Butter Versus Shortening: Pie Crust Smackdown
Once upon a time, the butter-versus-shortening debate was essentially considered settled. Study the cookbooks from a different era that remain classics, such as Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child and the Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, and a familiar theme emerges: A mix of vegetable shortening and butter was considered the way to go.
The shortening, the theory went, would contribute flakiness, and the butter, taste. As Julia wrote of her classic pie crust dough, “A mixture of 3 parts butter and 1 part vegetable shortening will give a tender crust with a good buttery flavor.”
But the debate has gone on (and on) and now lard has emerged as a potentially viable player, too, so I reached out to a few professional bakers to find out what they’re using these days. (Invariably, the one you grew up on might be the one you prefer!) I sent out an email to a few talented pros to get a feel for today’s buttery, flaky pie dough landscape.
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Kelly Fields, chef and partner of Willa Jean in New Orleans, Louisiana (a friend whose fluffy biscuits I admire), replied simply: “100% butter (except for making white bread) for flavor and mouthfeel.” She’s not alone in this opinion. Lisa Donovan, a Nashville-based writer and pastry chef formerly of Husk Restaurant, expanded on this at length.
“I have SO many opinions on this,” she wrote. “I have been encouraged by every chef (and farmer) to use leaf lard in my baking. … [But] when given a choice, I absolutely do not prefer baking with lard, AT ALL. I am an all butter baker. It creates my preferred texture, my preferred flavor, and most importantly, my preferred stability.”
Nor was Donovan lacking a position on shortening: “Vegetable shortening is a whole different animal! I approve! But still do not go to it as my first choice.” Why not? “It provides great stability and GREAT texture with not a lot of grody side effects. … It's shelf-stable and super affordable.” But, she went on, “I still find that it provides an undesirable mouthfeel. I use it as my go-to for vegans (there are plenty of organic, non-GMO, fair trade brands out there that I use but, I honestly do not have any problem whatsoever whipping out a big ol' can of Crisco, either). But, I'm still fervently in camp butter.”
Sarah Carey of Everyday Food, whose tarts and galettes have been leaving followers ravenous on Instagram, mused that she “generally uses all butter in my crusts. In the past I used Crisco for its ‘superior’ flakiness, but, in the end, I found that the lack of flavor and color was not outweighed by the additional flake factor. In fact, I find that, if done properly, 100 percent butter can yield a very, very flaky and crisp crust that is also sturdy and very easy to work with.”
Carey is more open to lard than Donovan or Kelly. “Depending on what kind of pie I’m making, and who I’m making it for, I might add some lard. I replace half the butter in my pâte brisée recipe with lard (though I actually use slightly less than half lard since it is 100 percent fat and butter isn’t. Higher fat crusts can be quite delicate both before and after baking. This is particularly a problem with galettes, less so with pies baked in plates.)” Carey will only use pure rendered organic leaf lard, as opposed to the shelf-stable stuff, and digs both its flavor and “extreme flake factor.”
Tons of folks are still in camp butter-shortening, however, including our own Pam Lolley, Recipe Developer and Tester for Time Inc. Food Studios, who is renowned for her fluffy flapjacks, homemade butter, and pretty much everything else she does. “I actually prefer very cold butter and cold shortening,” she wrote. “The butter adds great flavor and the shortening adds flakiness.”
So the classic theory still holds water for some of the pros, even as Team All-Butter seems to be gaining ground (including, incidentally, sweets savant Dorie Greenspan, who uses only butter in the galette and sweet tart dough recipes in Baking Chez Moi).
There’s no disputing taste, of course, but passions run high on this particular issue. As Donovan wrote, “Butter is better. Butter is key. Butter is king. I will preach it to anyone who cares to listen.”
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Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.