Toolbox Talk: Shortening

 

The first time I heard about shortening was when an American colleague couldn’t find it for a recipe she planned to make for Thanksgiving dinner. When she served sweet potatoes covered with melted marshmallows, I wasn’t immediately inclined to adopt American cuisine and so forgot about shortening until somewhat recently.

I only came across it again when I got into cookie decorating and was comparing different recipes for sugar cookies. Admittedly, I skipped those that mentioned shortening, and I now use a recipe with only butter for the fat. But because shortening is used more liberally in America than in other countries, I was prompted to explore why that might be. What exactly is shortening, and does it have virtues I was unaware of? 

What is Shortening?

As it turns out, it's not that hard to find out more about shortening. Early on, around about the 18th century, "shortening" referred generally to lard or other fats used in baking, the addition of which "shortens" gluten strands and makes baked goods more crumbly and delicate. By the beginning of the 20th century, hydrogenation (adding hydrogen atoms to molecules) was developed to turn vegetable oils into solid fats, primarily to lengthen shelf life and to create less expensive non-animal-based fats. The term "shortening" then became more commonly associated with these artificially hydrogenated products.

Aside: The hydrogenation process increases the melting point of the fat, and depending on the amount of hydrogenation, can turn the oil into a semi-solid (margarine and butter spreads) or a solid (vegetable shortening). The process also leaves shortening white and virtually tasteless, unless additives are introduced to make it look and taste more like butter.

A solid fat, like shortening, is generally preferable to oil for baking, as it "creams" better with sugar, leading to a finer, more aerated texture in baked goods. Compared to animal fats, shortening is also typically cheaper and has a longer shelf life, as noted above, and can be stored at room temperature. Yet, despite these advantages, shortening has historically gotten a bad rap for health reasons. Artificial hydrogenation turns an unsaturated fat into a less heart-healthy saturated fat, and can also introduce trans fats. 

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This bad rap is becoming less grounded in truth. For instance, The J. M. Smucker Company, manufacturer of Crisco, introduced its first no trans-fat version in 2004. Its current formulation is marketed as having zero grams trans fat and 50 percent less saturated fat than butter. (Source: product label.) ADDENDUM: That said, despite the product labeling, it still does have a small amount of trans fat, as explained here.]

In short: "Shortening" typically refers to a solid white fat made from vegetable oils using the technique known as hydrogenation; margarine is semi-solid hydrogenated vegetable oil; and butter is solid animal-based fat. Coconut oil, which is often substituted for "shortening", is a plant-based fat that is solid in its natural state, and may or may not be artificially hydrogenated.

Shortening (and Other Solid Fats) Around the World

South Africa: The term "shortening" is not often used for products sold in retail outlets. Anything that is not butter is usually called margarine, be it a sandwich spread or a solid block of fat. Brand names for margarine include Marvello White, Wooden Spoon, Cordon Bleu, and Stork. Coconut oil is more readily available in stores. While I couldn't find any products called "shortening", it is apparently available through other channels, including brands such as Hilite (an animal-based shortening manufactured in Australia) and Holsum (solid palm oil).

Margarines Available in South Africa

Coconut Oil in South Africa

USA: "Shortening" is a commonly used term, and widely available in every grocery store. The most common brand I came across is Crisco (short for crystallized cottonseed oil). Earth Balance and Spectrum produce organic versions, usually available in high-end or specialty groceries. Shortening comes packaged in tubs, cans, and sticks. 

Crisco Blog

Australia, New Zealand, France, and Germany: In Australia, Copha, made from artificially hydrogenated coconut oil, is the most common brand of shortening. In New Zealand, it is marketed as Kremelta; in France as VÉgÉtaline; and in Germany as Palmin.

Copha in Australia

England and Ireland: Though generally referred to as "vegetable fat", "refined vegetable fat", or "cooking fat", the most common brands of vegetable shortening in these parts are Trex, Flora White, and Cookeen

Brazil: The most common brand is Mesa, which comes packaged in a plastic bag.

How Shortening Compares to Other Fats in Cookies

As I mentioned earlier, shortening has a higher melting point than other solid fats. Shortening typically melts between 111°F and 122°F (44°C - 50°C); margarine between 91°F and 109°F (33°C - 43°C); butter between 90°F and 95°F (32°C - 35°C); and natural non-hydrogenated coconut oil at about 76°F (24°C), though its melting point will be closer 97°F to 104°F (36°C - 40°C) if the oil is hydrogenated. A higher melting point means that flour and eggs can set more fully before the fat melts, thus reducing the likelihood of spreading.

Shortening makes shorter gluten strands in dough. This will also limit spreading and give a more crunchy texture to cookies, which got me wondering . . . Is shortening what makes other people’s cookies sometimes seem so white, or are their cookies just baked before the edges start colouring? Does the choice of shortening or butter influence the baking length?

Shortening and coconut oil are 100 percent fat, as opposed to butter (or margarine), which can contain 80 to 90 percent fat, with the rest being water. The water that gets introduced into dough by using butter (or margarine) can cause pockets of steam in cookies when baking and thus an uneven surface for decorating.

Colour- and flavor-wise, I don't think there's as much difference between shortening and butter any more, since anything and everything can get added to shortening to make it look/taste like butter.  

An Experiment

To compare shortening and butter, I took Julia’s gingerbread recipe and made it with the “shortening” (aka margarine*) I could find in South Africa. I then made a second batch with butter substituted (one for one) for the margarine, and a third batch with non-hydrogenated coconut oil substituted (again, one for one) for the margarine. I expected that these replacements would not give the same result without adjusting the rest of the recipe as well, but I gave it a try to see the effect. 

*Just a note: The margarines I could find have a fat content of 80 percent, similar to butter, and not 100 percent like "proper" shortening or coconut oil. The only differences between the Wooden Spoon and Cordon Bleu margarines (both from the same manufacturer) that I could find were the kind of oil used and the colourants.

Margarine in South Africa - Ingredient Lists

First, I tested the solidity of the three fats at room temperature (see photos, below). My finger just went down into the butter; I could make an imprint in the margarine, but the resistance made it well up along my finger; and I could not make an imprint in the coconut oil. When I pushed down harder, the piece broke!

Next, I evaluated the mixed dough. The butter dough stayed very soft even after having it in the fridge for a day. The other two were firmer when first mixed. When rolling out the cookies, the coconut oil dough was rather sticky.

Butter Tests

 DSCN5010    DSCN4968

Margarine Tests

 DSCN5014    DSCN4965

Coconut Oil Tests

 DSCN5016    DSCN4964

During baking, the coconut oil dough kept its shape best, but the other two did not spread very noticeably. I could not notice any difference in taste, and only the slightest difference in texture in that the coconut oil cookies were slightly crunchier.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: It's interesting to me that the dough with non-hydrogenated coconut oil, the fat with the lowest melting point, held its shape best. But that fat also has the lowest water content of the three, so perhaps this is an indicator that higher water content has a greater effect on spreading and misshaping than fat content? Hmmm . . .]

Taste-Tested Gingerbread

Summary: In this baking session, with this recipe, there was not much difference among the three fats used. But do keep in mind that I did not use "proper" shortening, which has the highest melting point of all. It would be great if some of you could make a batch with butter and a batch with shortening, and let us know how the two compare in your kitchen!

Sources: Wikipedia, Associated Press, the kitchn, cooksinfo.comCrisco website, other product labels and websites 

Liesbet Schietecatte, born in Belgium but permanently living in South Africa since 2005, accidentally found her way into cookie decorating in 2012. Grabbing moments in between her career as an archaeologist and being a mommy and a wife, Liesbet bakes Belgian biscuits like speculoos in the tradition of her grandmother’s family who were bakers for several generations, but she gets the most creative satisfaction from decorating with royal icing. She bakes and decorates for occasional orders and at times for a crafters' market, but mostly for the enjoyment and challenge of trying out new things. To honour her family's baking legacy, Liesbet uses the family name to give a home to her baking pictures on Facebook: Stock’s – Belgian Artisan Bakes.  

Photo credit: Liesbet Schietecatte

NoteToolbox Talk is a bimonthly Cookie Connection blog feature written by Liesbet Schietecatte that explores similarities and differences in cookie tools and ingredients from all over the world. Its content expresses the views of the author and not necessarily those of this site, its owners, its administrators, or its employees. Catch up on all of Liesbet's past Cookie Connection posts here.

 

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Liesbet, thank you I was able to get crisco shortening here in Denmark until just recently and will soon be running out. I can get Palmin but was a bit worried it wouldn't turn out the same - not had a moment to try it out yet - but am so glad you got such good results across the board, makes me a bit less nervous. Brilliant read, thanks very much for doing all that hard work!

Marie - LilleKageHus posted:

Liesbet, thank you I was able to get crisco shortening here in Denmark until just recently and will soon be running out. I can get Palmin but was a bit worried it wouldn't turn out the same - not had a moment to try it out yet - but am so glad you got such good results across the board, makes me a bit less nervous. Brilliant read, thanks very much for doing all that hard work!

haai Marie, it was a small test, I haven't tried substituting in other recipes yet. 

some use a combo of butter and lard        lard leaves a taste on the tongue    it doesn't melt (?) as butter does      i do't use lard to make decorator's icing  or any icing     as for lard in cookies   pie crusts  etc      thumbs up       smiling        its hard to find top quality butter in grocery stores  here     i forget their names   too hard trying to find...; always on my mind    i think here most don't want to know lard is in the ingredients     hahahaaaaaaaa

Marie - LilleKageHus posted:

Liesbet, thank you I was able to get crisco shortening here in Denmark until just recently and will soon be running out. I can get Palmin but was a bit worried it wouldn't turn out the same - not had a moment to try it out yet - but am so glad you got such good results across the board, makes me a bit less nervous. Brilliant read, thanks very much for doing all that hard work!

I have already tried with Palmin soft, it turned out pretty much OK, though I personally don't like the taste of shortening, and much less the price

Me, I am  a margarine type. It' Sanella and nothing else *lol*

What a piece of information, great! Thanks for all the work, Liesbet, I am terribly impressed!

I wasn't aware of the great differences in melting points, and I have given Palmin shortening a try in the past. I experienced exactly what you did - they were a bit crisper, but I couldn't make out a difference in spreading. Though there was a big difference in spreading compared to butter.

The reason I stick to margarine is mainly the price - it costs about half! Butter is totally out, as first it spreads considerably more, and second the cookies stay fresh for only a couple of weeks. With margarine or shortening they are good for months if I store them in an airtight bag or container.

I need to correct your comment in the Editor's Note, "Bad Rap"

This is untrue.  The labels do say 0% trans fat per serving.  That per serving is the tricky part.  The FDA at this time, allows a certain percentage of trans fat per serving which, if a company's product falls within that guideline,   they are allowed to claim 0% trans fat per serving.  

But in truth, most shortening serving sizes consist of 1 Tablespoon (12g).  As we know, we use way more than that in a recipe, hence if the ingredient label contains the word hydrogenated, there is trans fat in the product, just not at the per serving rate, which is why the FDA in the US, will be banning any hydrogenated fats by 2018.  Here is a link to read more: 

http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumer...pdates/ucm372915.htm

Lauren Cortesi posted:

I need to correct your comment in the Editor's Note, "Bad Rap"

This is untrue.  The labels do say 0% trans fat per serving.  That per serving is the tricky part.  The FDA at this time, allows a certain percentage of trans fat per serving which, if a company's product falls within that guideline,   they are allowed to claim 0% trans fat per serving.  

But in truth, most shortening serving sizes consist of 1 Tablespoon (12g).  As we know, we use way more than that in a recipe, hence if the ingredient label contains the word hydrogenated, there is trans fat in the product, just not at the per serving rate, which is why the FDA in the US, will be banning any hydrogenated fats by 2018.  Here is a link to read more: 

http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumer...pdates/ucm372915.htm

Yes, there is a small amount of trans fat in Crisco even though the label says zero. According to the Associated Press article cited at the end of the post: 

"Crisco still has a small amount of artificial trans fat but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows any product with less than 0.5 grams trans fat per serving to list zero grams trans fat in its nutrition facts.

Badertscher said the new Crisco formula is well below the FDA guidelines."

The only point I was trying to make is that this manufacturer has taken strides to reduce the trans and saturated fats in its product, in large part due to the crackdown that you cite above. (I'm not saying that trans fat is good!) Europe and other countries also lead the US on cracking down, which I imagine is why shortening is less available in those parts.

Hey, Liesbet, great post! I'll likely be doing a video comparing "true" shortening to butter and coconut oil in the coming months. (I started work on it long ago, and never finished it  . . .) I'm planning to start a new sub-series that tests the effects of ingredient substitutions in various recipes, and this will be part of that! Stay tuned!

This was a totally wonderful read. I use European butter which has a very high fat content and not a noticeable spread. But the taste of butter in a sugar cookie is the best. I can't imagine Crisco being able to compete. Thanks again!

As you mention, in Australia we have Copha. It is a solid vegetable shortening (looks and feels like candle wax!) which cannot be whipped or beaten, it can only be melted. So it's rarely a good substitute for the shortening used in most American recipes. However, in recent years cake decorating supply shops here have begun to stock Crisco.

Interesting post about shortenings.   A yesterday I learned that the margarine used for puffy pastry  that looks like several laminate sheets, can be used for cookies and they taste great.

 

Thank you.  I have always wondered about the difference in using the different fats in cookies.  I use butter exclusively but learned quickly that the water content can vary greatly brand to brand and therefore change the 'spread' of the cookie.  It seems that many of the inexpensive butters have too much water so I tend to stay with specific brands which gives me a much more consistent finished product.  I may be give the coconut a try….  

 

Liesbet posted:
Marie - LilleKageHus posted:

I'll let you know how my chocolate cookies next week turn out with palmin

haai Marie, how did it work?

Oh my word aren't I a forgetful thing haha sorry Liesbet. Yes, it worked really well, I couldn't tell a difference, I am now using Palmin for all my chocolate cookies, some are just going out the door now as I type (sorry again, how dreadful I am)

Marie - LilleKageHus posted:
Liesbet posted:
Marie - LilleKageHus posted:

I'll let you know how my chocolate cookies next week turn out with palmin

haai Marie, how did it work?

Oh my word aren't I a forgetful thing haha sorry Liesbet. Yes, it worked really well, I couldn't tell a difference, I am now using Palmin for all my chocolate cookies, some are just going out the door now as I type (sorry again, how dreadful I am)

don't say sorry!  I was just reading through all the comments on previous Toolbox Talks to see what else people wanted looked in to and came across it

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