If we had a nickel for every time someone asked us this question! If you’ve ever baked a pie from scratch or made our buttercream frosting for the first time, you might have found yourself wondering the same thing or what you can use as a substitute. We asked our test kitchen to give us the 411 on this mysterious ingredient.
What in the world is shortening?
Not to be confused with butter, shortening is a fat that is solid at room temperature and contains low to no water content. Crisco is a commonly used shortening, but margarine and lard are also members of this family. Because shortening is made of 100 percent fat and contains no water, no steam is created during baking — resulting in dough that’s softer, flaker and more tender. Shortening also has a higher melting point than butter, so it helps buttercream decorations hold up longer while piping and doesn’t need to be refrigerated.
Why should cake decorators use it?
People often ask why we recommend using a combination of shortening and butter in buttercream frosting rather than just butter. Here’s why:
- Butter imparts a yellow tinge when used in icing, but has great flavor. Shortening allows you to achieve a clean, white color that serves as a perfect canvas for your artistry. The shortening and butter combination gives a whiter buttercream that still has great flavor.
- Shortening has a higher melting point, so your buttercream won’t melt as quickly when handling the piping bag. Decorations will be more stable in hot weather.
- The higher melting point also prevents icing from spreading or losing its shape when piped.
- Shortening imparts a light and fluffy texture. Keep reading for a science lesson in how it manages to do that!
A Brief History of Shortening
Where did shortening come from? Hydrogenated vegetable oil was invented in the early 20th century. Since then, shortening has become almost exclusively synonymous with these fully saturated fats. The word “shortening” originally referred to fats used to “shorten” the protein platelets in doughy treats, impeding the formation of gluten and making the item softer.
What does this mean?
The solid fat in vegetable shortening or lard melts into the item while baking, creating spaces which disrupt the gluten. If too much gluten develops within a dough, it becomes more stretchy and elastic — but as the shortening melts slowly, it cuts the gluten into shorter strands and prevents the flour from absorbing water. It’s science!
Initially, vegetable shortening was created in 1910 by Procter & Gamble as a cheaper alternative for lard and tallow, which was used in soap and candle making*. A year later, the company decided to make the product available to American cooks, marketing it as a healthier and kosher-friendly substitute for lard or butter. These days, there are plenty of shortening options that appeal to bakers of all preferences, from lard lovers to ingredient-conscious vegans
While Crisco is the most popular vegetable shortening choice on this side of the Atlantic, UK bakers turn to brands like Trex, Flora White or Cookeen. Australians reach for Copha. Lard is the best substitute for those who don’t mind using animal fats in their baking, but we don’t recommend it as a shortening substitute in buttercream frosting. Earth Balance is an organic solid vegetable shortening that will likely please those who pay special attention to ingredients lists on manufactured items. In a pinch and can’t get to the store? Butter will certainly do, but you’ll want to use more of it to counteract the additional water content and lessen the amount of water you add to your baking mix. This will help you achieve beautiful icing, pies and cookies.
Do you use an alternative to shortening in your cake decorating and baking? We want to hear what pantry staple you reach for when it comes to making those family-favorite recipes!
*Forristal, Linda Joyce. “The Rise and Fall of Crisco“. The Weston A. Price Foundation. February 23, 2009.
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