>The Pastry Pirate had a post not too long ago in which she discussed learning why shortening (i.e., the fat you use in baking) is called shortening. (Btw, today is her birthday!) In that post, she wrote:
Do you know why shortening is called shortening?
It’s because shortening, like other fats, is able to shorten the gluten strands that form when water is added to flour and the resulting mixture is agitated (as in kneading or mixing). A shorter, weaker gluten strand and gluten matrix results in more flakiness and tenderness, which is desirable in pie crusts and pastries, for which shortening is most often used.
The post suggests that she learned this in her Baking Ingredients and Equipment class. I thought it was really cool, too, as did her commenters. So I mentioned it to Bullock, himself a baker of the serious amateur type and a lover all things technical and historical associated with cooking (or woodworking, for that matter). He was skeptical. As he put it, “Would my 19th century great-grandparents who used ‘shortening’ have known that’s what it did? Did the makers of ‘shortbread’ name it for its chemical reactions?” That made me wonder, too — which is older, the science that the Pirate describes above or the words ‘shortening’ and ‘short’ in reference to pastry?
Here’s what the OED shows for the usage history of the word “shortening”:
1823 MOOR Suffolk Words, Shortning, suet or butter, in cake, crust, or bread. 1854 SEBA SMITH Way down East 333 We have n’t got a bit of shortnin’ in the house. 1883 Cassell’s Fam. Mag. Nov. 758/2 The very reason for boiling the ‘shortening’ with water is that by liquefying the fat a minimum quantity of water can be used. 1970 SIMON & HOWE Dict. Gastronomy 347/2 Shortening, a culinary term used more in the United States than in Britain and it applies to fats used in making breads, cakes, pastry etc. All fats, even oils, come under this nomenclature and are used because they make mixtures ‘short’ or tender. 1980 Blair & Ketchum’s Country Jrnl. Oct. 34/3, 2 tablespoons shortening.
Hmm…did the 18th century know about the “gluten matrix”? What’s more, look at the 1970 example and its use of “short” as a synonym for tender. That, plus Bullock’s mention of “shortbread,” made me look up “short,” and here’s what I found:
c1430 Two Cookery Bks. 52 an take warme Berme, & putte al es to-gederys, & bete hem togederys with in hond tyl it be schort & ikke y-now. 1594 Good Huswife’s Handmaid 17b, To make short paste in Lent. 1700 CONGREVE Way of World III. xv. 46 You may be as short as a Shrewsbury Cake, if you please. 1888 EDMONDSTON & SAXBY Home Nat. 99 A thick cake, which may be made of either flour or oatmeal, and may be rendered ‘short’ by the use of fat.1648 GAGE West Ind. 143 This is the Venison of America, whereof I have sometimes eaten, and found it white and short. 1655 MOUFET & BENNET Health’s Improv. xix. 186 Salmons are of a fatty, tender, short and sweet flesh. 1699 EVELYN Acetaria 57 The bigger Roots..should..eat short and quick. 1706 LONDON & WISE Retir’d Gard. I. I. vii. 35 Its Pulp eats short, and its Juice is sugar’d. 1856 Orr’s Circ. Sci., Pract. Chem. 337 Vinegar makes the meat short, short meat being easy of digestion.
Ah-ha, so “short” in reference to pastry means crumbly and has been used at least since the 15th century. (I included def. b. just for interest.) Now I’m pretty positive the 15th century didn’t know about the underlying chemistry of gluten, but they did know the effects of the ingredients they used.
So, in short (hahahahaha), it seems that the underlining chemistry of shortening and it nomenclature are simply a happy — and tasty — little coincidence. Fascinating.
Oh, and Bullock and his baking grandparents would probably tell you that lard makes the best shortening. Of course, that’s not recommended for your vegetarian friends!