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

It's not unusual for us to ask each other, "What's your favorite fat?" around here.
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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.

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.

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.

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, its 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: 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!

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Photos by James Ransom

This article originally appeared on Pie Fats: Butter vs. Oil vs. Shortening vs. Lard

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