For many years, I feared pie. There were some early failures—first with tough-as-wood crusts, then crusts that overcompensated with crumbs more than anything else. Frustrated, I did what any older sibling would do: pass the task of holiday pie-making on to my little sister. She, in turn, relied on the little blue Jiffy box mixes.
In more recent years, I decided to grow up and face this personal demon. Tentatively, I eased myself back into pie-making, first with tart doughs and galettes, and ultimately pie.
Now, I can finally stand proudly by my crusts, which are both flaky and tender. For me, the key was in the technique—working quickly with cold ingredients, keeping some of the fat in little solid chunks, giving the dough a good rest in the fridge, and handling the dough gently. Maybe it sounds like a long list of things to keep in mind, but I promise it's not complicated.
Still, my search for the perfect pie crust was not over (it may never be). While I got the technique of making a flaky pie crust down, and liked using butter in the dough, I hadn't formed a strong view on the possible additions of shortening and lard.
So this week I made and compared crusts with different types of butters, butter mixed with different types of lard, and butter with vegetable shortening. I am now very full, and can recommend a lot of crusts I liked very much.
The thing is, they can all be good, as long as you're using high-quality ingredients and a good technique. To find out more about both, see the slideshow.
And if my conclusion on fats sounds like a cop-out, read on below.
The Great Fat Debate
For those of you who take part in the butter vs. lard vs shortening debate, here's where I ended up:
A blend of butter and rendered leaf lard is my top choice for an extra flaky, crispy, and light crust that puffs in a way that none of the other fats do. It's strange to think of lard as "light," but that's what you get from this high-grade fat that surrounds the kidneys of pigs. Since leaf lard can be hard to find (especially already rendered), it's good to have other options.
All-butter crusts came out buttery, flaky, and crispy, but not as delicate as those made with leaf lard. I kind of liked the crispiness, though there is the risk of getting a hard crust. A European-style butter with a low water content, like Plugra, helps to keep the crust tender. Using cream instead of water tenderized my crust even further, but bordered on crumbly.
Lard and shortening, with their higher melting points and lower water content, made dough easier to work with than an all-butter dough. The crusts were tender and flaky and the decorative edging held its shape better. With a relatively high butter to "other fat" ratio (I use 3:1), the buttery flavor was still there.
Butter with non-hydrogenated, pure vegetable shortening produced a flaky and light crust. The downside was the slightly waxy feel that was especially prominent when the crust was chilled.
Both industrially produced lard and lard that was rendered by a high-end specialty shop were tender and flaky, but didn't have the lightness of the leaf lard crust or the great flavor of the all-butter crust.
Author's note: This column is dedicated to Pie in the Park, a celebration of pie in Brooklyn's Prospect Park every August and the upcoming book by Lauren Cucinotta.