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The Short Story

October 14, 1998|CHARLES PERRY

We all know what short dough is: a rich dough that makes a tender crust, as against the plain dough that turns into sturdy, chewy bread. And then there's shortbread, which always has a lot of butter or other "shortening" in it.

So how come there's no such thing as long dough or longbread? Or an ingredient known as lengthening, for that matter? In exactly what sense does shortening "shorten" anything?

In this case, "short" doesn't refer to richness but to a fragile, easily crumbled texture. Short doughs bake up crumbly because the fatty shortening coats the flour particles, preventing the formation of gluten when water is stirred in.

This is a rather uncommon and specialized sense of the word (in the Oxford English Dictionary, it's No. 21 of the 23 main definitions of "short"). "Short" may have acquired this meaning because it can refer to something that's inadequate--something that falls short, as we say. The idea might have been that short dough was weak, which it is.

On the other hand, maybe the metaphor of shortness came from brick-making. Professionally made bricks are fired in kilns at temperatures so high that the clay fuses into something as hard as rock, but anybody can make sun-dried bricks. The thing that gives a sun-dried brick strength is chopped-up straw; without straw mixed in, the bricks are just fragile lumps of dried mud.

Of course, the same would be true if the straw were cut too . . . short. It may have seemed to people that short dough behaved as if it contained short fibers.

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