August 29, 2018
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Just Bake With Shortening. It’s Fine.
Shortening

For years, bakers have turned up their noses at Crisco as a cheap imitation of butter. But because of its high melting point and high burning point, vegetable shortening can pull off some tricks that are hard to do with oil or butter.

That blissful first bite from a slice of really good apple pie, its flaky crumbs finding a second home on your shirtfront. A dozen perfectly round spice cookies, sitting pretty on a sheet pan pulled fresh from the oven. A layered white birthday cake light as air, tender on the tongue, and remind of a perfect childhood. What’s the invisible secret ingredient that all of these have in common? Shortening. Quelle horreur!

Stop cringing and hear me out.

Though we might associate it with the canister of waxy white Crisco our grandmothers kept in the cupboard year-round, the word “shortening” technically applies to all solid fats. It was synonymous with lard up until 1869, when margarine was invented and eventually stole the crown. These days we think almost exclusively of hydrogenated vegetable oil when we hear “shortening,” and it has been that way ever since Procter & Gamble introduced Crisco in 1911.

Cheaper to produce than lard, shortening made baking a beautiful pie for Sunday dinner or a stark-white birthday cake a breeze for those living anywhere, on any income, with just a few staple ingredients on hand. Available and affordable when butter was not—during the Great Depression and times of food rationing in both World Wars—its neutral flavor, long shelf life, and high smoke point quickly made it the go-to for cooks and bakers.

In the early 1990s, research confirmed links between trans fats and increased incidence of high cholesterol and heart disease. Though naturally present in minuscule amounts in some dairy and meat, the trans fat that caused major upheaval all over the world was the type born when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil, creating—you guessed it—vegetable shortening. Eventually, in 2007, Procter & Gamble reformulated its best-selling Crisco into a product containing less than .5 grams of trans fat per serving, thereby enabling it to meet the FDA requirement for labeling a product “trans fat–free.”

The same qualities that made shortening a practical staple during the first half of the 20th century make it capable of some pretty impressive feats of science today. The high melting point (115°F compared to butter’s 98.6°F) means that icing won’t wilt and drip down the sides of the cake that you bring to a picnic, and cookies won’t spread in the oven. It means you can handle your pie dough without wondering nervously if the heat from your hands will melt the butter and turn the end result gummy.

Butter made in the United States contains approximately 16 percent water; shortening has none. During baking, water turns to steam, which aids in the development of gluten. If you use shortening instead, you’ll have less gluten, and therefore softer cakes, and cookies that remain soft and cakey even when they’ve cooled down. In my favorite recipe (below) for a cloud-soft white cake, the pure fat in shortening makes up for the lack of egg yolks, an ingredient that helps the cake develop the beautifully moist, velvety, and tender crumb we’re all looking for.

Professional bakers have access to high-ratio shortening, which contains more emulsifiers than the type available to the layperson at the corner store and which produce a smooth, stable, and less greasy frosting ideal for wedding cakes and the like. But if you don’t have access to the high-ratio version, Crisco will work. The absolute fastest frosting recipe to make, given below, is a simple mix of store-bought shortening, powdered sugar, a little vanilla, and a little salt. No waiting for butter to soften, and it is ready in a pinch. But there are considerations to keep in mind. Please see the recipe headnote for tips on working with this type of frosting.

All this said, I’m not advocating a schmear of shortening on your morning toast or proclaiming it the new coconut oil. Nothing made with shortening is a health food. Hell, baked goods aren’t health foods, whatever the fat may be. As the cliché goes, everything in moderation. But there are those recipes requiring that special touch only pure fat can give: the flake to the crust, the lift to the cookie, the crumb to the cake. And when that’s the case, I don’t hesitate to pull the tub from the shelf and get baking.

Classic White Cake

Classic White Cake

1 6-inch layer cake, or 1 dozen cupcakes

Ingredients

  • Cake
  • 1 ⅓ cup cake flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ⅓ cup shortening (I use the Spectrum brand)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¾ cups granulated sugar
  • ½ cup ice water
  • 2 large egg whites
  • Instant Frosting (base recipe)
  • 1 cup shortening (I use the Spectrum brand)
  • 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ⅛ teaspoon fine salt

Because the only fat is this recipe is shortening, the resulting cake is snowy white, fluffy and tender, and gives you that “cake!” mouthfeel while leaving space for your brain to register flavorful fillings and frostings. The use of ice water as the liquid may seem odd; it’s a tip I was introduced to by my friend Jessie Sheehan, who in turn learned it from the gents of Baked, in Brooklyn. I don’t know exactly how it works, but it does.

As for the frosting, this is an endlessly adaptable recipe. Play around with different extracts or add in a few tablespoons of cocoa powder. I love to blitz up freeze-dried berries in a clean coffee grinder, then use the resulting powder to flavor this frosting. I only use the base recipe with deeply chocolate cake, the combination resulting in essentially a giant, soft Oreo, and I use all shortening-based frostings with a light hand. This is a case where there definitely can be too much of a good thing.

    Cake

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F and prepare your pans using your preferred method.
  2. Sift together the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. And I mean it: sift.
  3. Measure out the water and add in ice cubes.
  4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the shortening with the sugar on medium speed until fluffy, about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Mix in the vanilla. Remove the ice cubes from the water and pour out the excess until you have ½ c. On low speed, alternate the dry ingredients and the water in three parts, beginning and ending with the dry. Remove the bowl from the mixer.
  5. With a clean stand mixer bowl, a separate bowl and hand mixer, or with brute strength, beat the egg whites until they form medium-stiff peaks. Fold a bit into the batter to lighten, then gently fold in the remaining, continuing to work the batter about with care until smooth, with no more lumps of the whites visible.
  6. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans.
  7. For two 6” cake layers, bake 18-20 minutes until the cake starts to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Also, I’ve noticed that a cake is done baking when I can really smell cake.
  8. For one dozen cupcakes, bake 10-12 minutes and follow as directed above.
  9. Remove the cakes to a rack to cool. After 10 minutes, remove them from the pan and let cool completely. I always wrap the room-temperature cakes and put them in the fridge for at least an hour before frosting. That way the shortening returns to its semisolid state and makes for less finicky application of buttercreams, etc.

Frosting

  1. Thoroughly sift the confectioners’ sugar.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip the shortening on medium speed for a few seconds. Stop the mixer and add the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla. Starting on low speed and increasing to medium as the sugar is absorbed into the shortening, beat for two minutes on medium speed until light and fluffy, then reduce the speed to low and beat for another 30 seconds.
  3. If the texture is too stiff, add in a little milk or cream a teaspoon at a time, whipping between each addition, until it’s to your liking. Use water if you want a super-crusting frosting.

Assembly

  1. After cooled, frost cupcakes or cake to your liking.

Jessica Reed

Jessica Reed is a writer, baker, artist, and historian obsessed with the history and culture of cake. She is the author of The Baker’s Appendix (Clarkson Potter, 2017) and just left the North East Coast after 15 years for the North West Coast. She is happy to still be baking at sea level.

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