What is shortening? You’ve probably seen your grandma using it in the kitchen. While it sounds suspicious, shortening is a common household ingredient that many bakers swear by for perfectly flaky pie crusts, buttery cookies, and more.

Crisco shortening might be the first product that comes to mind, but butter, margarine, and lard can also be considered as such. Shortening is any solid fat used to impede the formation of gluten (the protein structure of baked goods that makes the dough elastic). Technically, it is “shortening” the protein platelets, hence the name. Some common shortenings include:


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Butter contains water and milk solids. It'll produce baked goods that are crumbly and dense, because the water it contains hydrates the gluten. Gluten hydration is essential to creating structure within the baked item, aka texture. 


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While margarine is an imitation of butter, it has a significantly longer list of ingredients: water, refined vegetable oil, emulsifiers, and preservatives, to name a few. It is comparable to butter in terms of shortening power, however, and makes products of similar quality.


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Lard is made of pig fat and has a large fatty acid crystal structure that's perfect for breaking up gluten. The use of lard in baking delivers a “flaky” quality that many bakers seek. 

Vegetable Shortening

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Vegetable shortening uses hydrogenation to imitate the qualities of animal fats without including them. This makes it an option for vegans and those who keep kosher. The Crisco company first marketed its vegetable shortening as an economical, "pure" alternative to lard. Its 1911 advertisements proclaimed "It's all vegetable! It's digestible!" This cut into the lard market and opened the niche that Crisco still holds today (albeit for different reasons).

The process of making vegetable shortening relies on hydrogenation, which turns oils into solid fats. Early products were high in trans fat, the only downside to a product that was sweeping the market. In the mid-2000s, Crisco introduced a new recipe: mostly fully hydrogenated cottonseed oil with a touch of some other oils, thus lowering the trans fat content and minimizing the issue. 

#SpoonTip: Always check the nutrition label to ensure you're buying vegetable shortening with little or no trans fat. 

Ways to Use Shortening

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Shortening fats usually have a high saturation, meaning they're solid at room temperature. Beyond that, each has a unique purpose: the more completely a fat is mixed with flour in a recipe, the less flaky a dough will be. So while beating in butter can create crumbly delicacies, lard needs to be cut into flour, producing flaky pie crusts

Vegetable shortening has a variety of uses from baked goods to savory dishes. It's a favorite among bakers for pie crusts, cookies, and streusel. Despite the flaky texture it produces, however, some say that vegetable shortening leaves much to be desired in terms of taste. 

#SpoonTip: When you use butter or margarine in baked goods that call for shortening, reduce the water content for balance.

For savory dishes, the higher smoke point and lower water content of vegetable shortening make it a great option for frying. It will pop and splash less on the stove than oil or butter.

If you take anything away from this article, remember this: butter or margarine = cookies, vegetable shortening or lard = pie crust. This is a clear distinction of textures that can help you decide which you should use for your next recipe.