When Crisco appeared on the scene in 1911, it was the first solid shortening made entirely of vegetable oil, not lard. Solid shortening was the result of a technological breakthrough, called hydrogenation, that transformed liquid vegetable oil into a solid. Crisco was marketed as more sanitary than the commonly used animal fats and its popularity grew. Shortening steadily replaced lard in pie crusts and for deep frying. When Americans became concerned with the heart-damaging effects of saturated fats, solid vegetable shortening was again a popular alternative.
Recently, researchers determined that hydrogenated oils are as unhealthy or worse than animal fats. Once the darling of the kitchen cupboard, shortening started hanging out with the wrong crowd. Its name was uttered along with heart disease, infertility, growth problems and cancer, and it looked like it was all over for America's favorite fat.
So this leaves the savvy chef in a bind. While it is still cheaper than butter, vegetable shortening no longer posed significant health benefits. But vegetable shortening does make flakier pie crusts and lighter fried foods. Also, the fall of Crisco left vegetarians and kosher cooks high and dry.
But now shortening is waging a healthy comeback with a new, nonhydrogenated, trans fat-free recipe. (It's free of dangerous trans fats but not fat free, get it?) The brand we've discovered is made by Spectrum Organics and is made with palm oil. Because palm oil is naturally solid at room temperature, it doesn't have to go through all that scary molecular processing business. It is cholesterol free, and contains 20 percent less saturated fat than butter.
Sound too good to be true? For once, it's not. Spectrum has performed well in taste tests and it honestly won't kill you. The only downside to this stuff is the price; while the price of butter fluctuates wildly between $1.50 and $4.50 per pound, original Crisco costs about $2.50, and Spectrum's product can run as much as $4 per pound. Also, you can only find it at natural foods stores like Wild Oats, La Montañita Co-op, Whole Foods and Keller's Farm Stores.
Crisco is now making a trans-fat free version that you can find at most grocery stores, but it lacks the added benefits of being organic or completely free of chemical processing. So if you still want to bake like grandma did but don't want her to outlive you, Spectrum's Organic Shortening is about as good as it gets.
At last, shortening is back in the limelight where it belongs after a long hiatus. Yes, times they are a-changing, and most companies still using hydrogenated oils are eventually going to have to jump on the trans fat bandwagon. But we know you like to be ahead of the game, even in the world of baking products. So go out and pick up some Spectrum, and be as cool as Crisco once was.