So you’ve got some extra time on your hands and what better way to spend it than by baking something delicious? As you flip through a cookbook, you find a picture of a pie so mouthwatering, you can almost taste the gratification ahead. But as you’re scanning the recipe, you realize that you’re missing a key ingredient…shortening. Don’t abort mission just yet because you can, in fact, get by without the stuff. We’ve got the best substitutes for shortening plus everything you need to know about how to use ’em.
But first, what is shortening?
As it turns out, shortening is a much broader term than most people realize—it’s really just a catch-all word used to describe any type of fat that is solid at room temperature. But we’re so accustomed to thinking of it as a quaint name for Crisco (i.e., the mass-produced vegetable shortening) that it might as well just be the functioning definition. Setting technicality aside, when you see shortening in a recipe, vegetable shortening is usually what is being called for. What sets this ingredient apart (regardless of the brand) is that it is 100 percent fat, which means that it’s very good at its job. And what job is that exactly? Time for a quick science lesson.
Shortening gets its name from the effect it has on dough. According to our friends at Bob’s Red Mill, the fat inhibits gluten from forming big gas bubbles that result in a puffy and glutinous baked good, thereby ‘shortening’ the finished product. In other words, the stuff is responsible for flaky pie crusts and crispy cookies. On the flip side, you’d be hard-pressed to find shortening on the ingredient list of a pizza dough recipe, for example, since this is considered a ‘long’ dough that can stretch and roll. The takeaway? Any fat that’s solid at room temperature can do the job—but vegetable shortening takes the cake (pun intended) since it’s all fat.
One more thing to know about vegetable shortening: It has a bad rep among nutritionists. That’s because it originally contained trans fats, the by-product of the hydrogenation process required to morph vegetable oils into a solid-at-room-temperature product. And consuming a lot of trans fats increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke, says the American Heart Association. These days, many companies have reformulated their products to remove trans fats from shortening, but it’s still a highly processed ingredient that many health experts caution against.
Now that you know what shortening is, it’s time to find some genius swaps in your kitchen. Here are five great substitutes for shortening that will save the day pie.
Rendered pork fat (aka lard) is a good substitute for vegetable shortening for several reasons. Store-bought lard boasts a neutral character, not unlike its vegetable cousin, as well as a high percentage of good-for-you monounsaturated fats, per Dr. Weil. (Although NPR’s The Salt notes that while lard is better for you than partially hydrogenated vegetable oils like Crisco, it still isn’t as healthy as, say, olive oil.) You can swap lard in for vegetable shortening at a 1:1 ratio when baking and, thanks to its high smoke point and low water content, you can even use it for deep-frying. Note: Packaged lard is sometimes hydrogenated, in which case it will have trans fats, but pure lard can be bought from specialty shops and local butchers.
Butter is the most common substitute for vegetable shortening and the convenience is hard to beat since most kitchens are usually stocked with a stick or two. In fact, many bakers prefer butter to vegetable shortening for the very same reason we love to spread it on toast: flavor. Butter adds richness and depth when used in place of shortening—just be aware that it’s higher water content means a slightly less ‘shortened’ bake. If you find this problematic, try adding an additional one to two tablespoons of butter (or reduce a liquid ingredient in the recipe by as much) for a quick and easy workaround. For an even better butter-based stand-in, eliminate the water content by clarifying a few sticks to make ghee.
3. Coconut oil
The coconut oil craze from a couple of years ago may have tapered off, but this tropical ingredient still has a lot of fans—especially when it comes to baking. Coconut oil is very high in fat which is precisely why it’s such a reliable replacement for shortening. Substitute in equal proportions—just keep in mind that your finished product may have a noticeable coconut flavor or aroma. (To avoid this issue, opt for refined—rather than unrefined—coconut oil.)
This butter knock-off can be used in place of vegetable shortening following a 1:1 ratio—so if you have some on hand, pretend that you can’t believe it’s not butter and start baking. Of course, margarine does not have the same delicious flavor as real butter and is highly processed (which is why many nutritionists don’t recommend it)—but when it comes to creating a baked treat with the desired texture, it will do just fine.
5. Bacon fat
Bacon fat is a type of lard and if you start collecting drippings leftover from Sunday breakfast, you’ll find no shortage of ways to use this rich ingredient, including as an equal-measure substitute for shortening. That said, because those salty strips of goodness are often cured, smoked or both, their distinctive flavor might make a subtle appearance in your finished product...so only pick this substitute for dishes that can handle a hint of bacon. Biscuits, anyone?