourless Creamy and rich Ranges from mildly porky to neutral and flavourless, depending on the variety and brand Flavourless
Suitable Uses Pie crusts, shortbreads, cookies, biscuits Soft cookies, buttercream frosting Pies, cookies, biscuits, tamales Cakes, muffins

Comparison between vegetable shortening, butter, lard, and margarine1

Is shortening healthy?

The healthiness of shortenings depends on various factors, such as the type of shortening used and how it is incorporated into an individual’s diet. However, it’s worth examining its nutritional profile in comparison to other fats.

Most vegetable shortenings go through a process called hydrogenation which transforms a liquid oil into a solid at room temperature. This involves chemically adding hydrogen to unsaturated fats and making them saturated. However, during partial hydrogenation, some bonds create trans fats rather than saturated fats.

The detrimental effects of trans fats, including heart issues, stroke, and nervous system problems, led to the FDA ban in 2020. Today, most vegetable shortenings opt for full hydrogenation instead, ensuring that no trans fats are produced in the final product.

In contrast to butter, vegetable shortenings contain a lower amount of saturated fat. A single tablespoon of shortening contains 3.3 grams, whereas butter contains 7.2 grams of saturated fat. While saturated fats can elevate cholesterol levels, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease, it can be part of a healthy diet when eaten in moderation.

Did you know?

Partial hydrogenation, a process to transform vegetable oils like soybean oil or sunflower oil from liquid to semi-solid form, can create unhealthy trans-fat linked to numerous health problems.

Palm oil, on the other hand, is a healthier alternative because it is semi-solid in its naturally-occurring form at room temperature, eliminating the need for hydrogenation.

Moderation is the key to healthy eating. This means controlling how much you eat and only occasionally enjoying certain foods. There are different ways to figure out the right moderation in eating for you and your family, so try different approaches to decide when to use shortening in your recipes and when to use less.

Exploring types of shortening for baking purposes

According to The Spruce Eats, there are four common types of vegetable shortenings: solid, liquid, all-purpose, and cake or icing shortening. Each variety has specific culinary applications and are tailored for particular types of recipes.

1. Solid shortening

Solid shortening is available in containers, such as cans, jars, or in stick form, similar to butter. This particular shortening variety is ideal for pie crusts because it maintains its structural integrity during baking. In contrast, butter tends to soften and can lead to the collapse of the crust.

Solid shortening is derived from vegetable oils, such as soybean oil, cottonseed oil, or palm oil. Its neutral flavour doesn’t impart strong taste to the recipes it is used in, making it versatile for a wide range of baking purposes.

2. Liquid shortening

Liquid shortening is a type of cooking fat that combines the characteristics of traditional solid shortening and liquid oils. It is typically made from vegetable oils that have been processed to remain liquid at room temperature, while also having the qualities of traditional solid shortening when used in cooking and baking.

It is a good choice for frying, but it can also be used in baking, especially in recipes that call for solid shortenings to be melted, such as rolls, breads, and other baked goods and in chiffon and other cakes in which their liquid consistency is useful. Liquid shortening is typically packaged in bottles since it remains in a liquid state even at lower temperatures. Common sources for liquid shortening include corn, soybean, coconut, and peanuts.

3. All-purpose shortening

All-purpose shortening finds application across both baking and frying. Many do not contain emulsifiers, granting it exceptional versatility. This sets it apart from cake shortening, which includes emulsifiers to retain more moisture.

4. Cake or icing shortening

Cake or icing shortening contributes to the light and airy texture of bakery items and their toppings by shoring up the structural integrity of baked goods that contain higher levels of liquid and/or sugar. Utilising shortening as the fat component ensures the longevity of your frosting, unlike butter-based frosting, which can gradually liquefy even at room temperature.

Need shortening for your production line?

Our Filma and Palmvita branded shortening products offer solutions for your commercial baking and frying needs – from bread, pastry, cream, and processed cheese, to milk fat replacer.

With a bake-stable flavour, our shortenings are trans-fat-free, non-hydrogenated, and contain less saturated fat.

In addition, cake and icing shortening’s neutral flavour and white colour make it an ideal addition to recipes, seamlessly blending in without altering the taste or appearance.

The advantages and drawbacks of using palm-based shortening

Consumers’ love for easy-to-use food products is boosting the demand for bakery items. This has led to the growth of the shortening market, with palm-based shortening becoming a top choice over conventional fats like butter and lard due to its numerous advantages.

Explore this information to learn more about the pros and cons to using palm shortening before considering adding them to your production line.

pros and cons palm shortening

 

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Our high-quality shortenings are trans-fat-free, non-hydrogenated solutions to all your baking and frying needs, serving major food producers as well as small bakeries. Check out our Products & Services page to learn more.

Looking to customise a product for your food manufacturing line? Learn about our R&D capabilities here.

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1 Information retrieved from:
https://www.allrecipes.com/article/butter-instead-of-shortening/
https://www.webstaurantstore.com/blog/3068/what-is-lard.html#:~:text=The%20difference%20between%20lard%20and,lard%20with%20very%20similar%20results.
https://www.masterclass.com/articles/lard-vs-shortening

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