Trying to find a substitute for shortening for your latest kitchen creation?
Shortening is an ingredient often overlooked in the kitchen and taken for granted even though it has a panoply of uses.
Whether baking a flaky pastry, deep-frying, or simply greasing a baking tin, any cook worth their salt will always have shortening on hand.
However, it’s almost certainly also the case that the shortening you use is a vegetable shortening, such as Crisco.
Vegetable shortening does give consistent results, making light pastry and crisp fried food easily attainable, but there are plenty of reasons why you might want to try an alternative.
Why Consider a Substitute for Shortening?
The most important reason for many who are considering a substitute for shortening is health.
Vegetable shortening originally became popular, in fact, for this very reason – lard (pork fat) fell out of favor because animal fats generally were seen as unhealthy, and partially hydrogenated vegetable fats became popular instead.
Partial hydrogenation is the process that turns fat that is liquid at room temperature, such as canola or corn oil, into the soft, waxy solid we are more familiar with as shortening.
However, in the past two decades it has become clear that this was a bad move – the partial hydrogenation process creates vast quantities of unnatural trans fats, which are far worse for health than the saturated fats found in high quantities in lard.
Most vegetable shortening manufacturers have responded to this scientific evidence however, and have reformulated their products to contain no trans fats.
There are still some potential problems with these reformulations – the changed production process still results in fat molecules not commonly found in nature, which may cause increases in blood triglycerides and undesirable changes to the blood cholesterol ratio.
Another reason to consider a substitute for shortening is rather less grave, though just as important for many people – taste and texture. Ask any master pastry chef what their fat of choice is, and you are guaranteed to get the same answer from all of them – lard.
Also, nearly all (non-vegetarian) fry cooks will stand by beef dripping for the best fat to deep fry in. The unique qualities certain fats lend to particular cooking uses mean that, often, an all-purpose shortening simply cannot compete.
Of course, a substitute for shortening is unlikely to have this all-purpose quality, so when considering substitutes it is important to ask yourself, “What am I using this for?”
Finally, many shortening substitutes are actually easy to make in your own kitchen. You can become a more efficient cook, and it is very satisfying understanding more of the processes that go into delicious food. So, what options are there if you want to dump that suspiciously long-lived Crisco?
Of all the fats we have discussed, lard is perhaps the substitute for shortening with the worst reputation. Our very language suggests lard is something immensely unhealthy – “lard-bucket” and so on.
However, lard is the gold standard for baking shortening. The best lard is made from pork leaf fat – the fat surrounding a pig’s kidneys – and is melted down (or rendered) in boiling water, to produce a snow-white and flavorless product.
This produces flakier pastry than butter or vegetable shortening, although it is often combined with butter for the delicious flavor.
Lard’s health properties are not quite as impressive as coconut oil but they certainly surpass highly processed fats.
On traditional example of lard as a healthy food is the national dish of Ukraine which is cured pork fat known as salo, and Ukraine has a far lower level of obesity than the USA.
As with all other dietary concerns, it is high overall consumption of processed fats that causes problems, not so much the consumption saturated fats.
Even when entirely unprocessed, coconut oil is solid at room temperature. This is because of its incredibly high saturated fat content – 92%.
In recent years, saturated fats have been regarded as something to be shunned, and blamed for the pandemic of heart disease and obesity that has swept across the developed world.
However, more recent evidence suggests the picture is more complex, and that coconut oil, with its huge saturated fat content, actually promotes liver health and reduces the risk of diabetes.
However, it is worth being careful – most coconut oil on sale has been refined and processed, meaning many of the health benefits will have been lost. Additionally, this process usually destroys the mild and pleasant flavor of coconut oil, which nearly always complements other ingredients.
So, make sure you buy “virgin” coconut oil. It’s suitable in most cases where lard or butter is called for, and even works nicely instead of creamer in coffee.
Ghee, a word derived from ancient Indian language Sanskrit, is clarified butter.
This means it is butter that has been simmered so the fatty portion separates from the watery portion, and the watery portion and the milk solids have been removed. It’s possible to do this at home, but much more convenient to just buy pre-prepared ghee from South Asian or health food stores.
Health-wise, ghee is very similar to butter, being high in animal-derived saturated fat.
Few scientific studies have been done in humans to determine the health benefits or problems associated with consuming ghee, but like butter, it is almost certainly safe given it’s long history in more traditional cultures.
Ghee has a nuttier flavor than butter, and the removal of the non-fatty portion of the butter means it has an extremely high smoke point, making it ideal for deep-frying.
Be careful though, as things deep-fried in ghee will have an incredibly rich flavor compared to things deep-fried in vegetable oil.
Possibly the best use of ghee is for caramelizing onion at the start of making a curry. There are a variety of Indian corn breads that also call for large amounts of ghee – and again, are very rich.
Less commonly encountered than coconut oil, palm oil is similar in many ways. While it has a lower level of saturated fat (50%), it too is a soft solid at room temperature in the refined form.
It shares the property of an extremely high smoke point with coconut oil, making it a great choice for stir-frying.
More concerning, however, is the fact that much of the land on which oil palms are grown has been deforested, with the habitats of many rare animals and plants destroyed in the process.
Unrefined palm oil, also known as red palm oil, is quite a different beast. Its color comes from high levels of carotenes (the precursors to vitamin A that give carrots their color), and it contains many other vitamins and antioxidants. Red palm oil has a very distinctive flavor, vaguely resembling olive, which many regard as an acquired taste.
West African cooking relies on this rich flavor in stews and other such dishes, so it is worth experimenting with red palm oil to see if you can enhance any of your favorite hearty dishes with this.
Additionally, West African red palm oil is generally regarded as much more environmentally sound than palm oil from other regions of the world.
Butter is not just great spread on toast – it is useful for all kinds of culinary purposes.
When baking, nothing can quite match the richness and depth of flavor that comes with using good-quality butter, and there is no satisfactory substitute when it comes to making a French omelet.
Butter was long regarded as less healthy, though as discussed above, the shift in the scientific view of trans fats has meant butter is much better-regarded than it used to be.
While it might raise “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, it tends not to much affect the ratio of “good” HDL cholesterol to LDL cholesterol – which is regarded as the important risk factor.
Additionally, studies have shown that people tend to eat less of dishes containing butter, as it promotes the sensation of fullness. So, a little butter might not be as unhealthy as it immediately seems if you adhere to what has become the conventional wisdom.
Rules of Thumb When Using a Substitute for Shortening
- Coconut oil: a 1:1 substitution ratio is generally sensible in most cases.
- Ghee: again, given ghee is also a pure fat, 1:1 substitution is fine.
- Palm oil: refined palm oil is fine for 1:1 substitution; however, red palm oil would usually need 10-15% more by weight. Red palm oil is not recommended for baking, in any case.
- Butter: By weight, you should use 25% more butter than the quantity of shortening called for.
- Reduce this to around 15-20% if the recipe also calls for salt.
- Lard: For each cup of shortening you are asked to use, use a cup minus two tablespoons of lard, as it’s a little denser than vegetable shortening.