Shortening vs. Oil

My oh my I’ve received a lot of questions about doughnuts the last couple of days! Reader Seth asks:

Joe, I notice you use liquid oil for your frying medium. I’ve heard that professional doughnuts makers use mostly solid shortening. Is that true? And if so, why?

An excellent question, and one I’ve been meaning to get to the last couple of days. The answer is yes, just about all commercially made doughnuts are fried in solid shortening. There are several reasons for this. First, as I mentioned earlier in the week, a solid fat is much more resistant to breakdown and rancidity than a liquid fat.

To explain why, I’ll need to get into a little bit of chemistry. The world of fat, as you’re probably aware, is divided into categories based on whether the fatty acid molecules they contain are saturated or unsaturated. What does that mean? Well, if you remember, I recently talked about how fat molecules are “E” shaped: a glycerol molecule with three fatty acid molecules attached. Those fatty acid molecules are nothing more than long strings of carbon atoms – atoms which can each be bonded to up to two hydrogen atoms (making a so-called “hydrocarbon chain”). If that sounds confusing, think of a line of pre-school teachers (carbon atoms) walking down the street, and each of them is holding either one or two toddlers (hydrogen atoms) by the hand. (Can you tell I have little kids at home?)

If every teacher has both hands occupied by a toddler, then that fatty acid is said to be saturated, full up with hydrogen atoms (as a side note I should say that should you ever see something like that in real life, hurry up and enroll your kid in that pre-school, because the teacher-to-student ratio is unbeatable). If one of the teachers in the line has a free hand, then the fatty acid is said to be mono-unsaturated. If more than one teacher has a free hand, or even two free hands, then that fatty acid chain is said to be poly-unsaturated.

The general rule of fats is that the ones that are high in unsaturated fatty acids tend to be liquid and the ones high in saturated fatty acids tend to be solid. But that’s not the only difference. Unsaturated fats, since they have molecular bonding sites available (remember those free hands) can bond to other types of “free radical” atoms (imagine unruly teenagers joining the parade). This process, known as oxidation usually occurs as the oil is heated and exposed to air. It causes the fatty acid chains to break into pieces, yielding all kinds of weird compounds including foul-smelling short-chain fatty acids, aldehydes and ketones. In the end, oxidation can cause the fat to go rancid.

So you can see why solid fats are valued so highly by people who fry a lot. They’re durable. They also have the advantage of being solid at room temperature, which means that once the food that’s been fried in them cools down, the residual oil won’t “weep” oil onto plates, napkins or cardboard boxes. Firm fat also tends to feel less greasy on the tongue.

But doesn’t most shortening have trans fats in it, Joe? That was the rule up until very recently. Just about two years ago now, inexpensive trans-free solid shortening became available to the food industry. Nowadays more than a few doughnut shops fry in trans-free fat, though by no means everybody. As someone who’s never believed the hype surrounding trans fats, that’s not important to me. If it is to you, you’ll be comforted to know that you can once again enjoy doughnuts without the specter of trans fats hovering over you.

15 thoughts on “Shortening vs. Oil”

  1. What about the inside of the doughnuts? Is there any different when frying with oil vs. frying with shortening? And if am using Crisco for frying, how much should I use?

    Also I’d like to know how many times shortening can be used for frying.

  2. Hi Joe!

    No, the type of fat doesn’t much influence the interior of the doughnut, unless it soaks in. In that case, doughnuts fried in liquid oil will to be wet and oily, and doughnuts fried in shortening will tend to be firm and fatty.

    I’m reminded here of of so-called “old fashioned” doughnuts which are fried at a very low temperature so as to encourage the melted shortening to seep in. Once cool, these doughnuts are very dense and delicious, until you consider that they’re about 30% fat.

    Shortening can be used at least ten time for frying at home. In commercial doughnut operations, the shortening is never changed. More solid shortening is simply added to the fryer as the doughnuts absorb it. It’s a simple system, if a little nasty-sounding.

    As for how much, you’ll want to use at least several pounds (pints). So the doughnuts float. That’s the only general rule!

    Good luck!

    – Joe

  3. Hi Joe,
    I just found your site here and have been looking for “healthier” oils yet solid. I have been using Canola oil at home for my apple fritters I plan to start selling via food truck vending. I noticed that the oil I used (from Costco) smelled a bit off when I opened the bottle. That is not the real problem though since I can change brands. However, it does get rancid in the pan quite early on. I read your article about the two types which was very helpful. Which confirms my idea that I may want to use a solid oil. So I am looking for as “healthy” (as far as grease goes) an alternative as I can without going into lard (lots of Kosher people here).
    BTW, though you answered well about the two types, you never answered as to why you use liquid over solid in your reply.

    1. Hi Boyd!

      I use liquid over solid at home because it’s just easier. If I were frying professionally I would use a solid fat for sure since it’s so much more durable. As far as “healthy” fry mediums go, I guess it all depends on your definition! 😉

      A lot of people define a healthy solid fry mediums one that is transfat free. These days it’s very easy to find trans-free fry mediums from places like Sysco and Bakemark, or any other major ingredient wholesaler. In fact it’s probably harder to find fry oil WITH transfats! I would call a rep or visit are warehouse in your area and see what they have on offer. You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised!

      Let me know if this answers your question. Cheers,

      – Joe

  4. i didnt have shortening to make corn bread and it came out hard. not fluffy.
    because i used olive oil?

    1. Hey Frank!

      It’s hard to know without the recipe. However if the instructions called for creaming the fat then yes that’s probably what happened. Solid fats hold air bubbles when they’re whipped up and that helps create a lighter texture.

      Better luck with the next batch!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  5. My cousin made and sold donuts and they were great. They were very dark brown on the outside but tasted sweet inside-yum. I can not figure out what oil she would have used. They almost looked like they were fried for along time. She could not keep up with all the orders,they were that great. I have her receipe but not the oil. Have any ideal what it could have been?

  6. Hi,
    I recently made yeast donuts that I expected to be light and fluffy. And they were, for the first few seconds while hot. Then they were more dry than I would have expected or liked. I thought maybe it was because of the margarine used in the recipe rather than oil? any other ideas why it wasn’t as light and fluffy for longer?

    3 tbsp milk
    3 tbsp boiling water
    1 tsp dry active yeast
    8 oz all purpose flour (a little under 2 cups – I recommend you measure and weigh. See my note above)
    1 1/2 oz sugar (about 3 tablespoons)
    1 egg
    1 oz butter, cold to room temperature (just don’t melt it, okay?)
    dash of salt
    Enough oil to cover the bottom few inches of a wok, or a deep fryer.
    Glaze:
    1/3 cup butter
    2 cups confectioners’ sugar
    1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
    4 tablespoons hot water or as needed
    A brief note: I recommend a scale, as not all flours (and cup measurements) are made equal. 2 cups of my Canadian flour in my Canadian cups on my scale might be more or less than yours. If you don’t have a scale, start at 1 1/2 cups and work your way

    1. Hey Goldie!

      Yes I see the problem: not enough fat in the dough. That would help stave off the crystallization (staling) for longer. Dry milk powder also works well in that regard. I’dd add couple of egg yolks in place of one tablespoon of milk, then swap out dry milk powder for about an ounce and a half of the flour and see what that does.

      Let me know!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  7. DEAR JOE I LOVE ALL THE HELP YOU GIVE EVERYONE
    MAYBE YOU KNOW WEATHER I SHOULD USE OIL OR SHORTENING FOR DEEP FRYING CHIPS AND CORN DOGS ALSO BATTERED FISH. WE ARE LOOKING AT OPENING A HAMBURGER SHOP HERE IN THE PHILIPPINES SO OUR OPTIONS ARE VERY LIMITED ,NO COSCO OR OTHER BRANDS AVAILABLE HERE AND IF YOU CAN GET IT THE PRICE IS NUTS
    PLEASE KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK MAY BE POPE FRANCIS WILL MAKE YOU A SAINT
    AT LEAST WE NEED MORE PEOPLE IN THE WORLD LIKE YOU
    PS YOU HAVE ME THINKING ABOUT THE MINI DONUTS AS A SIDELINE

    1. Let’s hope Francis gets drunk one day and does exactly that! Oh what my mother would say!

      Solid shortening will give you a crispier product, won’t weep nearly as much on a napkin, and will last a lot longer in the fryer. That’s what I would do if I were in your situation. If you can’t find that easily there’s nothing at all wrong with lard or beef fat. In fact from a flavor standpoint it’s even better.

      Does that help?

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  8. Hi Joe,

    Let me start out by saying that I love your blog! How do you compare coconut oil vs. vegetable shortening for deep frying doughnuts commercially? The doughnuts I am making are very healthy; i.e. no refined sugar, gluten-free, vegan. I feel like I’m doing a bit of a disservice by taking these ultra-clean doughnuts and then frying them in shortening. Any advice you have will be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks!

    1. Hey Gloria!

      Coconut oil…wow! That would have been considered a cardinal (cardio) sin just a few years ago. Very bold indeed!

      You should try it, though I think you’re going to find that the coconut oil will impart a fairly pronounced flavor. That’s why neutral-tasting oil/fat is generally preferred for frying. It should also be firm so the doughnuts don’t weep when they contact paper or cardboard. I once tried a liquid oil because I wanted “cleaner” doughnuts, and my customers complained that they appeared fatty and greasy.

      People!

      These days there’s not much to worry about with a firm shortening. They’re pretty much all trans-free if you worry about that kind of thing, and just because the oil has had some hydrogen bubbled through it doesn’t make it unhealthy.

      That’s my opinion at least!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  9. Hi Joe I found a really good recipe to make donuts but it says to use shortening but I dont have any.

    Should I use oil if so what kind??

    1. Hey Lisa!

      In place of shortening, just about any neutral-tasting, heat-tolerant oil will be fine. Canola is a vey good choice, so is standard vegetable oil. IT won’t last as long as shortening if you’re frying a lot, also you’ll have a little quid oil left on the outsides of the doughnuts, but if you’re not producing doughnuts commercially, none of that should be a problem! Have fun!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

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