Cooking with non-trans fats/the Crisco story

A few days ago Chef Michael Schwartz, formerly of Le Cirque and Osteria del Circo, agreed to test the cooking properties of a several fats that will be used to replace trans fats once the New York City ban takes place. Mr. Schwartz test, set up at the Institute of Culinary Education where he is an instructor, compared Crisco, coconut oil, peanut oil, canola oil, butter and lard in the cooking of an apple tart, fried chicken and French fries.

Part of the test was to see if Crisco — the only ingredient he was using whose trans fat content exceeds what will be allowed under the new rules — produced a better result in taste, texture or appearance than the other oils and shortenings. The other objective was to find the best trans fat alternative for each dish.

Mr. Schwartz chose Crisco, butter and coconut oil, which is higher in saturated fat than butter, as the three competing ingredients in his apple tarts. “I can tell you in advance, the Crisco will make a flakier crust,” he said, before removing them from the oven.

He was right. The slightly browned pastry crust made with Crisco was light, flaky and beckoning. By contrast, the tart made with butter had a flatter, firmer and less appealing crust; the one made with coconut oil appeared lumpy, and crumbled under a knife.

Still, when it came to taste, according to a highly unscientific test by Mr. Schwartz and this reporter, the tart made with coconut oil was the best.

The French fries turned out to be the crispiest when cooked in Crisco, but tasted the best when cooked in coconut oil, although they were a little limp. The fried chicken ended up about the same irrespective of which oil was used–it looked the same and tasted the same.

Trans Fat TartsBased on Mr. Schwartz’s experiments, it appears that trans fat-laden Crisco is the best shortening available to make foods crispy and flaky, especially pastries. As we all know, appearance can actually make a difference in how things taste. Big, flaky pastries and crisp French fries are always going to seem to taste better to the average Joe irrespective of what a trained chef has to say about it.

Take a look at the three tarts pictured above. The one on the left made with Crisco looks the best by a long shot–more crumbly and flaky–even though the chef deemed the tart made with coconut oil on the right to taste better, I would bet that the the average person given the same test would pick the Crisco-made tart.

It will be fairly easy for restaurants and bakeries in New York to create tastier foods; it’s going to be tough for them to create foods that look good without using trans fats.

Proctor and Gamble from its earliest days touted Crisco for this very virtue. I have a book published by Proctor and
Gamble in 1913 when Crisco was first marketed.


crisco-book-blog-size.jpg


This little book was distributed far and wide to cooks and housewives all over the country in an effort to get them to switch from butter and lard.

I’m going to put up scans of a few pages just so you can get the feel for the sales job put on these folks.

crisco-book-pg-8-blog-size.jpg

crisco-book-pg-9-blog-size.jpg crisco-book-pg-12.jpg

crisco-book-pg-13.jpg

A few of my favorite lines are from pages a little further in the book that I didn’t scan this time around. Maybe later if there is interest.

It was the aim of the makers of Crisco to produce a strictly vegetable product without adding lard and consequently indigestible animal fat. There is today a pronounced partiality from a health standpoint to a vegetable fat, and the lardy, greasy taste of food resulting from the use of animal fat never has been in such disfavor as during the past few years.

So Crisco is absolutely all vegetable. No stearine, animal or vegetable is added. It possesses no taste nor odor save the delightful and characteristic aroma which identifies Crisco, and is suggestive of its purity.

When the dainty shadings of taste are over-shadowed by a “lardy” flavor, the true taste of the food itself is lost. We miss the “hidden” or natural taste of the food. Crisco has a peculiar power of bringing our the very best in food flavors. Even the simplest foods are allowed a delicacy of flavor.

Makes me almost want to go out and go face down in some.

I’ve always said the the perfect food for the horrendous typical American diet would be a ball of trans fat sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. Well, the folks at Proctor and Gamble beat me to it. Way back in 1913 they offered up a recipe in their little book for a delicacy called Crisco Drops. Although made with a syrup of pure sugar heated until liquefied, it’s not far from HFCS.

crisco-book-pg-candy-recipe.jpg

Mmm, Mmm. I can almost feel my arteries hardening just reading the recipes.

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14 thoughts on “Cooking with non-trans fats/the Crisco story

  1. You have quite a collection of vintage books. Very interesting.

    I have an unrelated question, if I may. I’ve recently heard thru the low-carb grapevine that if you’re going to have a glucose tolerance test you need to eat more carbs for a few days before or risk a false ‘failure’. Is this true? Does LC predispose you to too-high sugar on the glucose challenge?

    Thanks

    M

    Hi Michelle–

    The standard procedure is to consume at least 150 grams of carbohydrate for three days before the test.  Why?  So that you will generate the enzymes needed to metabolize the glucose when you take the test.  If you don’t eat carbs, your body won’t make the enzymes to metabolize it. What’s the point?  You’re not eating carbs; why expend the energy to produce the enzymes to deal with something you’re not eating.  The body channels its resources toward making enzymes that metabolize fat and protein instead.  In this situation if you get a concentrated load of carb, as you do in the glucose tolerance test, your blood sugar will go a little higher for a little longer and may even reach levels falling into the glucose intolerant or even diabetic range.  Which, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re diabetic or glucose intolerant.
    If you start eating carbs, your body makes the enzymes.  Since the numbers used to set the normal limits on the glucose tolerance test were established on people who had been eating plenty of carbs, and who, therefor, had plenty of carb metabolizing enzymes in place, it makes sense to require everyone to eat the carbs before the test so that apples can be compared to apples.

    There are a few papers in the literature comparing subjects who made sure they ate 150 grams of carbs before with those who simply followed their regular diets (which I would think contained plenty of carb).  In these comparisons do difference was found in glucose tolerance test outcomes.  The implication from these papers is that it doesn’t matter.

    Just to be sure, I would go ahead and eat the 150 grams for three days before.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  2. I’m surprised they did not also consider Tenderflake, which is a 100% pure lard product, commonly available in the supermarket. It used to be hydrogenated, but recently the company has come out with a non hydrogenated version.

    It certainly makes a lovely crispy pastry, perfect for meat pies. It maybe a little too savory for a sweet tart however. I think the product of choice here is butter. It’s a classic, used by all the French pastry chef in the world.

    And talking about chefs, didn’t Julia Child declare that lard made the best French fries?

    Hi Angelyne–

    I’ve never heard of Tenderflake.  Is it sold in the US?

    I’d love to try it.  I don’t know about Julia Child, but McDonald’s figured out that the best fries were made with beef tallow, a great frying fat that is, unfortunately, not easily found.  When McDonald’s decided to go follow the non-saturated fat path, they had a heck of a time recreating the taste imparted by the beef tallow.  They now use a number of artificial flavors and other additives mixed in with their trans fats to produce a product as tasty as that made with plain ol’ beef tallow.

    Thanks for the Tenderflake tip.  I’ll make sure MD keeps an eye out for it.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  3. Before Thanksgiving the NY Times had an article about making pie crusts without crisco, “Heaven in a Pie Pan: The Perfect Crust.” I can no longer access the article, but I believe the author, Melissa Clark, found that the best crust was a combination of butter and beef tallow. It seems we’ve lost the methods for cooking with lard and beef tallow since we were scared away from saturated fat.

    Hi Kristn–

    I, too, read the Times article, and, briefly considered posting on it.  I decided not to because of the PITA (pain in the a**) factor involved in making the various pie crusts, which good low-carbers shouldn’t be eating anyway.  It was extremely interesting to learn the way the various fats performed, something that I’m sure all old time cooks new well.  And I learned about leaf lard, which I had never heard of.

    Because what they didn’t see was the outsize effort that went into acquiring and preparing the not-so-secret ingredient: leaf lard, the creamy white fat that surrounds a hog’s kidneys. The veritable ne plus ultra of pig fat, it’s far superior to supermarket lard, which is heavily processed stuff that can have an off taste. But leaf lard is hard to track down (I special-ordered it from a friendly butcher) and a headache once you get it. Step one: pick out any bloody bits and sinews, chop the fat into pieces, and render it slowly in a double boiler for eight hours. At the end of the day, be prepared for a kitchen that smells like breakfast at a highway diner, and a pan full of dangerously molten fat crowned with cracklings.

    The author compared a number of animal fats to determine the best for making delicious, flaky pie crusts:

    Of the three animals, pig, cow and duck, the duck fat crust had the lightest flavor and, texturally, struck the best a balance between crisp and flaky.

    The pie crust revelation, however, was the suet pastry. As easy to work with as the shortening crust, it retained its shape perfectly in the oven, baking up crisp yet marvelously tender and flaky. It was nearly as delectable as the leaf-lard crust, tasting rich and slightly meaty, though not identifiably beefy. Suet is easy to find (most butchers can get it for you) and inexpensive.

    One caveat: suet is sold unrendered, but, as I discovered by way of my own laziness, you do not need to render it. Simply cut out the pinkish bits, finely dice or grate the chilled white fat, and toss it in with the butter. More refined bakers might blanch at the idea; if you’re one of them, go ahead and render to your heart’s content. [See what I mean about the PITA factor?]

    Thanks for commenting.  I guess I did get to post (sort of) on this article.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  4. I loved the crisco and corn syrup balls.

    You’ve probably seen Lilek’s old ad for the mazola and corn syrup diet, brought to you by Rockefeller Institute of Something back in the day?

    Hi Connie–

    Yes, I had seen it.  Thanks for the link so that everyone else can, too.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  5. Dr. Mike,
    Thanks for the overview of the pie crust article. I haven’t made a pie crust in over 5 years, but I still found it fascinating when I first read it (I need to sign up for the NY Times select!). Most people only know the taste of a crisco pie crust, but I know that my mother and grandmother used to wax poetic about crusts made from animal fat. I have incorporated many more animal fats in my low-carb diet and they really enhance the flavor and appeal of many dishes. Really, there is no replacement for schmaltz, bacon grease, lard, tallow, butter, etc. I think that people will find that Crisco was a poor, tasteless and ultimately unhealthy substitute. We just need to relearn what each fat does best.

    Right you are, Kristn!

    It’s going to take a lot of feeling our way through to get back to being able to use animal fats as well as our great grandmothers.  Too bad more of them aren’t around to help us out.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  6. Dr,

    I love your blog, I read it frequently. AND, PP has changed my life.

    The Crisco cookbook reminds me of my family’s favorite holiday treat, “Potato Dressing.” It’s mashed cooked white potates mixed with an incredible quotient of Crisco, topped with perhaps the only decent ingredient (aside from seasonings), turkey (or chicken) fat. Leavened with baking powder, it rises in the oven. Yikes.

    My grandmother heartily believed in the virtue of Crisco, vociferously lauding it’s health superiority over lard. She was overweight her whole life.

    Richard

    Hi Richard–

    Thanks for the kind words about the book and blog.

    If you could read the entire book, you would see why your grandmother believed so much in Crisco.  Proctor and Gamble stressed throughout how pure and white and tasteless Crisco is.  And how it fried without smoking.  To someone used to a lot of hands-on cooking with animal fats, which are unquestionably of varying quality and are more difficult to work with, the pure, white consistency of Crisco had to have seemed like a Godsend.  And the good folks at P & G stressed the health benefits as well, so housewives, mothers and grandmothers throughout the country thought it was great.

    Best–

    MRE

  7. Off the top of your head, have you ever heard of someone suing the FDA or USDA for strict liability? There’s plenty of evidence to convince a jury the information the agencies give on fats is completely wrong, and there’s really only two outcomes: they admit responsibility for numerous deaths and health problems to millions of people, or they claim they are not responsible because people should know to take stuff they hear with a grain of salt, thereby discrediting their entire organization.

    Hi Martha–

    I’ve never heard of anyone suing one of the above-mentioned agencies for such a thing, nor do I know if could even be done.  Maybe some of the lawyers who are readers of this blog (if I haven’t offended and driven them away by now) could answer.

    Best–

    MRE

  8. “Makes me almost want to go out and go face down in some.”

    That cracked me up, for some reason. Thanks for the laugh. 🙂

    My pleasure.

    MRE

  9. I had assumed that the change to vegetable oil from traditional oils occurred post WWII and that my Grandmothers diet was a lot better than today’s. I’m surprised that Crisco is from the early 20th century.

    Hi Dan–

    Yep, Crisco has been around since 1911.  I think it really caught on during WWII when butter and other foods were rationed.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  10. In response to comment #7 by Martha, I do not think as a general proposition that you can sue a government agency just because something is bad or wrong or outrageous. There is a legal concept called sovereign immunity also known as the king can do no wrong which says that you can not sue a government agency or agent who is performing his legal duties. This comes from the English common law. This has evolved over time so that in many specific situations by statute, governments now do allow some claims but in effect they have to give you permission to sue them. But on suing the FDA good luck. I am not a lawyer so take this information for what it is worth.

    Porter

    Hi Porter–

    Thanks for the info.

    MRE

  11. There’s not a shortage of beef tallow, it’s just not in most stores as a “grocery” item. I buy my beef from a local farmer who raises grass-fed beef. He has several cattle processed at once and has standardized the cuts he sells. His hamburger is too lean for me, so he has begun getting a few pounds of ground tallow for me every time he takes the animals to be processed. It’s free! (As are the soup bones he saves for me.) It’s not “clean” fat, you either need to render it or store it frozen, but the price is right!

    As for lard… I switched to lard a few years back. You can’t get biscuits or pie crusts like those made from lard with Crisco or other shortenings. It is harder to find lard as a grocery product than Crisco, but not impossible.
    Since I low-carb, biscuits and pie crust aren’t a big deal for me personally, but using fat for deep-frying veggies sometimes is. I find I can get the non-veggie-lovers in my family to eat quite a lot of zucchini “fries” or rutabaga “chips” if fried, even without any coating. Beef tallow is simply the best fat to deep fry in; lard is a close second.

    The only fats I buy are butter, lard and olive oil. When I lived elsewhere, where there was a higher Jewish population and hence I had more kosher friends, I used shortening. But no one I feed regularly now is kosher, so I don’t see the “problem” with lard. If I did need to feed kosher folks, I guess I’d render an awful lot more tallow cause I don’t see going back to shortening.

    Otherwise, we get fat in meats, dairy, nuts, seeds and avocados; i.e. whole real foods.

    I also reuse bacon and sausage grease for cooking/baking when appropriate. When I get too much backed up, I clean it and make soap. 😉

    Hi jpatti–

    I guess a more correct statement would be that there is a shortage of beef tallow available to the average consumer.  I’m going to ask my local butcher to see if I can get some, then I’ll dragoon MD into service figuring out how to use it.

    Thanks for writing.

    MRE

  12. Wow – Since before Christmas I have been on a Holy Grail search for the perfect pie crust which of course led me to a search for leaf lard. Here I am in the middle of agricultural eastern Nebraska and the only way I can get it is to go to an actual place where they “cut pigs on Tuesday” (over an hour away) or by the internet from an organic specialty place that often runs short. I have called everywhere!
    Different fats for pastries – so is lard for pie crusts and suet for other things? Should I experiment with the above suet grating (I admit it sounds a bit disgusting) in pie crust? How do you find a recipe for that?
    I do think this information on fats is valuable and interesting.
    Mary

    Hi Mary–

    Unfortunately, you’ve come to the wrong spot for any meaningful advice.  I’ve never made a pie crust in my life.  I asked my wife, and she’s never made on using leaf lard–only regular lard.  And she’s never used suet either.

    Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.  Maybe some other readers who have had more experience will chime in.

    Best–

    MRE 

  13. I had heard Crisco was orginally developed for use in Candle stick making-but electricty had made it obsolete.

    I personally think mixing fats makes the best pie crust. That was Julia Childs stance for ever that all award winning were a mix between crisco and butter. Crisco is flaky, but lacks flavor. Taste to me horrible.
    I’ve found it really depends on how things are incorporated.
    I’ve been using homemade lard/butter. About a 45/55 blend and it works well. Use a scale and 3-2-1 crust comes out perfect with a 1 hour rest in the frig.
    Just remember, your pie is only as good as your lowest quality ingredient. Natural stuff is not as consistent as plant processed, but with a scale it is quite easy to get consistent pie crust.

    Michael

    Hi Michael–

    Thanks for the info.

    Cheers–

    MRE 

  14. Life without Crisco will never be the same. The memory of cream pies, banana, coconut, etc., with crusts made with Crisco are hard-wired into my brain. Just thinking about putting a bite from one of those pies makes my mouth water. I hate it when some government athourity mandates what I cannot eat. My grandmother made these pies and all of my aunts and uncles have lived long healthy lives.
    I feel sorry that young people today will never get to taste these deserts. I believe we should not over indulge in sugary deserts and other carbs but banning them outright is just plain stupid.