As I progress in my vegan baking adventures I strive for quality ingredients that give me as much control as possible over the flavors and textures I'm trying to convey. I also love breaking foods down to their most basic components and building them back up again, learning and getting unnecessarily excited along the way. For some people it's TV. For me it's this sort of food hacking.
I recently decided that I wanted to create a high quality vegan butter because I began to tire of the store bought yellow goop that I was so steadily relying on. What if I don't want all that diacetyl flavoring, beta carotene coloring, palm oil and who knows what else? It reminded me of one of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits from the 80's: Happy Fun Ball. "Don't taunt Happy Fun Ball". My vegan butter experimentation ended up being more successful than I imagined. What if I made my own shortening?
Understanding shorteningWhat is shortening and why is it used in baking? Shortening is flavorless and consists of 100% fat. It's designed to be used in baking applications where it's ability to remain solid at room temperature can benefit the ease of preparation of the food as well as the consistency of the dough.
Shortening is frequently used to inhibit gluten formation doughs such as in pie crusts, puff pastry and short bread. The compounds that form gluten, glutenin and gliadin, have trouble binding together in the presence of oil because they get slippery. This causes the gluten bonds to become short. This is why a crumbly dough such as a shortbread or pie crust is known as a short dough. While we're on the subject of oil in doughs, this is also why adding a couple Tablespoons of any type of oil to a loaf of bread dough will cause the loaf to bake up more soft and tender.
When there are streaks of shortening or other fats in doughs such as pie crusts or puff pastry the fat separates the layers of dough from each other, allowing them to further separate as they trap rising steam and gas during baking. Shortening does this job well because unlike vegan butter which contains water that would activate some of the gluten, shortening is 100% fat so the gluten bonds are minimized as much as possible. This results in a crispy, crunchy, flaky goodness. Using a fat that is solid at room temperature such as shortening is critical because a liquid oil would be soaked up by the flour and evenly dispersed in the dough too evenly during mixing which would result in a crumbly, mealy finished product.
Applying shortening food science to vegan shorteningIt wasn't until I started Veganbaking.net that I realized that the US is one of the only countries in the world where shortening can be easily found. This recipe allows you make shortening if you're unable to find it in your area. It also gives you the option of avoiding regular store-bought shortening which is based on palm oil. As of this writing, palm oil is currently associated with rainforest destruction in Sumatra as well as other places. Isn't it ironic that a vegan product can negatively affect environmental and animal welfare? Coconut oil is still flown half way around the world but at least it's a step in the right direction.
I recommend refined coconut oil in this recipe. Refined coconut oil has been deodorized so it doesn't contain coconut flavor or aroma. If you want a strong coconut flavor in your baked item than go with unrefined coconut oil by all means.
A Note of Caution Coconut oil melts at about 77F (25C) so if you're going to be using this shortening in frostings and other preparations where it's not being baked into actual products like pie crust, and the temperature exceeds that temperature, the shortening will melt and your frosting will slide down your cake. If you do need things like frostings to be more temperature stable and similar to traditional frostings, I recommend a version of this vegan shortening that's based on deodorized cocoa butter which is forthcoming.
Learn about the melting temperatures of fats.