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Shortening is a semi-solid, plant-derived fat which can be used in place of butter, margarine, or other fats when cooking or baking. Compared to animal-derived fats, it tends to be fairly inexpensive, and also has a long shelf life. Due to its high trans fat content, however, it has been criticized by nutrition experts, leading many manufacturers to reformulate their products.
Most shortening is made from plant-derived oils, such as palm or soybean oil, which have been hydrogenated, or partially solidified. This solidification process results in a product which is similar in texture to margarine, but slightly thicker. As with all cooking fats, it is oily to the touch and repels water.
Two of the primary benefits of this type of fat are its low cost and its long shelf life. Animal-derived fats can be somewhat expensive. Many recipes, especially those for baked goods, call for large amounts of these fats. Due to its low production costs, shortening is fairly inexpensive by comparison, making it a budget-friendly baking ingredient.
In addition, it stays fresh much longer than most cooking fats. Unopened, it can last for up to two years. After being opened, it usually stays fresh for six months to one year. Furthermore, it does not require refrigeration as long as it is stored in a cool, dry place.
It is possible to use shortening in place of equal amounts of butter or margarine in most recipes. As it contains no water, however, it tends to produce a noticeably light and fluffy texture in baked goods, which can be disagreeable to those who prefer, for instance, a crisp chocolate chip cookie. To remedy this issue, some manufacturers recommend adding two tablespoons (29.6 ml) of water for every one cup (192 grams) of shortening used in a recipe.
Regular shortening has no dominant flavor, giving it a neutral quality which makes it useable in both sweet and savory recipes. Some recipes derive part of their flavor from fats such as butter, however, and substituting regular shortening in these dishes can result in a bland taste. For recipes in which a buttery taste is desirable, manufacturers have created a butter-flavored product.
Some shortening brands have been subject to the criticism of nutrition experts because of their high trans fat content. This unhealthy type of fat is a byproduct of partial hydrogenation. In response to this criticism, many manufacturers have altered their production processes, resulting in products that are free of trans fats.