>The origins of shortening?

>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”:

1796 A. SIMMONS Amer. Cookery 34 Loaf Cakes No. 2 Rub 4 pound of sugar, 3 and a half pound of shortning, (half butter and half lard) into 9 pound of flour.

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:

IV. Not tenacious in substance, friable, brittle.
[Prob. connected with branch I through the notion ‘having little length of fibre’: cf. sense 3.]

20. Of edible substances: Friable, easily crumbled. Phrase, to eat short: to break up or crumble in the mouth. a. of crust, pastry, etc. Cf. SHORTBREAD, SHORTCAKE, SHORT CRUST.

c1430 Two Cookery Bks. 52 {Th}an take warme Berme, & putte al {th}es to-gederys, & bete hem togederys with {th}in hond tyl it be schort & {th}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.

b. of fruit, meat, etc.

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!


12 thoughts on “>The origins of shortening?

  1. >Um, did you look up “gluten” in the OED? 1596.My guess is that they did indeed know about gluten — not precisely the chemistry behind it, but the business about strands. After all, you kind of need to, in order to proof bread (which a friend who works on medieval food sez they did).

  2. >Maybe I misunderstood “strands” as referring to amino acid chains or the like. Perhaps I should looke up “strands” as well as “gluten”! D’oh!

  3. >Meg — Just looked up “gluten” and its first use as “The nitrogenous part of the flour of wheat or other grain, which remains behind as a viscid substance when the starch is removed by kneading the flour in a current of water,” which is what I believe PP was talking about, is 1803. So maybe that’s the strands PP is talking about, too, but that still means that ‘short’ and ‘shortening’ pre-date that specific usage (although the latter not by much).Meanwhile, the first usage of “strand” as “A thread or filament in animal or vegetable structure” is 1877.So, I still think “shortening” as a word originally had more to do with describing the effect of making the resulting bread “crumbly” (or “short” — a much earlier word than “gluten”) than the intermittent chemical process.Still, I don’t mean to say I doubt the skill and knowledge of medieval bakers (or early modern, or 18th century, etc., etc.) — just that they might not know *all* the science behind what they did. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that the science of cooking is a more recent body of knowledge since science as whole through its early stages probably thought it had bigger game to land than “what makes shortening work.”That said, just because they didn’t call it “gluten” doesn’t mean 15th-18th century folks didn’t look at the mess they made with flour, water, and fat, and realize that the fat did something to the mixture. But then, since “short” means “easily crumbled,” and since it dated at least as far back as the 15th century (don’t have MED access at home) then that suggests they were describing the effects after baking, not the process which caused the effects. Thus, “shortening” originally meant “something which makes the baked item crumbly” not “something which causes the gluten to get shorter.” That it in fact does the latter is a happy coincidence of the multiple meanings of the word “short.”

  4. >Dr. V, you ROCK – you are the *only* person I know, who would check out the OED to demystify the process of baking bread (^+^) That is adorably geeky in the best way. My hat’s off to you! 🙂

  5. >I’m stickin’ with both. There’s no doubt (to me, anyway) that they didn’t know all the science, as you say, but they must have known about strands — when I was baking bread for a hippie restaurant back in the early 80s, watching the strands stretch was the main way I judged the bread, and they must have done it the same way. Even if they didn’t know that the strands were made of gluten.And this is why we’re academics.

  6. >Thanks Meg — I don’t think I really understood that “strands” were something visible. That makes a certain amount of sense.

  7. >Ah! A bit late to the game, but I love this post. I do have MED access at home. Here’s the one pertinent entry, which postdates the less reliable OED by 20 years:SHORT 4(c), “crumbly, friable” a1450 Hrl.Cook.Bk.(1) (Hrl 279) 52: “Take fayre Flowre & þe whyte of Eyroun..& bete hem togederys with þin hond tyl it be schort & þikke y-now.”But lord knows where it comes from. On a whim, I checked the Anglo-Norman Dictionary (also online), but ‘court’ doesn’t help, because French just doesn’t use ‘shorten’ in the way English does. Too bad!

  8. >By Odin’s Eye, you academic types (wink… and big hugs all around)… I think we’re all right. Except for Bullock (more winkage… you know I love ya, dawg.). But seriously: a weak gluten matrix = both a crumbly texture after baking and general inelasticity/inextensibility of the dough before baking. In other words, it’s tough to get a gluten window going if you’ve got much shortening in your dough (a gluten window is when you take a piece of bread dough and stretch it with your hands to see if the dough can stretch far enough without ripping to form an almost translucent “window”… once the gluten window is formed, you can then drape it across your face and laugh maniacally, though chefs tend to frown on that sort of thing.). I don’t think any medieval/Renaissance/old-timey bakers looked at each other’s work and said “that’s quite a gluten matrix you’ve got going there,” but I do think they associated what we, in the age of microscopes and book-learnin’, would call a “poor gluten matrix” with inelastic doughs that could not be stretched very long and also a crumbly texture. So maybe they called shortening shortening really because it shortened the dough, in the stretchability sense, rather than because of its weakened, shortened gluten structure, but the two go hand in hand scientifically. In conclusion, er, in summation and all that… I’m right. Rum all around!

  9. >Not to beat a dead gluten matrix or anything, but I just downloaded Chef’s notes for my next class, Hearth Breads and Rolls, taught by a Certified Master Baker (that is a big deal) from Germany (referred to on my blog as der Brotmeister). I noticed he had a section on the whole shortening issue, which I am pasting here, just fyi (and hey, remember, English is his second language, so don’t pick on my Chef for grammar and spelling!):Fats & Oil (Shortenings)This term has been used since the early 19th century to mean fats or oils added to baked goods that supposedly “shorten” or break up masses of gluten, thus weakening the structure and making the final product more tender. In fact, the role of added lipids in dough’s and batters is not this straight forward.In cake batters, where gluten is not the continuous phase, the role of added lipids (fat) is wuite different. In the first place, they serve as a sort of mechanical leavening agent. When butter is “creamed” with sugar, the sharp edges of the sugar crystals cut into the solid fat and create air cells, which can then be incorporated into the batter. What fats do in bread dough is more a mystery. We have seen that lipids naturally presenting flour are necessary for bread dough to be extensible, and so capable of increasing in volume as the yeast does its work. Experiments have shown that added shortening up to the amount of 3 to 4.5% of the total dough weight will increase the final loaf volume by up to 20%, with most of this increase coming at very low shortening levels. And for some reason as higher the melting point of the fat, the more it will increase loaf volume. Many models have been suggested to explain this dramatic effect, but none so far has seemed convincing. More understandable is the moistening and tenderizing effect if fats or oils on bread: lipids slow moisture loss by coating the starch granules.Fats and Oils are not an essential ingredient but may be added for flavor, and to enrich the bread. Fat softens the gluten and makes closer textured, moister loaves.(Fats and Oils are shortening the gluten strands, therefore they are being called “shortening”)

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