Fat Consistency: Shortenings Are Forgiving

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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Manufacturers of vegetable shortenings control the consistency of their products by controlling how much of the base oil’s unsaturated fat is hydrogenated. Standard cake shortening has the desirable 15–25% solids over a temperature range triple that of butter, from 53 to 85°F/12–30°C. It’s therefore much easier to make flaky pastry with shortening than with butter. Because laminated pastries and breads are especially tricky to make, professionals and manufacturers often use shortenings that have been formulated specifically for their production. Danish margarines are workable up to 95°F/35°C, and puff-pastry margarines to 115°F /46°C: they don’t melt until well into the baking process! However, high melting points have an important drawback: they mean that the fat remains solid at mouth temperature. Where butter and lard melt in the mouth and release luscious flavor, manufactured pastry shortenings can leave a pasty or waxy residue in the mouth, and have no true flavor of their own (they’re often flavored with milk solids).