What is shortening? What are some shortening substitutes? Can I use butter instead of shortening? I get these questions all the time. Mostly the questions come from non-American readers, but sometimes my US readers also want to know if they can substitute something for shortening.
However, most of my US readers just want to know if they can use butter in place of shortening.
So, let's see if I can help you answer these questions...
But first, let me tell you about my first memory of shortening. My Mawmaw made the very best biscuits from scratch. She didn't use a recipe or measure anything. They were made them from her heart and they were incredible.
Her ingredients were self-rising flour, a couple of tablespoons of shortening, and water to make a dough. She'd roll little balls of it in her hands in a flour bowl, then put them into a cast-iron skillet. Hot out of the oven, each biscuit would get a pat of butter. That's it - and they were tender and melt-in-your-mouth incredible!
I've never been able to replicate her biscuits but I use shortening for several other applications these days, so I'm going to share what I know.
First off, I'm not a food scientist or culinary graduate. I can't talk to you about trans fats or saturated fat or cholesterol or calories or nutrition.
What I'm going to tell you is what I know completely from a home baker's point of view and a little research I've done on the topic.
What is shortening?
Technically, "shortening" is any fat that is solid at room temperature and used for baking, pastries, etc. This includes butter, margarine, lard (animal fats or plant-based), or other fats (according to Wikipedia).
But for the purpose of today's post, I'll say this: when I refer to shortening in any of my posts, I'm talking about vegetable shortening.
The most well-known brand in the United States is Crisco and it's my brand of choice for all of my baking and frosting-making!
There are other brands available, but in my experience Crisco is superior and it's the only brand I use!
Please note, this post is not sponsored by Crisco or any other brands. I'm just sharing from my personal experience and answering questions that my readers have asked over and over again 🙂
So... to narrow it down more...
Shortening in the USA
Generally speaking, here in the USA, "shortening" has come almost exclusively to mean hydrogenated vegetable oil. Specifically, Crisco's ingredients are soybean oil, fully hydrogenated palm oil, palm oil, mono and diglycerides, TBHQ, and citric acid.
It used to have a really bad reputation because of trans fats. But recent changes in the way it's made have made it less bad (if that's a thing). Shortening is still made using hydrogenation, but the oils are fully hydrogenated rather than partially hydrogenated, so there are no trans fats present.
It's a semi-solid fat with a higher melting point and less moisture than butter or margarine. For us cake decorators, that means if you use it in frosting, it won't melt as quickly as butter-based frosting. Also, it doesn't require refrigeration.
What are some examples of shortening?
I did a little research and it seems that in other parts of the world, there are similar products. Some names I found are Trex, Sweetex, Flora White, Copha or Cookeen.
From what I can gather, these could possibly be shortening substitutes. However, I do not have any personal experience with these products so I cannot speak with certainty.
If you're looking for a soy-free shortening, you might try Nutiva Organic Shortening. It is soy-free and it's made with palm oil and coconut oil. That is what I used for my Gluten-free, Soy-free, Egg-free & Dairy-free Chocolate Cake and Frosting.
What is High Ratio Shortening?
One other thing I should mention - high ratio shortening. For the longest time, I'd only heard of this product but never used it. Why? It's not readily available where I live and it's more expensive. Also, it's heavy, so it's even more expensive to have it shipped. Double-whammy.
But what is it? According to ShopBakersNook.com, high ratio shortening is designed specifically for bakers. It is 100% fat with added emulsifiers and no added salt or water. It also contains micro emulsifiers that allow your mixture to hold more sugar and liquid. That means it is more temperature stable.
So I kept hearing it talked about in cake circles everywhere so I finally bit the bullet and ordered some. Here's my take. First, is it a better product? Probably so - especially for bakers and cake decorators. My buttercream did seem smoother and creamier when using the high ratio shortening.
However, after trying it, I came to the conclusion that the slight improvement in texture did not outweigh the extra cost (for me). I live in rural Mississippi and I'm already charging more for cakes than most of my competitors.
If I add an expensive ingredient to my recipes, I have to raise my prices again and I'm not sure my clients would tolerate another price increase.
Besides, I'm not convinced that the difference is all that noticeable for the general public. I taste buttercream all.the.time so I did notice the texture difference. But would my family or friends or clients? Probably not.
For those of you who can get your hands on high ratio shortening without having to pay exorbitant shipping costs, it may be worth it for you. At the very least, order a small container of it and give it a try. Then you can draw your own conclusion.
What can I substitute for shortening?
Shortening Substitutes For Frosting Recipes
Shortening is used in both savory and sweet recipes. For me, it's most often my frosting.
And if you're looking at any of my frosting recipes, I usually use some butter and some Crisco shortening. I feel like the combination gives the fantastic flavor of butter but the stability of shortening.
I should note, I stick to American Buttercream for all of my orders, no Swiss or Italian Meringue Buttercreams here. My most popular recipes are vanilla buttercream, chocolate buttercream, and this cream cheese buttercream.
I'd say 99% of the time, you could use all butter in these recipes, but there are things to consider. If you choose to use all butter instead of some portion of shortening, the frosting will be softer.
It will melt (wilt, sag) faster if your cake is in a warm room or outside. It will not be as stable at warmer temperatures. Piped buttercream will not hold its shape as well outside of the refrigerator.
I'm not saying it's always going to be a puddle or anything like that... but it will be softer.
Think of it this way: shortening at room temp is still solid. Butter at room temp becomes quite soft. Your frosting will reflect those differences depending on what you use.
If you use all shortening - it will hold its shape really well. On the other hand, if you use a mixture of shortening and butter, it will also hold up pretty well. But if you use all butter, it will soften and not hold its shape as well.
To be clear, this is what I'm talking about: if the recipe called for ½ cup butter and ½ cup shortening, you could use 1 cup of butter instead for a softer, shortening-free version. Or if you want a really temperature stable frosting, stick with 1 cup of shortening and no butter.
Shortening Substitutes When Baking
You can also substitute butter for shortening in baked goods, but sometimes there are also noticeable differences.
Shortening is 100% fat. Whereas butter has some water content - usually around 85% fat and 15% water (this varies slightly from brand to brand). When baking, the extra moisture in butter may alter the consistency, flavor and/or texture of your baked goods.
With the lower melting point of butter, if you use butter instead of shortening when baking, your cookies will spread out more and be softer. I use both butter and shortening in our favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe and they are divine!
I don't think the substitution would be as noticeable in cake, other than a slight texture difference. But then again, I rarely test that theory. These petit fours for example... perfection! I wouldn't swap the shortening for butter quite simply because I don't want to mess up a good thing!
Also, your pie crusts will not be as flaky. I don't know why, I just know it's true.
I know shortening sometimes gets a bad rap, but these are not all bad things! They are just differences you should be aware of if you make a change to a recipe.
And I think that's it! I hope I have answered your questions about shortening substitutes. Do you have any other knowledge to add to this discussion? Or other questions? Leave me a comment!
Want to read more Baking Basics Posts?
- Quick and Easy Homemade Almond Paste (10 Minute Recipe)
- What is shortening? What are shortening substitutes?
- Expert Advice for Baking at Home