Shortening plays a big role in a cake. Whether it’s in the batter or the icing, it provides the foundation for texture, mouthfeel, flavor and even shelf life, making it one of the most critical ingredients in the formulation. 

“Cake shortenings contain fat and optimized emulsifier systems, which makes them better suited for blending air into batters and achieving precision and consistency in specific gravity and aeration,” said Tyronna Capers, director of marketing, Bunge Loders Croklaan. “In both icings and cake batters, this creates a tender, luxurious mouthfeel. Shortenings also contribute to volume and stability in finished cakes, giving formulators the means to fine-tune these variables.”

It’s been years since partially hydrogenated oils have been taken off the market, and bakers can readily find replacements for these retired workhorse shortenings. It’s just a matter of knowing what the formulation needs, whether from a product or process standpoint. 

“When we’re looking at a particular shortening for a batter or icing, we start with what job the customer is expecting the shortening to do,” explained John Satumba, PhD, global bakery technical lead and regional R&D director for North America, global edible oil solutions, Cargill. “If you think about the batter, the baker is looking for eating qualities of the cake like moistness, texture and flavor. For the icing, it’s the aesthetic appeal in color and ability for the icing to maintain its structure, while also delivering some key functionality like flavor, mouthfeel and shelf-life stability.”

Shortening does a lot of the heavy lifting in cakes and icing applications. It entraps air during the creaming process, which has a direct impact on texture, mouthfeel and rise. Shortening helps with the emulsification of all the liquids in the formulation, especially with an emulsifier. It extends shelf life, and it’s a tenderizing ingredient. 

This tenderizing action is what makes shortening so critical, explained Roger Daniels, vice president of research, development, innovation and quality, Stratas Foods. Toughening ingredients like eggs and flour contain proteins that will cross-link once denatured and add structure to cookies, cakes and icing. Tenderizers like shortening and sugar interrupt the protein-to-protein interaction potential. 

“Without shortening, gluten and starch particles adhere to each other and make the product hard and tough,” said Anita Srivastava, PhD, CFS, senior technical service manager, bakery, Kemin Food Ingredients. “Shortening helps to break the continuity of the protein and starch structure. This enables the lubrication of gluten particles and produces a tender and well-aerated product.” 

Shortening also contributes much to the moistness of a cake’s crumb, and emulsifiers can be a key to optimize blending wet and dry ingredients. 

“Emulsified cake shortenings are critical to cake baking because they are responsible for creating a fat in water emulsion,” explained Eric Spelger, principal scientist, Corbion. “Along with other essential wet and dry ingredients that create batters with proper viscosity, fat and emulsifiers assist in creating a stabilizing foam, an aerated batter.” 

The air incorporated during mixing and carbon dioxide from leaveners will be trapped within the emulsion. 

“Too little aeration can lead to a dense cake, while too much aeration can make for a crumbly cake,” Ms. Capers explained. “The ideal shortening will provide proper aeration and the desired sensory qualities.” 

And the ideal shortening will depend on the chemical makeup of the fat, melt points and the baker’s other needs. 

“The best shortenings for cake application should be properly formulated to balance the fat selection as well as an optimized emulsifier system,” Ms. Capers continued. “This balance allows for the product to cream properly and aerate during a production process and produce the desired texture and sensory experience for consumers.”

The beauty of shortening is its plasticity, the fact that it is solid at room temperature but also pliable. This is how shortenings work their magic in the formulation. 

“The shortening is comprised of oil and fat and must be of such character that the mixture of these two fat systems — a liquid and a solid fraction of fat — maintains the body to serve its primary function, which is to enrobe the gluten/gliadin protein network, thereby shortening the protein/protein interaction potential,” Mr. Daniels explained. “This ultimately translates to a foam that yields the desired end use application potential of a cake with spring and crumb structure that achieves the desired qualities that appeal to the senses of bakery customers.” 

The levels of fat solids to liquids as well as the crystal structure will have a big say in how the shortening performs within a cake batter, and this will have a big impact on the finished product characteristics. 

“It’s not only the solids but how they interact with each other and how they crystallize together,” said Frank Flider, oils consultant, United Soybean Board. “Some tend to be very gritty. Others tend to be very light and fluffy. … If you have too much saturates in the shortening or saturates in the wrong place with triglycerides, you may have a different crystal structure.” 

The finished product really guides the level of solids and the crystallization properties bakers should be pursuing with their shortenings. The type of cake and its expected texture and rise, as well as whether the cake will be frozen for shipping and storage, will have an impact on what shortening a baker chooses. 

“Bakery shortenings are formulated with blends of different base stocks and source oils to control melting characteristics, solid fat content and crystal habit, which contribute to creaming quality,” said Jackie Steffey, senior customer innovation manager, AAK. “Chilling and tempering conditions used during bakery shortening production impact the plasticity of the shortening, which directly influences the creaming and dispersion.” 

Without taking process considerations into account, bakers may choose a shortening that performs well in theory, but not when the product is out in the field. 

Bakers may also be looking to reduce saturated fats on their Nutrition Facts Panel. This can be difficult as saturated fat is the functional piece of shortening. 

“We work backwards from the nutritional target the baker is trying to hit,” Dr. Satumba explained. “If we’re lowering the overall saturated fat, is there an alternative ingredient we can add back in to provide the body needed in the final application? While you want to consider the nutritional profile, and reducing saturated fat might be of interest, ultimately the shortening has to deliver the same functionality our customers have become accustomed to.”

This article is an excerpt from the April 2022 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Fats & Oils, click here.