Kitchen Confidence

Pie Fats: Butter vs. Oil vs. Shortening vs. Lard

By • October 30, 2013 • 16 Comments

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: The texture of your pie crust depends on the fat you use -- here's how to choose it.

Fats from Food52

Do not fear the dough!

Pie crust is teasingly simple if you focus on the basics. To start with, most recipes are based on just four ingredients: flour, fat, salt, and water. Which fat you choose and how you manipulate it will play a huge role in the finished product -- so let’s break it down.

Making pie crust

First, it’s important to know how to handle the fat. It should be chilled (read: very cold). When it’s especially warm (outside or in your kitchen), it’s a good idea to pop it in the freezer so it doesn’t melt as easily. Also, know your hands -- if they run hot (chocolate melts as quickly there as it does in your mouth), then keep the butter on the colder side. If you have those cool pastry hands, just the fridge will work for you. 

Next, identify the type of crust you want. Flaky crusts are best for fruit pies. For cream or custard pies, a mealy crust is best (it won’t get soggy as the pie sits). Flaky crusts are made by leaving larger pieces of fat in the crust – the size of walnut halves or smaller. These large pieces of fat begin to evaporate moisture when the pie goes into the oven. This evaporation creates steam, and this steam forms air pockets in the crust, creating a flaky final texture. Mealy crusts are made by mixing the butter into smaller pieces -- the size of peas or smaller. Less evaporation occurs, making a tighter, firmer crust. 

Pie dough from Food52

Remember that warm ingredients, overmixing, and not enough chilling/resting time are the enemies of excellent crust. Taking your time with those three components will almost always ensure a good result.

Now, choose your fat.

Lard: If it doesn’t make you squeamish, lard makes an incredible pastry crust. It chills nicely and doesn’t break down under heat as quickly as butter. This makes for a relatively flaky crust if handled properly. While it’s not as tasty as butter, it’s flavor is still less bland than shortening or oil. 

Shortening: The fat of choice for pie baking in the fifties and sixties, shortening has a very high melting point, which makes it very easy to mix into pie crust. With less chance of overmixing and/or melting the fat, you’re better ensured flaky layers in your crust. However, while it’s the ideal ingredient from a texture perspective, it lacks the flavor of butter. 

Butter in pie crust from Food52

Butter: I try to be unbiased -- all pie is good pie. But for me, butter has always been the way to go. The flavor can’t be beat, and if you know how to handle it properly it can make a supremely flaky crust. Because butter has a higher melting point, it also melts nicely in your mouth. The milkfats present in the butter also allow the crust to brown more than shortening, lard, or oil-based versions.

Oil: Oil has one major benefit -- as a fat in liquid form, it can’t be melted and is easy to incorporate into dough. However, this same feature also keeps it from making a truly flaky crust. That being said, vegetable oil, coconut oil, or even olive oil can make a fine mealy crust for quiches or other custard pies. I also like using oil-based crusts for savory tarts.

Combo: My grandma swore by a combination of fats. Once upon a time, it was half lard, half shortening. Then it became half butter, half shortening. Either way, she liked mixing the sure result of shortening with the better flavor of other fats. 

What are your favorite fats for pie-baking? Let us know in the comments!

Apple pie from Food52

Photos by James Ransom

Tags: baking, holidays, pie

Comments (16)

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13 days ago Lizbeth Carter

In baking I prefer to use butter because it adds flavor to the pie crust or any food that has mixture of it and it is very well accustomed in baking pastries or cakes. kindly visit http://www.megaoils.com...

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5 months ago lesdeva

I like using both shortening and butter.

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5 months ago Craig Olsson

I use butter and egg for fruit pies. Whisk the egg and add 3 tablespoons lemon juice or cider vinegar. To keep things cold, I store my flour in the freezer and refrigerate my mixing bowl. Cut the butter into peanut-size pieces and use as little cold water as needed to form the dough into an inch-thick disc, which I refrigerate at least two hours before rolling. I flatten the dough somewhat with my fist, roll it quickly and handle as little as possible.

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6 months ago Baketress

Absolutely agree with the ladies below- butter and leaf lard combo! You get the best from the two worlds, exceptional flavor from butter and amazing flakiness from lard. I normally render about 8 pounds of leaf lard and it lasts me for a year.

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6 months ago Christina @ My Homespun Home

Half butter, half leaf lard. I've struggled with every version of pie dough I've tried (all butter, all shortening, butter and shortening, egg, no egg, grated frozen butter, using a food processor, cutting in butter by hand) until I used this combination with my grandmother's base recipe.

I actually did a whole experiment to see which combination of fats worked best, and the butter/lard won hands down, and has been reliably easy to work with, flaky, and tasty for every pie I've made in the past year: http://myhomespunhome.wordpress...

Except now I don't know what I'll do if I can't get my hands on leaf lard :-(

Mrs._larkin_370

6 months ago mrslarkin

Mrs. Larkin is a trusted source on Baking.

On Monday, I rendered 7 1/2 pounds of leaf lard. On Tuesday, I made the most amazing scallion pancakes. Can't wait to make some pie crust. And biscuits. And lard bread. And bizcochitos.

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6 months ago MaggieRosenthal

For some reason it's never occurred to me to make a crust with oil. I have to admit, I'm a butter fan myself (easy to find in all stores/in my freezer and very flavorful), but this article makes me want to experiment with other kinds!

Alice

6 months ago Alice Gardner

I swear by all lard for a majority of my crusts. It makes the flakiest crust and has an incredible flavor for quiches and savory tarts, and I think it's a nice contrast to sweet fruit fillings. However, I will do a half lard-half butter crust for more delicately flavored custard and cream pies. The last time I used all shortening for a pie it tasted...artificial, and completely lacking in personality.

Junechamp

6 months ago ChefJune

June is a trusted source on General Cooking.

For me, the best crusts come from a 50/50 combo of lard and butter. You get the flakiness of the lard with the flavor of the butter. Although I grew up in the 50's and made my first pies with shortening, I won't use it any more because of the health dangers of hydrogenated fat. Imho we get enough of it incidentally in prepared foods, No need to add it to my own cooking.

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6 months ago em-i-lis

Emily is a trusted source on General Cooking.

I am an enormous fan of the veg oil pie crust!!! Not the easiest to work with -you can really only roll it a few times- but it makes a fabulous base for pretty much every pie!!!

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6 months ago calendargirl

I'm with the grandmother: mostly butter with just a tablespoon or two of lard. BTW, there is excellent lard at many farmers' markets and it keeps for ages. (Your favorite supplier of pork will most likely have some beautiful lard.) Several years ago, Corby Kummer of The Atlantic wrote a terrific op-ed piece in The New York Times on lard and why it is practically a health food! Hope this link works: http://www.nytimes.com...

Alice

6 months ago Alice Gardner

Poor, misunderstood lard. The pork industry really should start a campaign to bring it back- starting with how it is lower in saturated fat than butter.

Chris_in_oslo

6 months ago Greenstuff

Chris is a trusted source on General Cooking

Food52er Boulanger has a wonderful post on her blog about the evolution from lard to shortening to butter. It includes beautiful step-by-step instructions for people who'd like to make the leap to all-butter crusts. You can find it at http://thesolitarycook...

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6 months ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Thanks for the link, Chris! I just looked at Cynthia's instructions. As usual, they're superb. ;o)

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6 months ago boulangere

Cynthia is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Thank you, ladies!

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6 months ago Kathy

I use my grandmother's recipe from the '50's. It requires shortening. It always works perfectly! Someday I am going to be brave and try to improve the flavor by using butter. Thank you for a great article!