Vegetable Shortening: History, Flavor, Benefits, Uses

Vegetable shortening was invented by Procter & Gamble in the early 20th century to be a solid cooking fat that contained little or no water. Its predecessor was refined lard, inferior lard adulterated and softened with cottonseed oil.

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Vegetable shortening was made with a similar process to one used for making margarine, which had been patented by German Wilhelm Normann earlier in the century. Hydrogen was pumped into heated vegetable oil with nickel as a catalyst to produce partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

Vegetable shortening was supposed to be cheaper than lard or tallow. It was made available to consumers in 1911 and 1912. Procter & Gamble began an advertising campaign that involved sending representatives across the US to demonstrate the usefulness of their new product. The campaign and the product were successful. Vegetable shortening was promoted as a healthier alternative to lard and butter. Vegetable shortening sold even better than the considerably cheaper lard and butter, even during the Great Depression.

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The shortening part of the name came from the fat’s ability to shorten the protein strands that make strong gluten. Long gluten strands are beneficial when making bread and pasta but undesirable for other baked goods like cookies and pie crusts, where they can make the product tough. Shortened proteins result in a more tender product. Any fat can have the same effect on proteins, but fats — like vegetable shortening — that are solid at room temperature are more potent.

The trans fats created by partially hydrogenating vegetable oil were deemed unhealthy and banned by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2020. American vegetable shortening is now made by fully hydrogenating vegetable oil.

Vegetable shortening flavor profile

One of the main features of vegetable shortening is its near flavorlessness. The fact that it contains no flavor can be seen as both a benefit and a drawback. It has no taste to distract from or mask other ingredients, but it also contributes nothing to a dish.

Health benefits

Despite early advertising claims, vegetable shortening is not particularly healthy though it does have some nutritional value. It contains nutrients like:

  • Omega-3: Vegetable shortening can contain a significant amount of alpha-linolenic acid — an omega-3 fatty acid — per serving.
  • Vitamins: Vegetable shortening contains modest amounts of vitamins E and K per serving.

It is possible that vegetable shortening could help to treat or prevent health problems like:

  • Heart disease: The high omega-3 fatty acid content in vegetable shortening may help prevent heart disease.
  • Free radical damage: The antioxidant properties of vitamin E may protect your cells from free radicals.

Health concerns

Even though vegetable shortening is no longer made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and its trans fats, it may still cause serious health problems. The process of fully hydrogenating the oil makes it hard at room temperature and thus difficult to use. To make it softer, liquid vegetable oil is added to the fully hydrogenated vegetable oil to create an interesterified oil. Early animal studies suggest that interesterified oil promotes fatty liver disease and inflammation.

Common uses

In the US, vegetable shortening is popular among cooks — especially ones that follow older, traditional recipes — for making tender and flaky pie crusts and biscuits. Besides its effect on gluten, vegetable shortening doesn’t contain water, so it doesn’t produce steam to toughen the dough.