Bake

The Best Shortening Substitutes for Baking

October  4, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

You just finished the most recent episode of The Great British Bake-Off and you want to bake something, stat. Maybe sugar-crusted shortbread, or vanilla bean scones, or double chocolate cake. Whatever the recipe, odds are, you’re going to need shortening.

Which might not mean what you think. Technically speaking, “shortening” can be defined any fat that’s used in baked goods. Which is to say, vegetable shortening is shortening, yes, but so are butter, margarine, and lard.

Today, we’re going to focus on what most people think of when they hear shortening—the vegetable sort—and learn what to do when a recipe calls for it but, whoops, you have none in stock.

Spoiler alert: There are substitutes aplenty. Now hit me with your best Qs.


What is vegetable shortening, anyway?

Vegetable shortening, according to The New Food Lover’s Companion, is “a solid fat made from vegetable oils, such as soybean and cottonseed” that have been “chemically transformed into a solid state through hydrogenation.” You’ll find vegetable shortening called for in all sorts of recipes, from homemade flour tortillas to white cake. While shortening doesn’t add much flavor, it adds richness and tenderness to baked goods.

Is vegetable shortening, like Crisco, bad for you?

For the answer to this question, you have to ask another question: How was shortening originally made? An oil, such as soybean gets hydrogenated, which turns it from a liquid into a solid. This chemical process creates trans fats—the consumption of which, according to the American Heart Association, “increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke.”

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“Have you tried to substitute shortening with avocado? ... its especially great in cakes. I use it when I want to avoid butter ”
— Cecille
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Since this correlation between shortening and trans fats and health risks became evident in the mid-1990s, vegetable shortening brands have gone out of their way to distance themselves from trans fats. For example, Crisco now boasts “0 grams trans fats per serving” on its label. And brands, such as Spectrum, produce organic, non-hydrogenated vegetable shortenings.

Is coconut oil a good substitute for shortening?

Absolutely. Coconut oil stands out from canola, vegetable, and its other oil relatives, because it’s naturally solid at room temperature (though if said room gets to 76°F or warmer, the solid oil will start to melt). Substitute coconut oil instead of shortening by following a 1:1 ratio. And if you don’t want a noticeable coconut flavor or aroma, buy refined (versus unrefined) coconut oil.

Besides coconut oil, what are other good substitutes for shortening?

Margarine and butter can both be used as a substitute for shortening, though their moisture contents should be taken into consideration before making the swap. While shortening is 100% fat, margarine and butter contain a small percentage of water (so, shortening adds more fat, thus more richness and tenderness). All these ingredients also have distinct melting points. Despite these differences, many community members have reported successfully swapping margarine and butter in place of vegetable shortening. For example, in this Hotline thread from 2011, Sdebrango wrote, “I interchange butter, shortening, and lard all the time and the ratio is the same.” Speaking of lard, that, bacon fat, and even chicken fat could be used instead of shortening, depending on the context (a chicken fat biscuit sounds very good to me, though a chicken fat red velvet cake does not—but you do you).

What’s a good shortening substitute in cookies?

Cookies made with shortening are characteristically short in texture (think, crumbly like shortbread), domed (because the shortening discourages significant spreading), and mild in texture. Comparatively, cookies made with butter are crispier, flatter, and, well, butterier in flavor (big surprise there). To successfully replace shortening in a cookie recipe, you can swap in 100% butter, but you might want to accordingly lower the liquid in another part of the recipe (due to the butter’s water content). You could also do a mix of butter and coconut oil.

What’s a good shortening substitute in biscuits?

A good biscuit should be tall, flaky, and fluffy. Many biscuit makers swear by lard or shortening or a mix, for guaranteed flakiness. Others preach butter for its A+ flavor. If you’re starting with a biscuit recipe that calls for shortening, you can swap in butter or margarine at a 1:1 ratio. We even have a recipe on the site from Sweet Laurel Bakery that uses almond flour instead of all-purpose and coconut oil instead of shortening or butter.

What’s a good shortening substitute in bread?

Enriching bread dough with fat is a great way to add tenderness and flavor (classic examples include oil in challah and butter in brioche). If a bread recipe calls for shortening (for instance, like in these fluffy pork buns), you can swap an equal quantity of butter, oil, or even leaf lard or bacon fat for added savoriness.

What’s a good shortening substitute in frosting?

Save the tough one for last. Because frosting is little more than fat and sugar, swapping either of these ingredients will yield a noticeable difference. Using all shortening (shortening plus confectioners’ sugar) yields a stable, but neutral-flavored, frosting. Meanwhile, using all butter creates a frosting that’s more likely to melt and separate over time at room temperature, yet is super rich in flavor. In addition to doing a 1:1 swap of shortening to butter, you can also use margarine, coconut oil, or some mix of the three.

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Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.

7 Comments

Cecille October 4, 2019
Have you tried to substitute shortening with avocado? ... its especially great in cakes. I use it when I want to avoid butter
 
Author Comment
Emma L. October 5, 2019
Whoa! Must know more: When a cake calls for butter, you swap in an equal amount (in weight?) of avocado?
 
Cecille October 4, 2019
 
Smaug October 4, 2019
Thank you for sparing me my usual tirade on the meaning of the word "shortening" (I hate having the language coopted by commercial concerns). I've already done my yearly rant on the subject of heirloom tomatoes, and I've given up on Food 52's ever more flagitious abuses of the word "genius", so it's Mr. Sunshine from here on out.
 
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Emma L. October 5, 2019
You're very welcome, Mr. Sunshine!
 
Jeff S. October 4, 2019
Thank you for this! I find myself using chicken fat more and more, though I haven't used it for anything sweet (but should I/you try?!). Folks are obsessed with bacon fat and lard, but chicken fat is underrated, especially for roasted vegetables.
 
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Emma L. October 4, 2019
I bet a chicken-fat crust for a savory pie would be A++