Shortening is pure vegetable oil, hydrogenated to give it a firm texture. It’s different from margarine (another hydrogenated fat) in that it was not created to be a substitute for butter, but rather as a substitute for animal fat, specifically lard. How does it stack up? Rather well. Like lard it’s all fat with no water in it. That means it’s great for things like biscuits and pie doughs, which lose some of their crispiness and flake with butter because of the water butter contains.

Unlike lard, however, it’s completely neutral in flavor. It’s also quite a bit less expensive. It also melts at a much higher temperature, around 118 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a good thing for things like cookies and (American) biscuits, since you get a lot less spread. And did I mention it keeps indefinitely at room temperature? No wonder that the emergence of shortening in the very early 1900’s coincided with a steep drop-off in the popularity of lard.

Like margarine, the chief argument against it lately has been that it contains trans fats. In response to that criticism the food industry has developed a version without trans fats. This has been no easy feat, for as you may recall from the post on margarine, the process of hydrogenation only has two gears: full hydrogenation (which yields a fat that’s as rigid as ice) and partial hydrogenation (which creates at least some trans fats). The industry’s solution: to blend fully hydrogenated oil with liquid vegetable oil. It’s not a terribly easy thing to do, and produces a not terribly convincing fat, at least from a baking perspective. My own fiddlings with trans-free shortenings have been only mildly satisfactory. The biscuits don’t rise as high, aren’t as crispy and seem to me to have a different taste. Since I’m not worried about trans fats at all, I’ll skip it and go with the regular stuff, me.

In breads and other baked goods, shortening, like all fats, undermines gluten networks and hence the rise of the breads in question. Breads with a high proportion of fat are therefore shorter than their fat-free counterparts. Hence the word “shortening.”

23 thoughts on “Shortening”

  1. Ha! The last sentence sums up the beauty of! I did NOT know that!

    And on a side note, your blog is well-serve by your excellent photography, I am learning that “foodography” is not an easy task! Kudos!

    1. Hehe…short bread is pretty darn short, isn’t it? You see all sorts of elaborate explanations for that word “it shortens gluten strands” and things like that. But cookbooks were employing the word “shortening” long before anyone knew what a gluten strand was, and back then it was simply a generic term for fat worked into a bread.

      And thanks for the kudos on the photography. I sort of fell into it a few years ago when people got tired of my jabber-jabber all the time. I’d fiddled with cameras before, but knew I didn’t have the skill to do the fancy light board stuff that other food bloggers — especially pastry bloggers — do. A simple auto-focus camera and lots of natural light is the pretty much all there is to my technique. And of course a whole bunch of trial and error (emphasis on the latter).

      Thanks for your many kindnesses, Dave!

      – Joe

  2. Just read backwards all your recent posts on fats — very informative! Thanks 🙂

  3. Can we obtain shortening from margarine? Maybe heating it until all the water evaporate?

    1. Hello Wisnu!

      That a very interesting idea. I’ve never thought of “clarifying” margarine like one would butter…to make a sort of hydrogenated ghee. Fascinating. I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. Care to try it and report back? 😉

      – Joe

  4. Another question (not sure where to put that):

    I just bought a new (coated) pan, and the instructions that came with it say to use only margarine or butter when preparing egg, fish, potato or flour dishes and oil or hard fat only for meat (without breading).

    Naturally, I was thinking about your series on fats. Can you enlighten me why they advise to choose specific fats?
    It must have something to do with the temperature characteristics that change with the degree of hydrogenation…?


    1. Hi uptight!

      That’s very interesting. My guess is that the manufacturer is concerned that high heat cooking will degrade the teflon coating. So I don’t think it’s the fat that they’re concerned with per se. Shortening has a very high smoke point (195 C or above), and other cooking oils are even higher. Teflon coatings start to break down at those temperatures. But butter or margarine will start to smoke before the pan gets that hot, letting you know you’re exceeding manufacturer’s specifications. That, I believe, is the point of the instruction.

      Thanks for the question!

      – Joe

      1. Ah I see, they use the smoke point of the lighter fats to indicate that it’s about time to put the food into the pan and turn down the heat and use the hardened fat only for meat because it requires the heat. Clever!

        1. I think that’s the reason, yessir. It spares you from having to purchase a laser thermometer to constantly monitor your heat level! 😉

          – Joe

  5. A friend of mine just turned me on to your site as her ready reference for all things pastry. This is a great series of posts on fat; I’m looking forward to reading back in the archives.

    1. Help yourself, Catherine! And let me know if I can shed any additional lit on anything. Pleased to have you stop by!

      – Joe

  6. This is a bit of a charged particle, shall we say, Mic. I’m going to leave it off…no offense!

    – Joe

  7. While you’re on the topic of various kinds of fat, here’s something I’ve been wondering for a while: is solid (at room temperature) or liquid fat better for deep frying? Most Southern recipe-writers I’ve seen use shortening for deep frying, and British chippies traditionally (although not so much any more) use tallow, both of which are solid. On the other hand, most Asian recipes I’ve seen use peanut oil. How much difference does it make?

    And on the topic of naturally-occurring trans fats, I remember a couple years back when one of the American cities (might have been NYC) passed a trans fat ban, it upset all the pastry chefs no end because it meant they couldn’t use real butter any more.

    1. Hi Jane!

      Great question. In general yes, solid fats are quite a bit better for frying. Since they’re so heavily saturated you can fry in them for much longer before they start to break down (for more on that see “Frying” under the Techniques menu). So they’re economical. Another upside is that residual fat left on the fried food firms again once it cools. That keeps the exterior of the food crispy for longer (nice if you need to hold your fried food for a while before you serve it). Cooled, solid fat on the outside of, say, a doughnut won’t weep nearly as much liquid fat onto a napkin or into a bag, so it presents better.

      A solid fat like tallow also brings more flavor to the party, and that’s also a very nice thing. Indeed Julia Cild claimed that McDonald’s ruined its world famous fries forever when it switched over to vegetable oil under pressure from the dietary scolds of the day. Now that saturated fats don’t seem nearly as bad for you as we were once told they were, that seems like a very bad decision.

      As yes, the nannies of New York City did indeed pass a trams fat ban a couple of years back, and it’s still in effect. I think the cows in upper New York State that give the milk that makes the butter that’s sold in New York City have yet to comply. The anarchists!

      – Joe

    1. Hehe…I thought the same thing when I put it up. It’s sort of a weird picture. 😉

      – Joe

  8. I just want to say that I’ve loved this series on fats! Your site, more than any other, has improved by baking savvy tenfold. Thanks so much!

    1. What a wonderful thing to say! You made my day, Erica. Thanks for the very generous note.

      – Joe

  9. Hi Joe,

    I am a French Pastry Chef, recently graduated so still very new to baking. Your blog is fantastic, its giving me insight into so many questions I have had since I passed out of pastry school. Love your blog so far, I know im gonna be coming back for more everyday .. thank you 🙂

    1. Hello Neha!

      Welcome and thank you very much for all the kind compliments! Please make yourself at home and don’t hesitate to write in with any questions you have…I shall do my best to answer them!


      – Joe

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