Cooking

Shine On, Shortening

How to stop worrying and fall in love with fat
Shortening
Photo: Dave Katz/Tasting Table

As a child of the '90s, I grew up thinking that "shortening" was short for hydrogenated vegetable oil, trans fats and heart attacks. I considered it the evil by-product of corporate negligence and misguided food science. In fact, I regarded shortening with such disdain that I didn't even know what the word meant until last week.

Turns out, though the term is often used to mean hydrogenated vegetable oil, it technically refers to all of the solid fats used in baking, including lard, margarine and butter. They're all shorteners and they're all used for the same purpose: to tenderize baked goods.

Brandon Frohne, head chef of Mason's in Nashville, has experimented with all kinds of shortening in his baked goods, including his legendary biscuits. And he's learned plenty about the science of dough, explaining that shortening is called such because fat coats the protein molecules in flour, making it hard to create long strands of gluten. The strands that do form are "shortened," leaving you with a tender, supple pastry.

Shortening: It's not just for pie crust. | Photo: Tasting Table

But each type of shortening works differently because each fat has a unique chemical makeup. Depending on what you're baking and what characteristics you want to emphasize, you'll need to choose your shortening wisely.

If you prize taste over all else, Frohne recommends lard for everything from biscuits to pie doughs. "It just tastes better," he says, and yields a tender, flaky crust. (If, that is, you can find fresh, high-quality lard from a trusted vendor that lacks the off-putting "piggish" flavor many supermarket brands carry.) Runner-up in the flavor competition is butter, which provides the classic taste and texture in beloved baked goods like cobblers, cookies and croissants. Vegetable shortening comes in last in the flavor department, but maximizes tenderness and flakiness. If you want to have your fluff and eat it too, Frohne recommends mixing butter and vegetable shortening together.

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But remember: Not all fats are created equal. Frohne suggests doing some back-of-the-napkin math before substituting shortenings in your recipes, because different substances have different fat contents. "Lard and vegetable shortening are both 100 percent fat, but butter and margarine are usually only around 80 percent," Frohne explains. Since fat is what's responsible for the act of shortening, you'll need to use more butter than lard or Crisco to make up the difference.

One last thing: Vegetable shortening isn't the best thing for your health. But it isn't the worst, either. Since the early 2000s, when it came to light that trans fats were giving people heart attacks, many brands, including Crisco, began reducing the amount of trans fats in their shortening.

Frohne, though, is an advocate for good old-fashioned lard and butter: "Fats are nature's way of storing energy—they aren't necessarily bad for you," he says, which is my new response for when family members question my third helping of pumpkin pie.

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