pie crust (part 1) – butter vs shortening

by Patricia on November 9, 2009 · 16 comments

Aren’t these cute pies?

As I mentioned yesterday, I have been dreaming of pies. And crumbles and tarts. But mostly pie. And this week I finally decided to turn dreams into reality.

But first things first, I have questions: which pie crust is best? all-butter? butter + vegetable shortening? or butter + lard? I know I am not the only one who has asked this question. In fact, Kate McDermott went on an epic quest to find the right ingredients and the right ratios in order to create the perfect pie crust. It’s not that I don’t believe her, I’d just like to understand the differences myself and the only way for me to understand is if I make each kind of crust myself. This is the first installment of my very own pie adventure.

I decided the best way to determine my favorite crust was to do a side-by-side comparison. So I made two crusts: one using all butter and the other using a mix of butter and vegetable shortening (aka Crisco… which I know is a bad word to pie purists, but this was in the interest of Science). Ideally I would have made one with butter+lard at the same time but I have not had a chance to track down leaf lard yet… I will make more pie crust as soon as I find some lard.

I made six mini-pies in a muffin tin. Three each of the two types of crust. I used the all butter crust recipe I’ve used previously and the butter + shortening crust recipe from Simply Recipes. In order to keep things scientific-ish, I kept the filling the same in all of the mini-pies. I adjusted the amounts in the cranberry-apple crumble pie recipe in Gourmet (November 2009), roughly cutting everything in about half. This was almost the perfect amount for six mini-pies.


Making mini-pies was a little more work than making a couple of big pies (rolling out six little crusts instead of two big ones). But it was worth it. The minis had a greater crust to filling ratio rendering them perfect for the crust comparison. I plan to make at least one more round of mini-pies to compare a lard crust with the winner of this round of taste tests.

Dan and I sat down with two mini pies, one of each crust type. I didn’t tell him which was which until after he picked the one he liked better so as not to bias him against the shortening crust (Dan is a fan of butter). After a few bites, we agreed on the winner. Both crusts taste buttery-good, but one stood out in texture: the butter + shortening crust. It was lighter and flakier than the all-butter crust.

I had a bunch of leftover pie dough of both types since the recipes I used each made enough for two nine-inch pies (so four pies-worth of dough in total). The minis used just over one-fourth of it. So far I have made a crust for a quiche and a pear tart with the leftovers. But I still have enough for two pies. I may freeze the rest to use in round two in which I will be pitting the butter + shortening crust against a butter + lard crust. That will also give me a chance to test drive another pie filling for Thanksgiving (the cranberry-apple, by the way, was a winner. Dan said the cranberries gave it an almost rhubarb-ness, which is a good thing. I really enjoyed the balance of tart and sweet).

I will followup with part 2 of this pie crust adventure as soon as I find some lard (hopefully before the end of this week). In the meantime, check out this very cool stop motion video: one minute apple pie.


1 Eviedish November 10, 2009 at 10:59 pm

I love that you found a way to eat more butter in the name of science! Not to add further complexity to an already thorough study in pastry but have you heard the vodka theory? According to Cooks Illustrated adding vodka creates a tender flakey crust because you are able to add more liquid without creating more gluten. (Apparently gluten does not form in ethenol) I have always wanted to try this but have always chickened out at the last minute fearing that the pastry gods would strike me with lightening.
It was great to meet you at the blogger festival!

2 Patricia November 12, 2009 at 8:39 am

Hey Evie! It was great to meet you too.
Vodka, huh? I’m going to have to try that now because I’m curious and finding a new use for vodka makes me happy (I keep adding more things to my experiment… yesterday I was wondering if a cream cheese crust should be included or if that was a special category unto itself).

3 Mrs. L November 10, 2009 at 2:54 pm

I’ve seen lard sold at our local gourmet grocery store in San Jose (Lunardi’s). I think I saw it at Cosentinos too. Looking forward to your pie adventure. May have to try to bake one of my own (but after your next batch so I can decide from your trials!)

4 Patricia November 12, 2009 at 8:35 am

Oh, that is very helpful. Thanks Mrs. L. I was thinking of checking at Andronico’s (I have one closer than a Cosentino’s or Lunardi’s). Or possibly Ditmer’s German Butcher in Mountain View. I’m sure it can’t be that hard to find, I just haven’t had much time to look for it lately, but today I’m going lard shopping :)

5 albina November 10, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Mmmmm, they look so delicious … beautiful little pies!

Here is something coming from a person who never bakes, but loooooves a good pie: butter+lard is the best, but only when proportions are correct — too much lard, and the taste goes sideways. Butter and shortening is the safe bet for a company of people where you have no idea who is on what type of dietary requirement… Good luck on that next batch, I am looking forward to finding out your verdict on the butter+shortening vs. butter+lard.

6 Patricia November 12, 2009 at 8:32 am

thanks, albina. I think the last crust I had made with lard was a store bought pre-made type, and that was a while ago. I am curious about the difference in taste and texture with shortening vs lard. The pie crust purists insist lard is best, I’m just trying to understand why.

7 Memoria November 10, 2009 at 1:37 pm

I knew which one was going to win because of watching Alton Brown haha. You want both in a pie crust for tenderness, flakiness, and taste. Your pies look great! I would eat them all. :D I would like to try lard in my crust, too.

8 Susan November 10, 2009 at 8:28 am

I’ve never used lard in pie crust either, though some swear it’s the only way to make a decent crust. I have used (on a couple rare occasions) and read the ingredients on those Already Pie Crusts that are available in the store, and they contain lard. I can’t stand the flavor of those crusts. I don’t know if it’s the type of lard used or the preservatives in them that make them taste off. I think it’s the lard, as they taste so greasy to me.

My new favorite crust in the one from Gourmet that uses mostly butter but includes a small amount of shortening too. Mostly it’s the method of mixing the dough that I like, but the crust texture is so much better with that tad of shortening, than with all butter. The texture is much impoved with the shortening and it’s small amount doesn’t seem to compromise the flavor at all.

9 Patricia November 12, 2009 at 8:27 am

Hi Susan,
I haven’t had one of those pre-made crusts in a long time. I wonder if I should include one in my taste tests as the “control group” of my experiment. Hm. I’ll have to think about that.
I liked the crust with a little bit of shortening as well. Dan and I both felt it tasted just as good as the all-butter crust but it had a more tender and flaky crust.

10 Melissa November 10, 2009 at 3:01 am

I have seen lard at our local Wal-Mart (of course I live in the Midwest where you get all things fried!).

11 Patricia November 12, 2009 at 8:24 am

Hi Melissa,

I think I could find lard at some of the Mexican grocery stores here but I’m not sure if it’s leaf lard (which is supposed to be the highest quality lard, best for crusts). I’ve never used lard for anything so it’s all new to me. I need to get up off of the sofa and go look for some lard today :)

12 Ange November 10, 2009 at 12:50 am

Such cute pictures!! The lattice top of those mini pies must have taken you forever to do! they’re so intricate! So far in my pie experimentation, I found the best buttery + flaky crust to be Bobby Flay’s. I have the recipe up in a similar pie blog post: http://ladycupcake.typepad.com/blog/2009/11/perfectionists-apple-pie-recipe-1.html

love your blog!!


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