Pie crusts are usually made with butter, shortening or a combination of the two. The solid fats are rubbed into a flour mixture, creating a dough that resembles coarse, wet sand before some liquid is added to it and you can press it together into a ball. The procedure is the same, but the two fats will give you different results in your recipes.
Butter is about 80% fat and 20% water, give or take a few percent depending on the brand and whether you are using European-style butter. In a pie crust, the butter is distributed in small pieces throughout the dough and because the dough is chilled before it is baked, these pieces are solid. When the pie crust bakes, two things happen: the butterfat melts and the water evaporates. The melting butterfat makes the crust tender and a little bit crumbly, contributing to a melt-in-your-mouth type feel. The evaporating water creates a little pocket in the dough where steam tried to escape, giving the crust a flaky, layered texture. The flakiness of a well-made butter crust would have a little bit of the flakiness of a croissant, rather than just the crumbliness of a shortbread cookie. It also has a great butter flavor.
Shortening (and this applies to hydrogenated and nonhydrogenated, although I recommend you work with trans-fat free shortening) is 100% fat. This means that it has plenty of fat to melt into the dough and create a tender, melt-in-your-mouth type of crust, but no water to create a flakiness. A crust made with just shortening will seem a little lighter than a crust made with butter alone, but since shortening doesn’t have much flavor, it will be a little on the bland side. Lard is also a viable option for a fat in pie crusts. Lard – also 100% fat – tends to have more flavor than shortening, but it acts just the same way, making the crust tender and short, but not adding the flakiness of butter.
My personal preference is to use mostly butter and a small amount of trans-fat free shortening in a crust to get the flavor and flakiness of butter, but a little bit of the extra tenderness of shortening. I usually use 3/4 butter and 1/4 shortening, although sometimes I will use a little less shortening. Preference aside, I make all butter crusts like the one pictured above more often than not, since even though they don’t have that little bit of extra tenderness, they are still just as flaky, tender and tasty as I could want.
DebbieQJuly 30, 2009
How do you feel about a pie crust recipe using oil as it’s fat? I ask because that is what I use, my grandmother’s recipe, and we all love it.
Nutmeg NannyJuly 30, 2009
Growing up in the Mid-West my grandmother only used lard (which means I grew up making it that way), but when I moved to NY people looked at me like I had a third eye if I mentioned I used lard. I’m still confused why people are so scared of lard. It’s a natural fat that is better for you than the man made fats that are out there. With all that said, I prefer lard in my pie crust, but, a close second is a pie crust made with European butter. Now I’m craving pie…:)
JuliaJuly 30, 2009
Until she left this Earth, my grandmother swore that the only good pie crust is a pie crust made with lard. My gram made the best pies ever so who am I to doubt her word. I grew up in central NY where my aunt still uses lard to make all her pie crusts. She also uses it in cookies instead of butter — she’ll use Crisco in a pinch but says butter makes the cookies flat. Who wants a flat cookie? 🙂
JenJuly 31, 2009
I’ve found the combo of half butter-half lard is perfect for crusts. Buttery yet still flaky, great in combo.
onmyownNovember 19, 2009
My sisters. Yes we are. I say that because we are from this generation. Our grandmamas and aunties were right. The best pie comes from lard, butter gives it that delicious taste. I have gone through changes with the media on what is right/wrong, in/out, and the constant flip flops. I do know that lard is bad for my health, and grandpas. The same with butter, dear auntie Betsy was fun to be around and I hated to see her go when I was a child. Later I learned what took her life and it was not the good Lord.(better him than butter). We grew up on a farm and I still farm or garden. Fresh veggies taste good, they are the best for my family, and eveyone love veggies. Staying away from lard or butter doesn’t guarantee me longjevity, but when I go I don’t want my kids to know that butter or lard took my life. I want them to know that it was the good Lord. They will say that their mama took care of Gods temple when she was here. Sorry for the mispellings I’m not perfect.
AnonymousMarch 10, 2010
How about butter flavored crisco,I’m going to try that tonight!
Chris BucknerNovember 8, 2012
I really appreciate finding this helpful information on your site. I was concerned about trans-fats. I’d searched for this information extensively, but never found it until you featured it here. Also, until reading your advice, I wasn’t aware of non-hydrogenated shortenings or the advantages of an all-butter pie crust. I also appreciate you explaining the science of how and why recipes work. Now I can start baking pies that I ‘m going to feel great about serving. Thanks, Nicole!
One of my friends provided a cream cheese based pie crust recipe. Would you recommend that for some applications?
Janet WalshDecember 5, 2015
My daughter has been using butter in her pastry a deviation from our family tradition of using Crisco. Our family’s pie have always been known for the flakey crust . My mother came from a MN diary farm, but moved out to MA after WWII bring family recipes. Buttermilk was not used in our home, she used a mix of milk and cider vinegar to create the flakey buttermilk effect!
I love to make Quiches but would like any advice on the amount of eggs and milk or 1/2 1/2 to use in a quiche. I don’t use a lot of cheese and sometimes preferring the flavor of mushrooms to substitute.