Butter vs. Shortening: the great pie crust bakeoff

Pie crust – gotta love it, right?

Flaky and tender when you nail it, tough as rawhide when you don’t, pie crust divides all of us bakers into definitive categories: those who succeed; those who fail, but keep trying; and those who buy Mrs. Smith’s.

Why is pie crust so tough – often literally? Well, it’s all about the fat, the water, and the flour. Three simple ingredients that, together, can create a masterpiece – or mayhem.

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Flour does make a difference; but not as much as you might think. A lower-protein pastry flour, like our Perfect Pastry Blend, will inherently make a more tender crust – and will also be a bit more fragile when you’re rolling it out.

Truthfully, I use our all-purpose flour in my pie crust; I have to be careful not to work it too hard once the water is added (for fear of developing its gluten), but for me, it offers an ideal blend of good results, and ease of handling.

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Water – make it ice water. Simple enough, right?

Ah, now comes the ingredient that arguably makes or breaks a pie crust, and also creates the most debate:

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Fat.

Butter vs. shortening in pie crust

Your grandma used lard. Your mom used shortening. You use butter. Are all fats created equal?

I decided to find out.

First thing I did was rule out lard. NOT BECAUSE IT’S NOT A PERFECTLY GOOD FAT AND CAPABLE OF MAKING WONDROUSLY TASTY PIE CRUST.  After all, our ancestors made lard-crust pies for centuries and, like lard-fried doughnuts, they were delicious.

I’m ruling out lard simply because good, fresh lard isn’t as universally available as shortening and butter. So if you love lard, and have a good supplier – stick with it.

But if butter and vegetable shortening are your choices, read on.

Butter vs. shortening in pie crust: how do you choose which fat to use? Click To Tweet

For years, I’ve alternated between two favorite recipes: Classic Double Pie Crust, a crust made with both shortening and butter; and All-Butter Pie Crust.

One Thanksgiving I’d go with an all-butter crust for my Chocolate Chunk Pecan Pie; the next, I’d make my Apple Pie with the shortening/butter clone.

But never had I made both crusts in tandem, and done a side-by-side comparison. Which was flakier? Which tasted better?

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Butter makes a lighter crust

This was the year. Having signed up to do a pie demonstration at a local bookstore, I decided I’d best practice both – at the same time.

And I made an amazing discovery (amazing to me; we pie geeks are easily amazed): something I’d always believed to be true was absolutely, categorically, without a doubt not true at all.

I’d always told people that a shortening/butter pie crust would have better texture than an all-butter crust, due to shortening’s higher melting point. Why?

Fat keeps the layers of flour/water “matrix” separated as the pie bakes; the longer fat is present in its solid form (score one for shortening, with its high melting point), the more flakes will form, the more tender/flakier the crust will be.

Now, that may be true. I didn’t actually count the number of flaky layers in each crust.

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But one thing was abundantly clear: the all-butter crust (above left) made a much LIGHTER crust, with more defined flakes, than the butter/shortening combination (above right).

I was totally puzzled, until it dawned on me: butter contains more water than shortening.

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As the crust bakes, that water is converted to steam, puffing up the crust (and its flakes) like someone blowing up a balloon.

Each fat adds its own distinct flavor

And flavor? The all-butter crust tasted – well, buttery, of course. The butter/shortening crust (which was, by the way, just as tender and flaky as the butter crust, but without its light texture) tasted a bit like butter, and a bit like pie crust – that indefinable something that tells your taste buds, yes, I’m eating a piece of pie.

Both were good – just different. And one of the chief differences was looks: the butter crust produced a very ill-defined edge. My careful fluting basically went up in smoke – er, steam.

So if you’re after looks, stick with the butter/shortening combination (or all shortening). If looks don’t matter to you, I’d go with the all-butter crust.

What about substituting vodka for water?

While I was at it, I decided to test the famous Cook’s Illustrated secret to tender, flaky pie crust: using vodka in place of half the water in the crust.

The theory is that vodka, being alcohol rather than water, will develop flour’s gluten less than plain water, thus creating a more tender crust.

Is that true?

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In front, all-butter + vodka, and shortening/butter + vodka. Behind, butter and shortening without vodka.

The verdict? I couldn’t discern any difference in the flakiness/tenderness of the vodka vs. non-vodka crusts. BUT the vodka crust rolled out more easily; with its silken, smooth texture, it was a pleasure to work with.

So would I add vodka to pie crust? Sure. I think I’ll even keep a little jar of it in the fridge, so it’s handy for pie crust or a gimlet – whichever comes first!

OK, I’ve given you a map. And here you stand at the crossroads, ready to make a decision on the butter vs. shortening in pie crust debate.

Which will it be: Classic Double Pie Crust, or All-Butter Pie Crust?

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Chocolate Chunk Pecan Pie, made with an all-butter crust.

May the best crust win!

There’s more to pie crust than ingredients; technique plays a big hand in a successful crust, as well. For a wonderful pictorial on making pie crust, see our blog post Pie, Any Way You Slice It.

And for more tips, check out Perfect Pie: A Baker’s Dozen+ Tips.

Note: This blog post focuses on the difference between shortening and butter in pie crust, without examining the relative health benefits of each. For health information concerning these fats, speak to a doctor or nutritionist. 

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Lori

    I will have to try butter to make crust and see if my family likes it better. I’ve been buying palm shortening for several years (8-10) as we purged our house of all hydrogenated fats- so no vegetable oils of any kind in our house.
    And sorry, King Arthur Staff, the last person I would ask about dietary issues would be my doctor as most doctors are completely ignorant when it comes to real dietary advice as they only need 4 hours of nutrition in school, which is all most take. That is a ridiculously low amount.

    Reply
  2. Diana Armes Wallace

    I live in the rural part of America, so lard, fresh and tasty is my go-to for most everything. I am all about taste when it comes to a crust, and next flakey. I never want a tough crust. And I use an old recipe passed down to me from my mother. So I go against ALL of your advice here, sorry, but my crust is delish and I’ll never change. I use lard, AND I use boiling hot water. And I whip my lard and hot water and salt until I have a creamy consistency. Next, it is the gentle folding in of the flour, and rolling it out. Oh, let’s not forget that I cook on a wood stove, so it’s into an oven that has differing temps on where you place your pie. I even cook Cheesecake in that oven with wonderful success.

    Reply
  3. Marilyn Hinkle

    i have always used lard and vinegar in my pie crusts and have never had trouble. They roll out perfectly and taste great even the next day as where the ones I have made with butter taste old and funny! My recipe was from two of my aunts and I have combined them to give me a very yummy crust!So easy to make and always turn out great!

    Reply
  4. Tonya

    I use my mother’s recipe which uses oil instead of butter or shortening. It is failproof in that it’s always flaky. However, I am unable to make any fancy tops because it is so fragile. I’m afraid to try anything else, my family would revolt if it’s not flaky.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Have you tried chilling the dough before attempting to work with it to make a top design? That might help. You also may be able to pull off something simple, like layering pie dough cut-outs (a simple design) on top of the filling. Good luck! Kye@KAF

  5. Sheila Kenmuir

    I’m 62 and have never made a pie crust . I’ve always secretly wanted to and I remember my grandmother making the best pies ( probably used lard ) However my mother made making pie’s seem a whole lot like a holiday punishment that the family expected of her . Then dessert was accompanied by her critiquing and appolizing for her failure ! Personally I thought they were pretty good . So I’ve just never wanted to inflict that pain on myself . However long story long . You’ve given me the courage Thank You

    Reply
  6. Christine Garza

    I was wondering how much vodka is substituted for the water in your vodka pie crust. All of it? I’d like to try it, but I don’t know the ratios.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Christine, we followed the famous Cook’s Illustrated technique and replaced half of the water in our standard pie crust recipe with vodka (about 3 to 5 tablespoons in our Classic Double Pie Crust recipe). We found it made the dough easier to roll out. We hope you’ll share your thoughts if you decide to give it a try too! Kye@KAF

  7. Jody

    I learned baking from my great grandma and grandma many years ago but my great grandma used a wood burning cook stove that made the best breads, pies, etc and she used lard for her pie crusts that she rendered herself and my grandma used late or Crisco for hers (grandma also taught me cake decorating and the fancy pie crusts as she called them, I was 5 so 45urs ago now ) so I too have used mostly lard or Crisco for my pie crusts which I prefer but for certain things I will use all butter or a combo of butter/shortening or butter/lard which work well. I love to experiment with different liquids for pie crusts and have used water, buttermilk, milk, orange juice, vinegar, club soda, ginger ale, coffee (great for chocolate pies) and different alcohols from vodka to tequila! Tequila I use for my margarita pie. I have also used different spices in my pie crust like cinnamon and nutmeg for Apple and cherry or cardamom for mincemeat and even pumpkin pie spice for my pumpkin pies! I do tend to use mainly all purpose flour but once in a while I use a pastry or cake flour with interesting results that turned out great. I know baking is supposed to more chemistry but it doesn’t hurt to experiment with different options and now I have an endless amount of pie crust recipes by switching up one or two ingredients. I have never had someone eat my pies and not love them and they always ask for the recipe but then they have tried a couple of others and always say it’s a not the same crust, it’s not always surprising. I love the comparison of those crusts side by side and I agree with how it turned out but for me (and that I am lucky enough near a good source for lard here in ND) lard will always be my top choice for most of my pies because they are tender and flaky as well as easy to work with no matter what surprise ingredients I use with it! Great article on pie crusts though!

    Reply
  8. Anne

    I have a comment/question completely unrelated to the butter/shortening/vodka decision (but still post-related). I clicked on the link to the Chocolate Chunk Pecan Pie because yours looked SO yummy and was surprised by the difference in the two photos! The post pic looks moist and melt-in-your-mouth good, but the recipe pie pic looks rather dry on the top.

    Is there a difference in the way the post pie was made, as opposed to the recipe pie?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Same recipe, Anne. The light-colored thin layer of sugar on top kind of does its own thing; sometimes it looks almost crusty, sometimes quite soft. But trust me, it always tastes good! Enjoy your pie — PJH@KAF

  9. Leslie M

    Hi, lots of great comments! So many, I did not read all of them so please forgive me if this was asked.
    Did the Vodka change the flavor? Thank you!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Leslie, PJ reported that she found the flavor and texture of the water and vodka + water pie doughs identical. The only difference was the ease of rolling out the dough. If you use a flavored vodka, you might be able to taste some difference. Happy pie baking! Kye@KAF

  10. Julie

    ok, I am a complete NEWBIE at making pie crusts. (I havent even tried it yet!) but my favorite pie crust to buy is Marie Calendars over ANY other brand. I never eat the edges of ANY pie (even homemade) EXCEPT Marie Calendars! Can you tell me what it is about that pie crust that makes it sooooo good? I would love to try to duplicate it.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Julie, it can be a challenge to replicate something store bought at home, but it’s worth giving it a shot. Try using half shortening and half lard (available in some grocery stores or online) to get the flavor that you’re looking for (assuming you’re baking a savory filling). Also try baking your pies at a high temperature to get the crispy, flakiness that’s characteristic of these Marie Calendar. Don’t be distraught if the results aren’t exactly the same as what comes from the store — you might find that you like the result even better, really! Kye@KAF

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