Q: Is it possible to make a good cracker without salt and with a cholesterol-free shortening?
A: It certainly is. All shortening and all margarine not made from animal fats (which is virtually all) are devoid of cholesterol. And salt has no function in crackers, other than as a flavoring.
One can make some perfectly delicious crackers simply by rolling one's favorite pie dough recipe thinly and cutting it into squares, rectangles or triangles. Any number of flavors are possible: caraway, cumin, poppy seed, sesame seed, onion, grated low-salt cheddar (1 cup for every 2 cups of flour; reduce water by a tablespoon or two). Just add the flavor to the flour and margarine, then add water. Here's a good cracker formula: NO-CHOLESTEROL, SALT-FREE CRACKER DOUGH (Makes about 60 crackers)
1 cup (2 sticks) salt-free margarine or shortening
2 cups pastry or all-purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 to 4 tablespoons flavoring (depending on strength of flavor, for example caraway seed, cumin, poppy seed, sesame seed, onion or grated cheddar)
3/4 cup ice-cold water
Cut fat into flour using your favorite pie dough technique -- by hand, with pastry blender or knives, or in mixer on low speed. When the fat is well enough incorporated that the mixture has the consistency of cornmeal, add the flavoring and sprinkle in the water. Blend with your hands or with the mixer (not with a wooden spoon) until the mixture just forms a ball. Smear the ball once over the table's surface, then gather back into a ball, wrap in plastic film and refrigerate 1 hour.
When dough is firm, roll it out, using plenty of flour to keep it from sticking. Run a spatula underneath periodically to keep the dough from sticking to the board. Cut into desired shapes, prick with a fork and transfer, using a spatula, to a cookie sheet sprayed lightly with water. For added flavor, brush tops with water and sprinkle with additional flavoring. If you do this with dried onion, however, it will scorch.
Bake in a 375-degree oven until golden. Let cool. Store in tin. Keeps several weeks.
A word or two should be said about commercial crackers. There are two kinds: those that start with a yeast sponge and those that are chemically leavened. The yeast-sponge variety start with an 18- to 24-hour fermentation of a flour-water-yeast batter. The flour is about equivalent in strength to all-purpose. On "dough-up," additional flour is mixed/kneaded in. This is a "cookie and cracker flour" that is quite low in protein -- somewhat equivalent to the pastry flour available in health-food stores. At this time, shortening and baking soda (or some other base) are added. The baking soda raises pH (makes the dough slightly alkaline) so it browns well when baked.
The nonsaltine types of crackers contain no yeast and are often richer in fat. They are leavened with baking powder and contain other flavors such as cheese or bacon.
There are a number of crackers now sold salt-free. If they contain vegetable shortening (which is most likely), they are also cholesterol-free, as only animal fats contain cholesterol.