Is Crisco really a 4-letter word?
Ginger's Breadboys® bases its recipe on a recipe that dates from the 1950s and more than likely well before. The recipe has no attribution probably because it has been handed down from one generation to the next and no one really knows who came up with it. But it specifically calls for shortening and, well, Crisco was the most popular brand of the early 20th century.
According to Wikipedia, shortening is any fat that is a solid at room temperature and used to make crumbly pastry and other food products. Although butter is solid at room temperature and is frequently used in making pastry, the term "shortening" seldom refers to butter, but is more closely related to margarine.
A fat by any other name is still a fat!
Baking with butter rather than shortening is the obvious change-up if you want your gingerbread boy cookies to be more natural. Butter is a natural food made from cow’s milk. Traditional vegetable shortening requires a process to turn it into a solid for baking since vegetable oils are liquid at room temperature.
Crisco uses a process that turned cottonseed oil (and later, soybean oil) from a liquid into a solid, like lard, that was perfect for baking and frying. Crisco, a modification of the phrase "crystallized cottonseed oil," changed its recipe, cutting the amount of trans fats in one serving to less than .5 grams.
Even though shortening products have come a long way in recent years in ridding themselves of trans-fats, remember both butter and shortening are fats. Animal fat and vegetable oil. Shortening is 100% fat. Butter is about 80% fat. About 18% is water and the remaining 2% are milk solids – we’ll get to this later.
Why is it called shortening?
Well, there are two reasons.
First the word short. We found ‘short’ as a synonym for the word ‘friable’ from Merriam Webster. Friable means easily crumbled or pulverized. This synonym or word association is from Folk etymology first published in 1882. Etymology is the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history. The phrase came from ‘to eat short’ when crisp, friable or crumbling. ‘Short’ as a technical word means brittle. Iron is said to be red-short which is brittle when red hot.
For more information, see Why In The World Is Shortening Called Shortening? It's not just about Crisco.
Second, shortening is called shortening because it shortens gluten.
Borrowing from Varieties and Uses of Shortening, Solid Fats for Baking and their discussion of the process of shortening:
Like its noun form, the verb "shortening" refers to the process of a fat interfering with gluten formation in a dough. This process is important for many baked goods, such as pie crusts, because gluten creates a gummy or chewy end product. When fat is worked into dry flour, the fat creates a barrier between gluten molecules, thus preventing them from cross-linking once a liquid is added.
Shortening is also used in baked goods to keep them soft after baking. Unlike butter, which separates into oil and milk solids upon melting, shortening remains intact and reverts to its soft, semi-solid state upon cooling.
For this reason, cookies and other baked goods made with shortening tend to be soft, while those made with butter have a crispier texture.
For more information, see Taking Control of Gluten
Why do we need fat in baking?
Simply put - texture and taste. Texture - shortening or fat keeps baked goods soft; and taste - spices need fat to flavor.
Spices by and large are fat soluble. This means they dissolve better in fat rather than water and release more of their flavor compounds when heated with fats and oils. A great tasting cookie needs fat. Spices spread their flavor much better in fat than in water.
Is butter a healthier option?
Let’s start with a basic premise – a cookie is first and foremost a treat. Defined, a treat it is an event or item that is out of the ordinary and gives great pleasure. We’ve already established that a cookie needs fat for texture and taste. Going low fat is not optimal as it affects both the texture and the taste of the cookie. So, let’s accept that cookies as a treat might not be all that good for you whether you use butter or shortening. But we'll concede that butter is a natural food whereas shortening is not.
We love how Ginger's Breadboys® gingerbread boy cookies bake and taste using shortening (Crisco). And all Crisco shortening products now have 0g trans-fat per serving. If you prefer butter to shortening, recognize that a gingerbread boy cookie made with Crisco or shortening will be higher and lighter than a gingerbread boy cookie made with butter which will be flatter and crispier. Why? Two reasons: the water in butter and how butter melts when heated (respectively).
For more information, read How to substitute butter for shortening when baking to develop your recipe for the Ginger’s Breadboys® gingerbread boy cookie using butter. And remember, because butter has more water than shortening, you’ll need to go easy on the wet ingredients in the Ginger's Breadboys® recipe to maintain the consistency of your dough.
Look for more information on substituting butter for shortening in the Ginger’s Breadboys® gingerbread boy cookie as we test bake over the summer.
Read about the Saga of Crisco.
Update: 8/10/2019 - We test baked a batch of gingerbread cookies with butter and they turned out awesome. Use 2 sticks of salted butter (1 cup) and adjust the liquid in the recipe (remember butter is 20% liquid). Use only 3/4 cup of unsulphured molasses instead of a cup and 5 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar instead of 2 tablespoons.