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.
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.
For the answer to this question, you have to ask another question: How was shortening originally made?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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.