Thursday, July 21, 2011

Butter vs. Shortening - The Great Pie Crust Debate

If you look at a lot of cookbooks like I do, you'll see that cooking, like anything else, is all about trends. In my adult life I have been surprised to realize that even things you would never think of as "trendy" DO in fact follow waves of what is "in" or "out." Politics, parenting styles, and yes, Cooking.

And so we come to the trends of Pie Crust. Lard used to be the chief ingredient in American pie crusts, (those recipes now exchange lard for shortening in most cases). Then somewhere along the way we decided that the French way of making pie crust was superior - all butter crust (i.e. Pate Brise).

Nowadays there is a great debate among bakers, pastry chefs, and pie lovers about what makes the best crust. All-butter, shortening, or a combination of both? Lately the trend is definitely leaning in the direction of all-butter crusts. Pastry chefs and home bakers alike will proudly proclaim that their pies are made with nothing but butter in the crust. When did shortening get a bad rap? Was it Martha Stewart, with her 1985 book Pies & Tarts (to which I often refer for recipe ideas) that made people want to go all-butter, all the time? Was it even earlier? Or is it due to the recent findings that shortening, which contains trans-fat, is actually unhealthier than butter?

I don't know what has made the pendulum swing so far in favor of butter, but I'll make a confession: I like a shortening crust better. I know, I know, I am probably in the minority here. But although I have tasted many a delicious pie with an all-butter crust, my personal preference is for the lighter, flakier shortening crusts. I can hear the pastry chefs wailing that butter crust can be flaky when it is done right. True. But light? Not as far as I have tasted. Butter crusts are usually denser and richer in flavor, which to most people is a good thing. But not to me. I also find that butter crusts usually shrink more in cooking than shortening crusts do (but of course that can be helped by chilling the pie before baking).

Actually, my own flaky crust recipe calls for both, and the ratio is about 2 parts shortening to 1 part butter. It is deliciously light and flaky. The flavor, which butter lovers may consider a little bit bland, does not overshadow whatever filling I put in it. My husband, who always used to leave the ends of his crust abandoned on the plate, enjoys every crumb of this crust. And I always get a ton of compliments on the crust when I bring a pie to an event: Flaky Pie Crust


  1. Heard that lard is actually healthier than butter.Lard seems better used in pastries

  2. I have heard that lard makes the tastiest crust of all. I haven't tried it because I always thought it was really bad for you, but if not, then I am eager to try it!

  3. I'm going to try my first ever pie crust using just shortening (I have no butter). I will let you know how it goes!

  4. Two years later, I am proud to say I've tried the lard crust a few times and it is fantastic. It gives the crust a richer, almost meaty "undertaste" which is wonderful for mince pies or potpies. I have posted the recipe in the RECIPES section for anyone who wants it. I am still sticking with my regular flaky crust for most pies, though.