What is shortening?


iStock_000008203624SmallRecall the earlier days when the recipe books used to mention “shortening”. That thing has been replaced by margarine or butter in modern recipes. You might be wondering why this thing is strangely called shortening and it was used in food! Vegetable oils such as soybean oil are used to create a solid fat that remains in solid state at room temperature. This solid fat is called shortening.

Flours contain a component called gluten, which gives the sticky and chewy texture to the dough when water is added. The strange name was derived for shortening because it shortens the strands of gluten when combined with any flour. Shortening contains 100% fat. But lard or butter contains 80% fat. The remaining portion is water. That is why; this additional liquid interferes with the consistency of cookies. Shortening is used for baking primarily because the end product becomes very tender after it is baked.

When we incorporate shortening with dough, it helps in attaining the right texture of baked goods. It basically acts as a barrier between the gluten strands. Imagine that you eat a pastry and it is so gummy that you have to literally pull out a piece and eat it. Of course you will not like that. The pure fat in shortening does not let the gluten strands to stick with each other after the liquid is added. The baked products made of shortening are softer than those made of butter. Butter gives a flaky or crispy texture to the cakes and muffins.


Can you use shortening for other cooking techniques?

We have already mentioned that shortening is pure fat. It means that you can use it for any purpose where you use fat. It can be used as a good substitute. Margarine or butter contains a major portion of water which splashes when they are put into a frying pan. Shortening hardly contains any water which makes it stay inside the pot. Moreover, you do not need to refrigerate shortening for storage. When refrigerators were not so common a few decades ago, it was preferred over butter. It is also cheaper for manufacturing.

Method to use shortening and make shortened dough

Shortened dough is mealy and crumbly. You must have seen the normal dough. It stretches and is elastic. Vegetable shortening can be included in the dough to produce both kinds of dough. Main difference comes from the technique. Before you put shortening in any recipe, you should soften or melt it. The 100% content of fat in shortening makes the cookies and pie crusts crumbly and tender. You need to cut shortening into the flour for the product to take proper effect. You can use tools like knife, pastry cutter or food processor. You have to cut the solid fat into small pieces repeatedly and coat with flour simultaneously.

To make tarts, you need short dough. You need to cut the shortening into the desired flour using a pastry blender. The texture of cookies or any other baked product is determined by the proportion of fat pieces. If the pieces are pea size, the end product will turn out with a flaky texture such as a pie crust. For longer dough, you need to cut very small pieces. After you have cut the fat pieces into the flour, if there is any liquid mentioned in the recipe, you can pour it. Neither of this dough is considered stirred or creamed batters. If the pieces are like coarse sand, the end product will have a crumbly texture like that of streusel. You need to choose whichever type of shortening you want for your baking.

Health effects of shortening

It is not surprising that shortening has its own disadvantages. You have to pay something to get the other. Since it is pure fat, it is actually a mound of calories. But, the good part is that shortening is short of cholesterol. The saturated fat is a component in all three products- shortening, butter and margarine. These fats are not good for health. The well known side effects of these fats are higher risk of heart ailments, poor digestion. Of course, you gain weight faster if you consume generous quantities of these fats.

However, shortening does not consist of trans-saturated fats. They are an absolute danger for human body. They transform into a kind of cholesterol (LDL), which is disastrous for your cardiovascular health.

Which fat source is best- margarine, shortening or butter?

Shortening has its own taste. So has butter and margarine. Thus, the best way to follow is to go as the recipe book says. The books contain the tried and tested recipes and of course the writer of the recipe knows best about it. Else, you can also try and experiment by substituting these fat products with each other and know what suits you.

Substitutes for shortening

Shortening is not very easily available everywhere. Plus, it is also a very heavy food. So, people sometimes like to avoid it. There are substitutes like lard, cooking oil, margarine and butter available in market, but not every product can be substituted for shortening.

Butter/ margarine

You can use any of them for substituting shortening. 2 cups margarine can be used when the recipe says 2 cups shortening. We recommend that you use less amount of salt when you use butter because of their salty taste. Also, butter needs lesser cooking time and high temperature of cooking. It is opposite with shortening.



Lard is used to prepare many kinds of shortening. 2 tablespoons of lard can be substituted for shortening. There is a difference in the taste of lard. Thus, you need to assess whether you like it or not.

Cooking oil

Only olive oil is the best when it comes to replacing shortening. It can be used in similar quantity like that of shortening. However, when the recipe tells to melt shortening, only then you can use oil.

Cooking spray

When you only need to grease the utensil with shortening, you can also use cooking spray.