Shortening is a semi-solid vegetable-based fat that is used in a variety of cooking capacities. The most commonly known shortening comes in a large can and is scooped out with a spatula or paddle. It is used in baking a lot, and can be used in its liquid state for frying and pan-based cooking. Shortening generally does not have a very strong flavor on its own (unless specifically modified, such as butter-flavored shortening), so it lets the other flavors in a recipe play together well.
Vegetable-based shortening is the common alternative to lard, an animal-based fat that is also semi-solid. Lard is used in much the same way as standard vegetable-based shortening, but most people report a slight difference in flavor. There's also a lot of concern about cholesterol content in lard because it is derived from animals, and cholesterol primarily comes from animal products. (The exception to this is avocados, but that is the topic of another article.)
Another alternative to vegetable shortening is butter - the tried-and-true kitchen staple! If you're baking, some slight variations may need to be taken into account since butter browns and burns much more easily than shortening. "Flash browning" (putting a pie or pastry in a very hot oven for a short period of time to brown it) followed by a slightly longer period of cooking at a lower temperature is one option, although you may want to put a shield around the outside edge of a pie to prevent further browning. A pie shield can be purchased in many specialty shops, but you're just as likely to have fabulous success with a ring of aluminum foil.
The main concern is why you want to substitute shortening and for what kind of recipe. For making a roux, for instance, you can use shortening, lard, butter, olive oil, or any type of fat, but the fat you use will affect the flavor of your dish. For pastry making, sometimes there is no substitute, and some recipes will ask for both shortening and butter.
A good rule of thumb to experiment with a recipe is to start well-ahead of "showtime" and scale your recipe down to a quarter (or less) of its original size. Make your substitutions and see how it turns out. Have fun in the kitchen, and don't be afraid to color outside of the lines a little!
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