Perfect Crusts: Butter or Shortening?

Posted by Chrisi

My pursuit for pie perfection began with the goal of finding the perfect pie crust recipe. For me, the crust is not just a shell to house the filling. The crust is the very foundation of the pie (literally and figuratively). So on 6/12/2009 I put my skills as a scientist to work and conducted a very scientific pie crust experiment. Alton Brown would be proud.

In this experiment, the following variables were held constant: amount of flour, sugar, salt and water. The only variable that changed was the type of fat used. Previous to this experiment, 100% Crisco or 50:50 Crisco:butter were my fats of choice, mainly because that’s what my Mom used… and mom knows best, right?  

Before my experiment I did a “literature” search certain that varying the fat content in pie crust wasn’t a novel idea. During my search, I ran across a 2006 article from the New York Times entitled, “Heaven in a Pie Pan: The Perfect Crust” (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/15/dining/15crus.html) that really opened my eyes to the array of fat options including butter, leaf lard (fat that surrounds a hog’s kidneys), duck fat, oils (e.g., canola oil, grapeseed oil, coconut oil, olive), nut butters and cream cheese. Astonished and appalled (leaf lard? duck fat?), I narrowed my fat criteria to exclude:
  1. Animal suet / fat / lard
  2. Shortenings that contain trans-fats or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (this eliminated standard Crisco)

After a review of recipes from the Pie Bible (see Resources), Alton Brown, Ina Garten and Martha Stewart, I concluded that most pie bakers use butter or a combination of butter and shortening in their crusts. Before experimenting with butter-to-shortening ratios, I baked crusts with just one fat. The 5 fats that I chose for my experiment where:

  1. Organic unsalted butter (grocery store brand)
  2. Goat butter
  3. Spectrum organic shortening (100% palm oil)
  4. Earth Balance natural shortening (blend of palm, soybean, canola, and olive oils)
  5. Jungle organic shortening (blend of palm and sunflower oils)

The recipe that I used makes a single 9" pie crust.


  • 1.5 cups Arrowhead Mills organic unbleached flour
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 0.5 teaspoon sea salt
  • 0.25 cup (100-115 g) of the chosen fat, chilled in the refrigerator and cut into 0.25” pieces
  • 0.25 cup ice water

Sift the flour, sugar and salt together. Place in a food processor and pulse three times. Add the chilled fat. Pulse the food processor 6 times. Fluff the mixture with a fork. Add half of the chilled water (1/8 cup). Pulse 6 times. Fluff with a fork. Add remaining water (1/8 cup) and pulse the food processor another 6 times. Pour the mixture into a large mixing bowl. Form a ball with minimum handling. This is really the key to flaky pie crusts. Overworking the dough encourages the development of gluten -- long, stringy protein molecules that form when flour is blended with liquid -- resulting in a tough dough. Flatten the ball into a ¾” disc and chill in the refrigerator for a minimum of one hour.

To ensure that my pie crusts were exactly the same (only changing the fat) I weighed out 375 g of dough and rolled each into a 13” circle. Since I was baking 5 crusts, I used aluminum pie pans. Normally, I use a glass pie dish.

The easiest way to roll out pie dough is to cut a 12x13” square of wax paper. Lightly dust the wax paper and dough with flour. Place the dough in the center of the paper and roll out with a flour-dusted rolling pin (mine is wooden). Initially, move the rolling pin in directions that make a star (*). This can be done by rotating the wax paper and moving the rolling pin away from you. When the crust is close to the edge of the wax paper, roll near the edge of the dough in a slightly curved motion and continually rotate the wax paper. A combination of these motions will produce a round dough of even thickness.

To place the dough in a pie tin, carefully flip the wax paper so that the dough faces the tin. Hold the dough with both hands, fingers spread, and center the dough. Gently lay the dough in the tin and peel off the wax paper. Then lift the overhanging dough with one hand and gently tuck the pastry into the pan (without stretching it) with the other hand. Trim excess dough (I like to use scissors), leaving 1/4 to 1/2” overhang. If you’re short in one spot, just tack on excess dough from another spot. Wet the dough with moist fingers so that it sticks together. To make the edge, roll the dough under and then crimp with your knuckles (see photo above).

Since the goal of this experiment was to compare the flavor and flakiness of the crusts, no filling was added. Each crust was baked at 400⁰F for 25 minutes.

Test taste results:
My food scientist friend helped me conduct a taste test. The students in her Human Nutrition class judged the crusts. The results:

  1. Spectrum organic shortening 
  2. Butter and goat butter (a tie)
  3. Earth Balance shortening
  4. Jungle shortening

The butter and shortening also produced the best color.  These results led to my use of a 50:50 Spectrum shortening:Plugra pie crust recipe that will be posted very soon. However, when I want to make a very special pie I use goat butter--it's my personal favorite. Now shall I try leaf lard? Hmmm. Maybe not!


moonbeam said...

I can't believe you are giving up the pie crust recipe!!! I thought for sure I'd have to beg, borrow and steal my way to the perfect crust. :)

Chrisi said...

I'm not convinced this is THE perfect pie crust recipe. This was just the first experiment. The next experiment will investigate the ratio of shortening to butter. Stay tuned...

Anonymous said...

Hey, thanks! This is the best comparison ever. And am also grateful for the recipe and tips.

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