Why did we ever switch from lard to shortening?

Because greedy mega-corporations forced us into it! Or anyway that’s the pat answer you get in most of the pieces you read on the subject. It’s a simplistic idea that ignores the big food and technology trends that were underway at the time, as well as basic economic principles like supply and its effect on price and demand.

Flash back about 125 years in America and you’d find a nation of cooks who, just like today, wanted/needed fats for various purposes: baking, cooking, frying, spreading on toast, that sort of thing. In those days, different fats were favored in different regions of the country according to price and local availability. In the wealthier north and northeast where dairying was common people used a lot of butter. In southern states, which were far poorer, people used a lot of lard.

Liquid oils were largely unheard of then, because extracting oils from seeds was a laborious, and therefore very expensive, process. Solid fats were the order of the day. The problem was that they were often quite expensive. Butter prices fluctuated even more wildly then than they do now. As for lard it wasn’t uncommon, depending on market conditions, for the lard on a pig to be worth more than the meat.

Things began to change when technology made it possible to start extracting large amounts of edible oils from the germs of seeds (notably cotton seeds). However the end product was a liquid oil that most Americans were ambivalent about, in part because they had very little flavor, but mostly because they weren’t as versatile as solid fats.

That changed when Procter & Gamble went to market with Crisco — crystallized cottonseed oil — in 1911. P&G had been using cottonseed oil as an additive in candles and soaps for years, and hydrogenation was a hot new technology fresh off the Continent. Put the two together and you got a vegetable-based fat that was not only solid, it stayed fresh at room temperature for two years. More than that, it was significantly cheaper than either butter or lard. Quite the miracle product for the time.

Thus it wasn’t very long before shortening began to cut severely into lard sales. Soybeans were introduced to the U.S. in the 30’s, bringing another abundant source of vegetable oil into the market (and driving down shortening prices even further). And then of course, in the 50’s and early 60’s, medical studies linking animal fats with cholesterol and cholesterol with heart disease began to be published. It was the death knell for lard in most of the first world, and not coincidentally, the time when ad campaigns like this one were launched by desperate meat packers:

All was for naught, however, as lard faded to semi-obscurity. Shortening and margarine (the hydrogenated alternative to animal-based butter) were ascendant, and for a lot of very good reasons. Which pretty much brings us up to where we are now — with lard, perhaps, poised for a reversal of fortune. Of course it’s doubtful that it’ll ever return to its former prominence, liquid oils being so prevalent now. But who knows? We may be entering the new Great Age of the Pig.

22 thoughts on “Why did we ever switch from lard to shortening?”

  1. Now you’re giving me second thoughts about telling people how versatile pork fat is. I buy pork leaf lard from a local butcher for $1 per pound, then render it at home. That’s like 50 cents per delicious pie. Can’t we just keep lard a secret from everyone else? Please? If they don’t know the glories of flaky tender pie crusts and tortillas or extra crispy fried food, it won’t hurt them.

    1. I do the same thing and like you worry that soon everyone’s going to find out and pinch my supply!

      I won’t tell anyone else, I promise!

      – Joe

  2. This is a totally random aside, but that guy in the lard ad looks a LOT like Richard Armitage (aka Thorin Oakensheild in the Hobbit movies), when he is not bearded. . .

      1. i hope you don’t mind my nerdery to point out that Thorin’s a dwarf.

        though your point still stands in that case. . .

        1. Argh! I’ve been outed as a mere semi-nerd! How pathetic.

          Thank you, Katherine!

          – Joe

          1. Hehe…I also realized after I hit “submit” that I was by extension calling you a nerd. No offense meant! 😉

            – Joe

  3. can you use lard in a deep fat fryer? i’ve read such conflicting advice. i’m terrified of fat burns so it’s the only place we fry in. The oracle Delia has always advocated for equal parts butter and lard. It can be too much hassle to get hold of though to bother with.

    1. Oh my yes. Solid fats are ideal for deep frying, far better than oils. The exception is butter which contains about 15% water and so is prone to sputtering when it gets very hot, also the milks solids in it burn. Clarified butter (ghee) is good for frying since it’s been purged of both water and solids. Personally, I like plain lard. Don’t use it if your fryer manual says not to use it of course. I’ve had excellent results just melting it in a pan and frying with it.

      I certainly don’t blame you for being afraid of burns. I used to fry a lot of doughnuts and got a few hot fat burns and they’re no fun. Just use the right implements, don’t over-fill the vessel you’re frying in and always keep a fire extinguisher handy! For more on deep frying, go here: http://joepastry.com/category/techniques/frying/

      Cheers and have fun!

      – Joe

  4. no offence taken – i am an enormous nerd!

    i couldn’t add this to the thread so i thought i’d just allay any fears you may have had that you’d offended me 😉

  5. cottonseed oil is also processed to remove gossypol.

    Here at Texas A&M, research has gone on for years to reduce gossypol in cottonseed or come up with cheaper ways to remove it. IIRC, the economics are more about making cotton byproducts more usable for animal feed than for human consumption, where the existing processes seem to be cheap enough to keep crisco competitive.

    1. Great stuff, Jim! Thanks for weighing in on this. Clearly I need to read up on what’s going on in cottonseed science. I’m pretty much always interested in these sorts of topics. You know, just because…

      Also have been meaning to say I appreciate your Firesign Theater reference in your blog title. We comedy nerds have to stick together.

      – Joe Beets

  6. Joe:

    Growing up in the Midwest, my older aunts had all grown up on the family dairy farm in Southern Minnesota. Each had a food specialty: Aunt Loretto’s was pie. Usually apple pie, sometimes other fruit pies (peach or berry) but her crusts were always flaky, full of flavor — and her secret was lard! She taught me to make pie crust as a kid and to this day though occasionally I use butter for a tart shell, our standard apple pie is made with a lard crust (and no sugar in the crust). There’s something about the slight savoury flavor of a flaky, tender lard crust that sets off apples in a pie like no other fat does. It’s worth looking for good lard: I sometimes get it shipped from Prairie Pride Farm in Minnesota – a bit expensive to ship, but their lard is fantastic!

    Maura in LA

    1. Good to know, Maureen!

      And yes, I know a number of people here in Kentucky (and other places around the Midwest) whose mothers never dreamed of making pie crust with anything other than lard. Butter crust? Shortening crust? Well OK, if you say so…

      I’ll look into that source! Thanks,

      – Joe

  7. To me, lard is nostalgic. It was used in all chinese pastries in the old days, mooncake, the flaky skins of wife’s biscuit, chinese wedding (announcement) biscuits, spiral skin curry puffs and egg tarts.

    lard is all naturale .. down with shortening i say

  8. Neither cholesterol nor saturated fat cause heart disease. Credit Suisse sum up this 1950s myth in a recent report:

    “A proper review of the so called “fat paradoxes” (France, Israel and Japan) suggests that saturated fats are actually healthy and omega-6 fats, at current levels of consumption in the developed world, are not.

    The big concern regarding eating cholesterol-rich foods (e.g. eggs) is completely without foundation. There is basically no link between the cholesterol we eat and the level of cholesterol in our blood. This was already known thirty years ago and has been confirmed time and time again. Eating cholesterol rich foods has no negative effect on health in general or on risk of cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), in particular.”


    Furthermore, a recent study out of Brazil concluded:

    “Dietary recommendations to avoid full-fat dairy intake are not supported by our findings,” the researchers conclude.

    The study of more than 15,000 civil servants in Brazil examined the connection between the types of dairy products people consume and their likelihood to suffer from metabolic syndrome. The syndrome is characterized by high blood pressure, high blood sugar, belly fat, and risky levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood.

    What the researchers found is that consumption of full-fat dairy products such as whole milk, as well as butter and yogurt, was associated with lower likelihood of the risk factors that make up metabolic syndrome. Consumption of low-fat dairy products, by contrast, was not associated with this health advantage, the researchers noted. The study was supported by the Brazilian Ministry of Health and the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.”


    Finally, if you’re in any doubt, France and Inuit countries eat a diet very high in saturated fat yet have very low rates of heart disease. The latter people eat as much as 75% of their daily calories from fat. Moreover, between 60-80% of the human brain is made from saturated fat!

    1. Nice to have you on my side, Baird19! Thanks very much for the info!


      – Joe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *