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What is Vegetable Shortening?

Ever wondered what’s inside that can of Crisco®?

Cans of vegetable shortening can be found in kitchen pantries across America. But for many, its contents are a mystery. It's great for getting that light, flaky texture in pie crusts and biscuits that we love. But how does vegetable shortening help us achieve this texture? And are there any substitutes for vegetable shortening that might actually be better for both your health and your baking needs? We answered all your vegetable shortening questions, so you'll be informed next time you find yourself in the baking aisle.

Can of Crisco®

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What is Vegetable Shortening?

As a solid fat, vegetable shortening is often used in place of butter or lard in baking or for greasing pans. It is made by hydrogenating (adding hydrogen to) vegetable oil, such as soybean or cottonseed oil. Vegetable shortening is solid at room temperature, resembling the texture of butter but with virtually no flavor or odor.

Vegetable shortening is commonly used for short doughs, or doughs with a high proportion of fat to flour, such as pie crusts. This is because the fat in vegetable shortening coats the flour, preventing water from activating the formation of gluten. So vegetable shortening is literally used to "shorten" gluten strands, preventing them from developing in the dough.

Another advantage of using vegetable shortening in baking is that as a solid fat, it doesn't completely mix with the dry ingredients used in baking. This gives you streaks of solid fat marbled throughout the dough for that light, flaky finished product.

To measure vegetable shortening, pack it into a measuring cup and level it off with a knife.

Vegetable Shortening Substitutes

Although vegetable shortening holds its shape well and is great for achieving moist and fluffy dough, it’s high in trans fats. Trans fats are created through the process of hydrogenation, and have been found to be linked to heart disease. Although many vegetable shortenings have been reformulated today to reduce trans fats, there are also substitutes for vegetable shortening that you probably already have in your kitchen.

Remember, the purpose of using vegetable shortening is because it is almost entirely made up of solid fat, and thus helps make pie crusts flaky, icings stable, and keeps baked goods from spreading too much as they bake. So when looking for a substitute, it's best to use other solid fats such as lard or butter.

Lard was the original shortening. Along with vegetable shortening, it has the highest shortening power for producing flaky pie crusts and biscuits. Butter can also be used as a substitute for vegetable shortening, but it contains water and thus will produce denser dough, since the water will activate the gluten. However, some cooks prefer to use butter, for its distinctive flavor. You can also use coconut oil as a substitute for vegetable shortening as it is a solid at room temperature and high in fat.

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Melanie Fincher

About Melanie Fincher

A Georgia native eating my way through the South. When I’m not eating it I’m probably writing about it.