"Crisco never varies."
- From a 1912 advertisement
That seems a fair statement, no? Ninety years later there Crisco remains, just as fluffy and slippery and industrial white-white as the first day the stuff rolled off the line. Had someone refrigerated one of those first cans of all-vegetable shortening, who's to say you couldn't crack it open right now and roll a nice pie crust for your Thanksgiving meal?
Who needs a time machine when there's Crisco? It's possible to look at a scoop of it today and with even modest leaps of imagination experience the wonder folks must have felt in those first Crisco encounters during the William H. Taft years.
Really, now - what on Earth is this stuff? Is anything else you can think of quite that shade of white? If you shut off the lights, can you still find it in the dark? Would the absence of a "sell-by" date on the can suggest the shelf life of, say, linoleum?
No wonder the first national advertisements in 1912 read like a home-economics textbook. No wonder Procter & Gamble not only launched Crisco with a strikingly modern marketing campaign, but also enlisted a posse of what were then called "domestic scientists" to fan out across the country demonstrating "An Absolutely New Product," as one ad put it.
If the laboratory boys figured they'd created a kitchen miracle, the marketing folks understood they had some explaining to do.
They still might, depending on the crowd.
Nearly a century later, Crisco remains a contested idea. At the highest levels of the cooking profession stand some chefs who happily bake with Crisco and others who would sooner put ketchup in the marinara sauce. And while it was first touted as a more healthful alternative to butter or lard, Crisco - with half the saturated fat of butter - now is understood as a source of trans fatty acids, which some studies have linked to higher risk of heart disease.
Funny how there's never a recipe that says " ... partially hydrogenate 1/2 cup vegetable oil. ... " Even when Americans were rendering their lard and churning their butter, no one ever went out back and whipped up a batch of solid vegetable shortening.
Crisco is a test-tube baby, a laboratory concoction made by pumping hydrogen gas into heated vegetable oil in the presence of nickel, a catalyst for the chemical reaction that hardens the oil. Once the oil firms up, the nickel is entirely removed. The result: "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil," a substance with no taste and no aroma, no more food appeal of its own than, say, cornstarch, yet suited to a task.
"There's nothing wrong with that shortening," says Jan Bandula, a master pastry chef and senior instructor at the Baltimore International College. "I use it at home."
At home, Bandula says he uses butter-flavored Crisco, introduced in 1981 - a compromise between the handling qualities of vegetable shortening and the taste of butter. At the school, he says vegetable shortenings other than Crisco are used because Crisco - which Procter & Gamble sold last year to J.M. Smucker - is not made in large quantities for the commercial market.
For commercial baking, Bandula considers butter too expensive to use exclusively. Also, he says, there's the questionable eye appeal of yellow dough.
Number among Crisco fans Carole Walter and Nancy Baggett, both cookbook writers who specialize in baking. For the way it handles and produces a crisp and tender pie crust, they both recommend it.
Baggett, of Ellicott City, who wrote The All-American Cookie Book and co-wrote the International Cookie Book, notes that butter tends to produce a less-tender crust than Crisco.
While Crisco is all fat, butter is between 10 percent and 20 percent water, which can react with the gluten in the flour and toughen the crust. As butter melts more readily during handling, there may not be enough chunks of it left when the pie goes into the oven to keep the crust flaky. Those fat clumps essentially act as space-holders in the dough. As the fat melts in the oven, steam from the pie fills those spaces, making a flaky crust.
Walter, who wrote Great Cakes and co-wrote Great Pies & Tarts, says she has used Crisco for years in pie crusts, mixing it with butter for flavor. After judging an apple-pie baking contest in New Jersey early this month, she reports that the shortening seems to be holding its own even among sophisticated metropolitan-area cooks. Of 46 entries, she says all but about five were made with all or part Crisco crusts.
Among her circle of cooking professionals, Walter says the mention of Crisco can start arguments.
"Many of my peers absolutely won't touch it," says Walter, who lives in West Orange, N.J.
Nick Malgieri, for example, who runs the baking curriculum at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, says he uses butter, never vegetable shortening. In his view, there's this salient question: Would you spread Crisco on a piece of toast? If not, why bake with it?