Most people have been led to believe that the word shortening, in terms of cooking, is synonymous with Crisco shortening or other manufactured products that contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. However, although these products are shortenings, they are not the only fats that can be called thus. Butter, margarine, lard, and even some liquid oils can also be considered shortening.
It is true that the term was adopted by Crisco and others to denote those products that were promoted to get away from lard use, but these should be called vegetable shortening rather than just shortening. Today, the term tends to be applied to manufactured (manipulated) fat products used primarily in baking to affect a wide range of attributes.
However, the word originally referred to fats used to “shorten” the protein platelets in baked goods so that the formation of gluten was impeded, thus making the product more tender. This happens because the solid fat melts into the product during baking, creating spaces which disrupt the gluten. If you want to illustrate this, think of a tender southern biscuit and compare it to a piece of French bread. One is soft and practically melts in your mouth while the other is crusty, firm and chewy. Both are, of course, equally enjoyable, in their place.
Technically, just about any fat can be used as a shortening. But fats that have a higher proportion of saturated fat, which tend solidify at room temperature, have more shortening power. Traditionally, lard and butter were the two main shortenings, both of which are high in saturated fat. However, lard is the purest and has large fatty acid crystal structure whereas butter contains water, milk solids. Margarine, as well, contains a good bit of water, and may also contain skim milk, whey, emulsifiers, coloring, etc., making butter and margarine somewhat comparable in shortening power. Hydrogenated shortenings like Crisco are comparable to lard. Lard or hydrogenated shortenings have the highest shortening power and produce tender, flaky biscuits or pie crusts. Butter and margarine will produce tougher and denser products since the water hydrates the starch. Still, butter tastes better and some cooks prefer to use it, even though the product is not as tender. Remember that when you use butter or margarine in a biscuit, pie crust, or other dough, you will probably need less water.
Vegetable Shortening and Margarine
Vegetable shortening was invented by 1910 by the Proctor and Gamble company. The company developed the product as an alternative to lard and tallow used for soaps or candles, which were getting to be too expensive. But in 1911 the company decided to expand the market for Crisco and introduced it to American cooks as a more healthy and digestible substitute for lard or butter. Although Proctor and Gamble is not a Jewish company (many people have thought so), they also recognized that the product would be valuable to Jewish cooks, since is was pareve, or neutral, making it suitable for combining with dairy or meat.
Crisco is definitely the most well-known brand of shortening in existence, after all, Crisco has become a generic designation for any vegetable shortening. It was so successful that it kept selling well even through the Great Depression, even though lard and butter were much less expensive (another story). But it was not without its early competitors, with names like Snowdrift, Flake White, and Nyafat. Perhaps more notable was Spry vegetable shortening by Lever Brothers, who were the second largest soap company behind Proctor and Gamble (you’ve heard of Lever soap products). By 1936, through clever marketing and the time-honored strategy of attacking the king of the hill, Spry managed to capture half of Crisco’s market share, with virtually the same product.
Margarine, made from partially hydrogenated oil, was originally formulated by a French pharmacist in 1869 as a replacement for butter, and was not the same as what we have now, being based on beef tallow. Margarine today, as mentioned above, does not contain one hundred partially hydrogenated oil and will probably contain additional liquid oil, such as soybean. Water is usually the first ingredient. Hydrogenated oils like Crisco shortening, on the other hand, are one hundred percent fat and are meant to lack any discernible flavor and make it a high plastic fat. For more about the history and myths of margarine, read Butter v. Margarine Myths: Margarine Was Invented to Feed Turkeys, Killed Them, and Other Legends.
A plastic fat is one that is one that is still soft and moldable when it is solid. How plastic a fat is depends on the ratio of solid to liquid triglycerides it contains at a certain temperature. Ideally, you want these fats to be plastic over a wide temperature range. This tends to require commercial modification, such as hydrogenation of vegetable oils (usually soybean) or the ineresterifying of lard. It is easy to see the difference by comparing hydrogenated shortening to clarified butter. If you put the clarified butter in the refrigerator, it will solidify into a hard and brittle rock while shortening will retain most of it’s moldability.
Butter has a narrow plastic range compared to lard or hydrogenated shortening which makes it tougher to work with for baking. When it is taken straight from the refrigerator, it is too hard to easily incorporate into doughs or to cream. If it gets too warm, it becomes liquid, and therefore equally unsuitable for doughs and creaming.
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