Like a lot of people, I struggle with homemade pie crust. I have recipes from my grandmas on my mom’s side and my dad’s side, but somehow they never turn out quite right for me. At any given point, I’ve tried other variations with all-butter, all-shortening, vodka, eggs, no eggs, white flour, whole wheat flour, sifting, no sifting, freezing the fats before mixing, freezing the fats after mixing, grating frozen sticks of butter, using a food processor, a pastry-cutter, my bare hands. Some variations turned out better than others, some easier than others, none exactly right or consistent from one batch to the next.
So this was the challenge I set before myself: figure out the best fat (or combination of fats) for easy, tasty pie crust. I knew the only thing I really wanted to experiment with was the fats, I was happy and confident with the rest of my grandmas’ recipes. While I’ve tried all-butter, all-Crisco, and a combination of the two before, this experiment would be slightly different for a few reasons. First of all, I planned to make all the variations at once with the exact same dry and wet ingredients in the exact same proportions. Then I’d try them in two applications: apple turnovers and plain. It was a regular America’s Test Kitchen around here!
Making the dough
I made a full batch of dry ingredients and a full batch of liquid ingredients (both detailed in the recipe below) except the fats. In five small bowls, I added a total of 1/4 cup of cold fat:
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 4 tablespoons lard (from my unintentional lard-rendering experience)
- 4 tablespoons Crisco (butter-flavored, which I prefer over unflavored based on past experiences)
- 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons lard
- 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons Crisco (this has been my standard in the past)
Based on the dry/wet/fat proportions in my grandmas’ recipes, I measured just over 3/4 cup of the dry ingredients into each bowl and 2 tablespoons of liquid per bowl.
Mixing the doughs
I know a lot of people have great experiences using a food processor to make pie dough, but mine is just slightly too small for a full batch, and I wanted to get a better feel for what the crust should be like, so I used my handy pastry cutter to cut the fat into the flour and liquid.
My first observations came while I was mixing the doughs. Both of the doughs with Crisco were very crumbly and took the longest to come together to the point that I was worried about over-working it and making it tough. The lard-based ones, surprisingly, were the easiest and fastest to bring together; since the consistency of lard and Crisco is similar, I thought they’d work similarly in the dough, which wasn’t the case at all. However, it still smelled a little lard-y which I was worried would come out in the taste. The dough with only butter came together without too much effort.
Round one: Lard-based is in the lead, butter-only in second, shortening-based in third.
Rolling the doughs
The doughs all went in the fridge for a few hours to re-solidify some of the fat before I moved on to rolling them out, the point where I always struggle the most. And I will say this–as soon as I started rolling out the butter-lard dough, I didn’t even want to finish my comparison, I had found my Holy Grail of Pie Dough. It rolled out like a dream, smooth, easy to move around the cutting board, nice little clumps of butter that would create beautiful layers, no cracks or tears, easy to flip over the rolling pin to another pan. I have never worked with dough this easily.
But I had to be fair, so I continued rolling through the remaining four doughs. The plain lard one was very similar to the butter-lard: smooth, easy to roll and maneuver.
The Crisco-only one was next and reminded me why I hate working with pie dough–it crumbled everywhere, cracked and wouldn’t come back together, tore so easily it ended up twice as thick as the lard-based doughs. Bah! So frustrating. Almost exactly the same thing with the butter-shortening dough–difficult to roll out without cracking, I couldn’t move it to another pan without the dough nearly falling apart.
And finally, the butter-only dough surprised me. After sitting on the counter for about 15 minutes as I was dealing with the rest of the doughs, it actually rolled out very nicely–a few cracks and a little sticking, and somewhere in between the thickness of the lard and shortening doughs but I was able to move it to my pan without much struggle.
Round two: Butter-lard is far in the lead, followed by a tie with butter-only and lard-only, then either of the shortening doughs in last place.
Taste and texture
For baking, I used each dough to make an apple turnover topped with eggwash and cinnamon sugar. I also cut off a bit of each dough to bake on its own, with just a brush of eggwash. The front-runner up to this point, the butter-lard combo, once again came out on top: the layers were like nothing I have ever seen, almost like the layers of a croissant that shattered in perfect flakes, and the flavor was spot on. The top crust of the turnover was delicate, but the bottom crust held up really well and even showed a few of those amazing layers.
The plain lard dough was also excellent, as was the butter-only. They each were flaky and delicate with the right amount of crispness, but for me, the flavor of the butter was almost too buttery, and the lard was a little too savory by itself, but mixed together, they played off each other perfectly.
The flavor of the shortening-based doughs was fine, but nothing special. However what I had noticed during the first two tests with the shortening came out again in the texture: the dough crumbled instead of forming layers like the other fats. It also tended to be a little tougher than the other three doughs.
Round three: Dough with butter and lard wins! Second place is a tie between the butter-only and the lard-only, last place goes to shortening for being a challenge to work with at every step of the process.
Makes enough for one double-crust pie. If you don’t have access to leaf lard (or don’t want to render your own), the second best option for flavor and texture is all butter, but it takes a bit more care to roll out and maneuver. Also, while this might seem like a small thing, the best flour to use is either King Arthur or Ceresota, which have slightly higher protein content than other brands.
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar (if making a sweet pie)
1/2 cup butter, cut into chunks
1/2 cup leaf lard
1 tbsp white vinegar
5 tbsp ice water
Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar into a large bowl. In a separate bowl, mix together egg, vinegar, and water. With a pastry cutter, fork, or food processor, begin to cut the fats into the flour, then stir in the egg mixture. Continue to cut in the fats until the dough is shaggy and holds together when you gently squeeze a handful. Dump out dough onto a pastry board and fold together a few times until all of the dough comes together; divide in half and wrap each tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for a few hours or up to a few days.
When ready to roll the dough out, be sure to liberally flour the board and rolling pin. Roll out one half of the dough at a time, rotating it 1/8 turn every few rolls to have the best shot at anything resembling a circle. Add flour as needed if the dough sticks, and roll until it’s about 1/8 inch thick. Carefully wrap it over the rolling pin and transfer it to a pie plate or pan, and repeat with the other half of the dough for the top crust.