WTF is shortening?

By Stevie Adams / in , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , /

What even is shortening? Kind of a tricky
question to answer, because the contents of this canister are radically different right
now than they were just a few years ago, but in short… (Get it? Short?) …shortening is a vegetable oil that has
been chemically modified to be semi-solid at room temperature. To understand why someone
might want to do that, let’s take a field trip to the birthplace of shortening … right
here. Actually, there are a few towns that can legitimately
claim to be the birthplace of shortening, but Macon, Georgia, where I live, is definitely
one of them. This is where a young industrialist named Wallace McCaw was living when, in 1905,
he trademarked a “substitute for lard composed mainly of cotton-seed oil.” This is a Georgia cotton field. A place, it
should be said, eternally haunted by the ghost of slavery. Growing inside those Audrey II-looking
pods is, of course, the fluffy white fiber that most of your clothes are probably made
out of. But there’s also seeds — billions upon billions of oily little seeds that had
little to no commercial value. That is until McCaw, and other inventors who were working
on parallel paths around the time, figured out how to make imitation lard with otherwise
useless oils. Also soap. Soap is made from fat, but you knew that, because you’ve seen
Fight Club.” “To make soap, first we render fat.” This is the mansion that Wallace McCaw built
for himself here in Macon. Local lore has it that the off-white bricks were made to
look like blocks of shortening. I think that’s probably not true, but let’s just go with
it. This industrial process of turning liquid
oil into solid fat was called hydrogenation. Around 1909, Procter & Gamble hired McCaw
and bought up his patents. They similarly acquired the work of other guys who were tinkering
on the same stuff at the time — and in 1911, Crisco hit the market. Cisco is short for
“crystallized cottonseed oil.” Why did people want this stuff? Well, it’s
way cheaper and more neutral in flavor than lard, and it basically never goes rancid.
And it was particularly popular here in the American South for the same reason that lard
had been popular down here — it’s less likely to melt in the heat. Prior to the advent of
air conditioning, butter could melt down here at room temperature much of the year. Now why did they call it “shortening”? Well “shortening” was already in the lexicon
to describe any fat used in dough in sufficient quantity to make that dough soft and crumbly.
A lot of sources trace that etymology to gluten strands — those long proteins that make
a dough stretchy. The more fat in the dough, the shorter those strands. The Oxford English Dictionary has a much more
amusing theory, though. Use of the word “short” to describe a crumbly pastry goes back as
far as 1430, and it was also used to describe all kinds of crumbly materials, including
metals. And the OED theorizes that this use of the word short was originally meant to
describe not gluten strands but … manure. As we can read in “A Student’s Book on Soils
and Manures” by Sir Edward John Russell (Cambridge University Press, 1915), “short manure” is
dung that has decomposed to the point where the undigested straw that the cow ate has
broken apart into short little strands, thus giving the manure a crumbly, unreinforced
character. Mmmm, mmm. So getting back to baked goods,
every Christmas Lauren makes her grandmother’s recipe for Peanut Blossom Cookies. Look, it
says right on there, “MAKE EVERY YEAR,” we have no choice! Grandma Sjorstrom calls for shortening as
the her main fat source. So last night, as an experiment, we made a half-batch with shortening
and a half-batch with softened butter. You cream the fats with the sugar, mix in the
other ingredients and then roll the dough into little, sugar-coated balls. “Shortening balls are on the right. Butter
balls are on the left.” “Dear god.” Right when they come out of the oven, you
press in your Hershey’s Kisses. Yes, this recipe is in the description. Shortening cookies
are on the right, and let’s taste them. “It’s not necessarily that they’re, like,
better or worse. It’s interesting, it’s just the butter ones are kind of gooey, whereas
the shortening ones kind of like cakey and crumbly.” “Mmm hmm.” The butter cookies were more gooey last night,
and today they’re more chewy. Different fats react differently, for all
kinds of chemistry reasons way over my head, but one explanation for this difference might
be that butter contains about 15 percent water leftover from the milk, and that water might
be reacting with the wheat proteins to make this dough a little bit more chewy. Also,
because the melting point of shortening is higher, the shortening cookies spread a bit
less in the oven, so their texture is a little bit more cakey. Which one is better? Texture-wise, I think they’re just different.
It depends what you’re into. But flavor-wise, the butter one is definitely
better. You can buy butter-flavored shortening to compensate for this, which is what Lauren
usually uses. Real good stuff. But I think the real magic is when you combine
shortening with butter. These cookies I made by mixing up our two leftover doughs. They
have some gooey chewiness from the butter, and some crumbly cakiness from the shortening. My favorite Southern-style biscuit recipes
use butter and shortening together, for this very reason. But what everybody wants to know
is, is the shortening going to kill you? In the past, yeah, maybe it really would have.
The process of partially hydrogenating oil results in trans-unsaturated fatty acids,
or trans fats. Research indicating these fats might make your heart explode right out of
your chest started mounting in the 1990s, and in 2006, a meta-analysis of studies published
in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded, “On a per-calorie basis, trans fats appear
to increase the risk of [Corenary Heart Disease] more than any other macronutrient, conferring
a substantially increased risk at low levels of consumption (1 to 3% of total energy intake).”
Yikes. This was infuriating, because the scientific
and medical establishment had previously touted margarin as a more healthy alternative to
butter. Margarin was, at the time, basically just flavored and diluted shortening. Health authorities around the world have been
moving to restrict artificial trans fats, including right here in the United States,
where an outright ban on partially hydrogenated oils went into effect last year. Trans fats
actually do occur naturally in very small quantities in meat and dairy, but this ban
is on artificial trans fats created by partial hydrogenation. The Food and Drug Administration did extend
that deadline for certain products to give industry more time to figure out reformulations.
This extension covered things like “pan-release agents” and other things containing very small
very small amounts of partially hydrogenated oil. You might not even know about it from
the label, because foods in the U.S. don’t have to list lots of things on their labels
if they have less than half a gram of it per serving. This is one of many reasons why the
official serving size of things tends to be comically small. Anyway, that extension just ended a couple
months ago, as of this recording. There certainly still are foods hanging out on store shelves
everywhere that have partially hydrogenated oils on them, but all of those have to be
gone by New Years Day, 2021. So now we’re right back where we started.
If the stuff in here isn’t partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, what is it? Well, let’s look on the label. We’ve got fully
hydrogenated palm oil. That’s really different from partially hydrogenated oil. Fully hydrogenated
oil doesn’t have any trans fat in it, so it’s better for you, but it’s really hard and waxy.
So the folks at Crisco would seem to be mixing it with other things, like soybean oil and
palm oil. Palm oil is very popular with processed food makers. It’s one of the few fats you
can get from a plant that naturally contains a lot of saturated fat. You should know that there are particular
environmental concerns about palm oil. Oil palm plantations in places like Indonesia
and Malaysia are displacing rainforest and other important tropical habitat. And here’s another thing you should know:
If the oils in here haven’t been partially-hydrogenated, they probably have been interesterified. Interesterification:
it’s the new hydrogenation. I say “probably” because U.S. food laws don’t
explicitly require labels to mention interesterification. Food companies in general tend to be as vague
as legally possible on their labels, in part to protect their trade secrets. I invited the makers of Crisco to discuss
the contents of their product with me, and my queries to the Smucker Company, which owns
Crisco, went unanswered. But don’t focus all your ire on them. Intresterified fats are
apparently now everywhere in processed foods. What are interesterified fats and should we
be worried about them in our diet? Well, that just happens to be the title of a terrific
journal article out of the U.K., it’s linked in the description, along with all of my other
sources, but here’s one of the authors, Dr. Sarah Berry of King’s College, London. “This is something that I’ve been actively
researching at King’s College for the last 18 years.” As Dr. Berry explains it, fats have triglycerides
in them; triglycerides are made up of a backbone here, that’s the glycerol — and it is esterified
to fatty acids. “In the process of interesterification, what
happens is is the fatty acids are re-shuffled along those positions, and you increase the
amount of saturated fatty acids in the middle position, so that it behaves more like an
animal fat, such as, let’s say, lard or butter.” Yeah, I don’t really know what that means
either. But are interesterified fats better for you than trans fats? Dr. Berry says we
don’t really know; she’s working on it. But, she does have little kids, like I do, and
I asked her: “Would you feed them to your children?” “Yes. Based on the research that we’ve done
at King’s, the research to date would suggest that they have no negative health effects.
Obviously, we’re at the early stages of research, and I always like say, watch this space, because
things might change” What have we learned here today? Well, shortening
is some kind of liquid vegetable oil that a chemist has figured out how to turn into
a semi-solid, by one means or another, and it makes foods really yummy and delicious
and last a really long time. And is shortening OK to eat in its current incarnation? Well, surprisingly, I’m feeling a lot better
about that now than I did about a week ago. All dietary fats have their downsides. You
think you can invent a better one? Then maybe you can build yourself a mansion made of your
own fat-colored bricks. And again, I’m pretty sure that story isn’t true, but let’s just
go with it. As Dr. Berry explains it, fats are made up
of triglycerides — hi, Freddie.

100 thoughts on “WTF is shortening?

  1. 7:36
    Beef causes more deforestation than palm oil.

    Fucking rich westerners criticising poor south east asians while stuffing their mouth with beef

  2. Wow was eating dinner while watching this. Then the fight club scene came up…
    Edit: And now a cow is shitting…

  3. The shocking secret to wtf is shortening is its just made of white wine, seasoned cutting boards & black magic.

    It is just cottonseed oil!

  4. I've been making those Peanut Butter Blossoms for years now, and I actually find the shortening version to be better. The butter ones come out too dry.

  5. Oooooh! I'd wondered why shortening looked so much like lard. It now makes total sense: it was meant as a substitute for lard.

  6. Funny thing about African slavery, its still going on today and no one cares about it but yall sure do love to remind White people about 200 years ago when .3% of the population owned slaves and 70% of them were Jewish.

  7. Adam do you have any ties with Britain? You often mention what the Brits would call things you’re doing and in this video you called it a biscuit not a cookie, asking out of curiosity! Peace and love

  8. chemist here Adam. interesterified should be pronounced inter-esterified, not inter-sterified. esterification is the process of converting an acid to an ester.

  9. Maybe this is a cultural difference (I'm from England, and I bake), but I find it totally bizarre that, when you hear "shortening", you think of hydrogenated vegetable oils. For me, the word is still used exclusively to refer to any fat used to make dough and pastry more crumbly, regardless of which fat is used

    (I say exclusively, but obviously it still also means "making shorter", too)

  10. One video – Apologizes for slavery that he had nothing to do with…
    Another video – Making sure he points out how grateful he is for Mexican cooking…

    Literally everyone watching these videos – Just looking for delicious things to stuff their faces with. Lol

  11. But crisco is supposed to substitute for leaf lard, not butter. How would using a neutral-flavored rendered animal fat affect cookies?

  12. As a European I’m always baffled over why most companies would have 60+ ingredients in their pastries. In Sweden, companies compete in have the least amount of ingredients to keep down on the artificial bullshit

  13. Basic biochemistry. Triglycerides are separated back into Glycerol and their three fatty acid residues. That happens no matter the kind of fatty acid residue. And those fatty acids in the case of interesterified fats are still the same fatty acids that your body would encounter naturally. So in my opinion, those interesterified fats shouldn't be any more or less harmful than a "normal fat" with a similar composition of fatty acids.

    The reason why trans fats in partially hydrogenated oils are so bad for your body is because of that one double bond they possess. In the normal fatty acids, that double bond is in cis-configuration (meaning it gives the whole molecule kind of a flattened V-shape). In trans fats, that double bond is a trans bond, however, meaning the fatty acid just continues as a straight line. Our bodies don't really know what to do with trans fats, so they just keep floating around your blood stream, where they can clog your blood vessels.

  14. I made them today and those are really nice cookies. I like that the peanut flavour is not too strong, but it was a bit too sweet for us. So next time I will reduce the sugar. Thanks for giving us the recipe and an interesting video!

  15. @7:50: "Intra-" (your pronunciation) and "inter-" (the actual prefix) have very different meanings.

    Also, the part of the word after the prefix is "ester", not "ster".

    Someone hearing your pronunciation would reasonably think you were talking about a process of internal sterilization rather than the creation of esters between things. Those are very different meanings.

  16. The moral of the story is use real food stuffs to make real food, like lard, butter and so on. I'm old enough to remember McDonald's fries were made right in front of you by putting a potato, with the skin, into a press that cut it into fries which were then cooked in … beef tallow (beef lard). That is why they tasted so good, back then, and why they're just scientifically a bad copy of what they used to be.

  17. I grew up on this nasty stuff. I now follow a healthy, whole food, non-processed diet but I have the feeling I’m still doomed

  18. I think a small mistake has been made in the video – it looks like interesterification brings an unsaturated fat in the middle, not a saturated fat in the middle as mentioned in the video. Still great video, I'm happy you shared such an interesting topic with us!

  19. Eh.. everything will kill you if you eat too much of it. Eat too much sugar? Dead. Too much meat? Dead. Heck there's a tiny bit of cyanide in apple seeds. Swallowed whole and the seed won't digest. Chew thourougly however and the cyanide is released. You know what happens if you eat around 20 apples worth of seeds? Dead.

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