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What is shortening?

Crisco shorteningShortening is a type of solid fat that is made from vegetable oils, such as soybean and cottonseed oil. Shortening seems to get its name from the fact that it shortens gluten strands in wheat by adding fat. Since it is 100%, as opposed to the 80% fat content of butter or lard, it results in a very tender baked good. It is frequently seen in baking recipes, although it is rarely used in other areas of cooking. Crisco, a popular brand of shortening, was first produced in 1911, and gained popularity because it was reliable, inexpensive (cheaper than butter or lard) and flavorless.

Shortening is made by a process called hydrogenation, which involves add extra hydrogen atoms to the aforementioned vegetable fats and turns them into solids, rather than liquids. This process of turning the previously unhydrogenated oil into a partially hydrogenated fat with trans fatty acids. These days, shortening is made trans-fat free by fully hydrogenating the oils. It tastes exactly the same and functions the same way as the partially hydrogenated shortenings did.

Shortening can be melted or softened and creamed into a mixture. Since it is all fat, it usually produces the most tender and crumbly results in a cake, cookie or pie crust, but it does not have the flavor of butter, nor can it impart the flakiness that butter can give to, for instance, a pie crust.

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  • allison
    July 9, 2009

    In South Africa you dont really get shortening so i suppose we will just stick to butter!

  • Golf Club
    July 10, 2009

    It is really unhealthy but that is what we use mostly here in Asia. Maybe, it’s really not that bad. We should just know our limitations when eating foods having this ingredient.

  • LinC
    July 10, 2009

    The shortening marked “trans-fat free” is actually a lot healthier for you than butter because it’s a plant-based food. The whole trans-fat thing was blown out of proportion. Even older shortening had very little of the stuff. Butter is tasty, but you have to use it in limited quantities so you don’t clog your arteries.

  • jaime
    July 10, 2009

    Thanks for posting this! I didn’t know they made trans-fat free shortening. I can’t eat butter because of the milk and always stayed away from shortening because of the whole hydrogenated controversy. I’ll still stick to healthier oil alternatives like applesauce/bananas for most baked goods but it’s so hard to make a decent frosting.

  • Morta Di Fame
    July 10, 2009

    Thanks for this! Is there a brand that makes shortening from non-GMO vegetables?
    For some reason I just don’t trust crisco. What do you think?

  • Kim
    July 10, 2009

    Crisco does make butter-flavored shortening if you are needing an option like that!

  • Linda
    July 10, 2009

    I noticed Crisco dropped the 0% Trans Fat off the package of the shortening sticks. Does that mean it is all non-trans fat or did they drop the option? I use butter. When a recipe calls for shortening, I use shortening but I prefer butter. I have started buying my shortening at Whole Foods and get a non-hydrogenated version. I can’t tell the difference in my baking and I feel better putting shortening in a recipe if it is as healthy a version as I can find. If I have one asking for margarine, I find a healthier version of that at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Maybe there isn’t that great of a difference from the one at the grocery but I feel it is less processed and a better product and choose that.

  • jenny
    July 10, 2009

    I just hate the stuff! I’m pretty sure that just because something is plant based it isnt healthier, and that trans fat free, fully hydrogenated veg oil still contains unhealthy saturated fat!

    I like to use butter, its still bad for you but it tastes totally lovely! A little of what you fancy does you good.

  • Stacy
    July 11, 2009

    It may be transfat free, but that doesn’t make it healthy. Butter is actually quite healthy, especially if it comes from grass fed cows. It has a good ratio of omega 3 fats, as well as butyric acid and CLA which have both been shown to help prevent cancer. It also has the fat soluble vitamins A and D as well as vitamin K2. All wonderful things to eat that are absent in shortening. But since butter is only 80% fat, you can get ghee instead which is clarified butter. That is pure fat. Lard and tallow also get a bad rap, but when obtained from grass fed animals, they have much of the same benefits of butter. Coconut oil is another excellent choice. Coconut oil has been shown to boost metabolism and contains anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties.

    Basically, it boils down to eating real food. Soybean oil and cottonseed oil are little more than industrial waste that are then highly processed in order to turn them into a food like substance. Sure, you can eat it, but should you? These foods have only been on the market about 100 years. I’d rather stick with some traditional foods that have nourished people for 10,000 years or more. The first heart attack happened about 10 years after shortening was introduced and about 50 years after margarine was introduced. Before that, people lived to ripe old ages without the threat of heart attacks.

    When a recipe calls for shortening, I substitute some cold coconut oil or ghee.

  • LinC
    July 13, 2009

    “The first heart attack happened about 10 years after shortening was introduced and about 50 years after margarine was introduced. Before that, people lived to ripe old ages without the threat of heart attacks.”
    You are living in a fantasy world. People used to work on farms and walk everywhere. That’s why there was less heart disease. Usually they died of other things (like cholera or the flu) before they could live long enough to die of heart disease. But they have found Chinese mummies thousands of years old with hardening of the arteries.

  • Lorie
    August 21, 2011

    Great to know what shortening is. I’m practicing my baking skills and I don’t really know what does shortening do. I guess I have to stick with butter as well since I cannot find shortening here in France, or maybe it’s under a different name. Thank you for the info

  • Mark
    December 2, 2011

    Crisco has hydrogenated oil in the ingredients.
    Recently I had heart by-pass surgery.
    If I want to live, hydrogenated oil can not be any part of my diet!
    My wife loves to cook too, but she can’t seem to do without Crisco.

  • Lindsey O.
    April 26, 2012

    In my opinion, the best fat sources are from all natural organic sources. When I bake, I use organic butter or organic apple sauces. If you are going to consume something shouldn’t you check the labels and understand where it came from before you eat it? I am a big advocate of only consuming naturally produced and organic/local foods. People were not intended to eat processed junk! To answer Morta Di Fame, yes you can buy non-gmo anything, and I agree with you I definitely do not trust any mainstream conglomerate companies in the realm of food production. You can find some non-gmo brands online, or if there is a whole foods near you, nothing in their entire store is from gmo sources.

  • James Collard
    August 28, 2016

    I´m 83 and have been cooking for myself twenty years – always in butter. I feel like a thiry year old and run half a block for the bus without panting, and ´jump´ on! I take a lot of supplements and eat a mainly vegetable diet, and I am now convinced that it isn´t what you eat that will kill you – it´s what you DON´T eat!

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  • […] my research, I referenced Joy of Baking, Live Strong, and Baking Bites. […]

  • […] you’ll need for Persimmon Cookies: – 1/2 cup of shortening – 3/4 cup of sugar – 1 egg – 1 cup of persimmon pulp (depending on size, 2 large or 4-5 small very […]

  • […] My Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies I found an amazing Web site devoted to baking chocolate chip cookies, not just any regular chocolate chip cookie recipe, but one that produces the BEST chocolate chip cookies. I have made them 3 different times, including an occasion where I have made a large cookie cake so I can attest to them being soft and oozing with chocolate in the middle, a little crispy around the edges, and scrumptious. Just be careful that you only eat 1 or 2 as your cheat because it calls for shortening which is 100% fat content compared to 80% in butter.  (source) […]

  • […] it shortens the gluten strands in wheat by adding fat. There is a good explanation of shortening at bakingbites.com. I used Trex which is available in the butter aisle in most […]

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