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.

Butter vs. shortening in pie crust via @kingarthurflour

Butter vs. shortening in pie crust: the flour

Flour does make a difference, but not as much as you might think. A lower-protein pastry flour, like our Pastry Flour 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.

Butter vs. shortening in pie crust via @kingarthurflour

The liquid

Make it ice water. Simple enough, right? Sure, you can use milk, add an egg, and try other types of liquid, but water produces reliably good results — so why not?

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

Butter vs. shortening in pie crust via @kingarthurflour

The fat

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

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

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 via @kingarthurflour

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 Apple Pie; the next, I’d make my Lemon Chess 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?

IMG_1503

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.

Butter vs. shortening in pie crust via @kingarthurflour

But one thing was abundantly clear: the all-butter crust (above left) made a 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.

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

Butter vs. shortening in pie crust via @kingarthurflour

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.

The verdict? I couldn’t discern any difference in the flakiness/tenderness of the vodka vs. non-vodka crusts.

Butter vs. shortening in pie crust via @kingarthurflour

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 bottle 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?

Butter vs. shortening in pie crust via @kingarthurflour

Apple Pie à la mode with Caramel Sauce

May the best crust win!

For more handy tips and useful information on pie crust, check out our pie crust guide.

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. Brenda

    I use home-rendered lard, sometimes with butter. I like to make enough for several crusts and then freeze the extras. I tried the ATK recipe with vodka, but found it too complicated for the result. Also, the crust made with vodka did not freeze well. When I thawed them, they were slimy.

    Reply
  2. Jocelyn via Seattle

    I did not have grandmothers or a mother that made pies. I have made maybe one or two pies in my lifetime (I’m almost 62). So it’s weird that I read nearly every comment posted here. I’ve eaten a lot of pie and I sure do love a good pie. I really never think about the crust, but recently I ate some quiche where I commented, out loud, that the crust was amazing, flaky and flavor both.

    All that said, I do feel inspired to try making a pie. I feel like I’ve been given some great knowledge here. Thanks to KAF and posters who shared all their tips.

    Reply
  3. Susy Sams

    After reading your article I guess it’s time to try making pie crust again. After constant failures I gave up and have resorted to frozen or refrigerated crusts for the last 40 years. Wish me luck.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Good luck, Susy! Don’t be afraid to call the Baker’s Hotline (855-371-2253) if you have any questions or baking conundrums. Kye@KAF

  4. Maria

    Interesting article. For me, at the end of the day, it’s about taste and not how light or flaky it is. I don’t like the taste of butter so I don’t use it in my crusts or even in my baking. Any time I do all I can taste is butter and friends and family have always enjoyed my non-butter items better than those with butter (I never tell when I use butter vs. margarine vs. Crisco, just make with what I have on hand sometimes). The exception is when I make a white cake, butter seems to be the key. Anyway, I digress, I like that someone showed a side by side comparison, but the final decision comes down to whether or not I like it!

    Reply
  5. Kim Hund

    Thank you for a lovely article and for all your testing. Pie crust makes me nervous but I may just give it a go this year. Thanks again for the dose of courage! Hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving.

    Reply
  6. Katharine sullivan

    I am disappointed to see Crisco as a shortening ( photo). It is hydrogenated, something that rules it out as a healthy food, or indeed, food.

    Reply
  7. Kim Strong

    Lately I have added a twist to my all butter crust. I have been putting in a big dollop of coconut oil ( room temperature firm ) before adding the ice water. OK, I use just a little bit less water when I do this. It has made the crust easier to work with and is very flaky.

    Thanks for the comparison on fats. I continue to try new things and test the results on my husband, who is all too eager to play the guinea pig. Here in south central Oklahoma it can be very humid and I certainly notice that makes a difference in the outcome as well. I have to be very careful about not making a glutinous mess!

    Reply
  8. Sheryl

    I render my own lard & do prefer that with a tad of butter frozen. I’ve even added butter flavoring. Plus I have used Apple vodka for Apple pies. Def a try if you haven’t. Flavored vodkas add great flavor.

    Reply
  9. Laurie

    Is it possible to make a gluten-free pie crust that is flakey, tender and easy to roll out. Will the addition of vodka make the silken crust you got with all purpose flour? Do you know any tricks?
    Thank you.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Laurie, we have two different approaches you can try when it comes to making a gluten-free crust. The first recipe is this one here, which uses our Gluten-Free Flour. It’s especially easy to roll out if you include the optional ingredient of Instant ClearJel (though it’s not packed in a gluten-free facility). Another recipe to consider is our Gluten-Free Double Pie Crust, which tends to be a bit flakier but more delicate to work with. In either case, you can replace up to half of the ice water with chilled vodka to help make the crust more “silken” as described here. Lastly, check out this article on our blog that has all the tips you need to know to make a perfect gluten-free pie crust. Happy GF baking! Kye@KAF

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