So now that I’ve satisfied my craving for zingy, sparkly Raspberry Jam Cookies, I’m back with more pie crust!
In other words… Welcome to the third post of my series ‘The Perfect Pie Crust’, in which I compare and test different recipes to find out what ingredients and techniques make the best pie crust ever!
In case you’d already forgotten what ‘The Perfect Pie Crust’ is all about, just a quick recap. Right now, I’m testing how the different fats most commonly used in pie crusts (butter, vegetable shortening, leaf lard, and a combination of those fats) affect the resulting crusts. How do those resulting pie crusts differ in texture and flavor? What are the up- and downsides of using a particular fat? How should these fats be incorporated?
The first post of the series was all about butter and all-butter pie crusts. Just to sum it up: the all-butter crust was delicious. Flavor-wise it reminded me of fresh croissants and the texture was flaky and tender. Plus, I always have butter in my fridge and it’s cheap. Which makes it a very convenient fat to use too.
Anyway, up today: vegetable shortening!
Now, some of you are probably thinking that I’ve completely lost it. How can any self-respecting foodie even consider using vegetable shortening, right? I mean, blegh…
I know that shortening has a bad reputation. I mean, what is shortening anyway? Fat from plants? Don’t we all eat salads and veggies and everything to avoid fat? Well, yeah! But remember sunflower oil? That’s a fat from a plant! And what about olive oil? Olives are planty…
Basically, vegetable shortening is a combination of hydrogenated vegetable oils. Here’s how that process works. In the world of chemistry (which I know something about because I took chemistry in high school) fats can be either saturated or unsaturated. Most animal fats are naturally saturated, and most vegetable fats are naturally unsaturated. Think of fat as a chain-like molecule with hydrogen-atoms attached to it. Saturated fat is completely ‘saturated’ with those hydrogen-atoms and therefore cannot link any more hydrogen-atoms to its molecule. Unsaturated fats are not ‘saturated’, but instead have ’empty slots’ where hydrogen-atoms can attach to. Think of a fat molecule this way: saturated fat molecules are full parking lots, whereas unsaturated fat molecules are half-empty parking lots.
To make shortening, vegetable oils, or unsaturated fats (aka: half-empty parking lots), are chemically changed into full or almost full parking lots. In other words, hydrogen-atoms (the ‘cars’) are added to the molecules empty slots (parking places). This way, the unsaturated vegetable oil is transformed into a solid saturated vegetable fat. These transformed unsaturated fats are also know as trans-fats.
This process of hydrogenation is exactly why some people don’t like using shortening. Trans-fats are said to be more harmful than naturally saturated fats, such as butter and leaf lard.
Wait, let’s keep score. I guess the fact that butter is, um, healthier (who would have thought?) makes it: shortening 0, butter 1.
However, hydrogenation is also what makes shortening a solid fat that you can use for baking. In baking, it’s usually all about that solid fat we all have in our fridge: butter. More specifically, the temperature of the butter. It shouldn’t be too cold, but it should definitely not be too warm. Especially not if you’re making cookies! If the butter is too warm, you’ll end up with cookies that spread like crazy in the oven. That’s why almost all cookie recipes call for chilling the dough after you’ve mixed it up. Any home baker knows this…
When it comes to making pies, using a solid fat is particularly important. A good pie crust is flaky and flakiness can only be achieved if a solid fat is worked into a mixture of flour and salt (and sometimes sugar) until there are pea- to hazelnut-sized pieces of fat visible in the mixture. Once the dough is in the oven, the pieces of fat melt and the water in the fat evaporates. This creates steam. Like I told you in the all-butter post, the steam creates little air pockets, and it’s these pockets that give your pie crust a flaky texture!
The downside of using butter in a pie crust is the fact that butter has a very low melting point of about 32°C/90°F, which means that the heat of your hands will melt it. Shortening, on the other hand, melts at a temperature of about 47°C/116°F, which means that – no matter how much of a hottie you are – you cannot melt it by simply touching it.
All-shortening pie dough is therefore more difficult to mess up and it’s a lot easier to end up with a perfectly flaky pie crust!
Shortening 1, butter 1.
However, shortening is said to taste bad. Like icky bad… That’s another reason why many home cooks avoid it.
Well, I have to say, I taste tested a lot of pie crusts and I came to the conclusion that… I actually kind of liked the shortening crust. Yes, I just said that. Shocking! But guess what? I wasn’t the only one who like the all-shortening crust! The Rocking Rebel loved it! In fact, he said that it reminded him of a delicate cookie.
I have to say, the flavor of the all-shortening crust was very subtle. Especially compared to the all-butter crust, which tasted almost meaty next to the all-shortening crust. Don’t get me wrong, the Rocking Rebel and I both loved the all-butter crust! Like I said: fresh croissants and puff pastry. But the all-shortening crust wasn’t bad either.
Here are the results of the taste-test:
- Great flavor.
- Saltier than the all-shortening crust, even though I added the same amount of salt to both pie doughs and used unsalted butter in the all-butter crust.
- Meatier than the all-shortening crust.
- Great flavor. A bit more delicate than the flavor of the all-butter crust.
- Less intrusive flavor than the all-butter crust.
- I can imagine that the flavor of this pie crust gets easily overpowered by flavorful pie fillings.
Okay, so I guess that makes it: shortening 2, butter 2…
Update: after some more testing, the Rocking Rebel and I came to the conclusion that somehow, the all-shortening crust can have a weird and unpleasant after taste. We didn’t notice this during our first taste test, but when we tested it next to the all-lard crust and the all-butter crust (again) days later, it was definitely there. Weird…
But what about texture? Pie crust should be flaky. And the all-butter crust was mighty flaky!
- Flakelicious! Wait, is that a word?
- Less tender than the all-shortening crust.
- More bite.
And what about the All-Shortening Crust?
- Also perfectly flakelicious!
- More delicate than the all-butter crust.
- A bit more crumbly. A melts-in-your-mouth texture.
That makes the score: shortening 3, butter 3!
I really liked the all-butter crust, but I have to say, part of me preferred the all-shortening crust. It was more subtle, both in texture and flavor. The all-butter crust is bold and, um, buttery. Really delicious, but also very… what’s the word… loud?
Anyway, both crusts were great! Both were deliciously flaky and had great flavor. It’s just that the all-butter crust is a little more pronounced and the all-shortening crust a little more subtle.
The all-butter crust is like a red truck, the all-shortening crust like a silver sedan. Or wait, let’s compare these crusts to men instead… The all-butter crust is like Hugh Jackman in ‘Wolverine’: angry, hairy, loud and muscular… Without the cigars and sweat though… If you like Thor better, that’s fine too. Just like Wolverine he’s the perfect embodiment of the all-butter crust. In fact, any he-man will do…
The all-shortening crust on the other hand is more like James McAvoy in ‘Atonement’. Or, yeah, Leonardo in ‘Titanic’: charming, intelligent, sophisticated and ever-so-cute!
Personally, after much deliberation, I decided that I prefer the all-butter crust. Not because it tastes so much better. Not because it makes a flakier crust. It’s because butter is something I always have in the fridge. As opposed to shortening.
Shortening 3, butter 4!
Here in the Netherlands, shortening is not something you can buy at any supermarket. In fact, I have to ride my bike all the way downtown to get my hands on some shortening! And I’d much rather stay at home, eating a piece of pie, watching Hugh Jackman flex his muscles instead. Or James McAvoy flex his expressive eyebrows…
But that’s just me. What’s your take on pie fats? Do you like working with shortening? Or do you prefer butter? Let me know!
- 155g (or 1¼ cup) all-purpose flour
- ¼ teaspoon table salt
- 113g (or ½ cup) cold vegetable shortening
- 2-4 tablespoons of ice water
- Combine the flour and salt in a medium-sized bowl. Stir together with a fork until combined.
- Add the cold shortening Toss with the flour, then use a pastry cutter to work the shortening into the flour mixture. You want the shortening to become somewhat incorporated but the mixture should still look crumbly, with pea to hazelnut sized pieces of shortening in it.
- Once the shortening has been worked into the flour, add two tablespoons of water and stir with a rubber spatula. Use it to press the dough against the sides of the bowl. If the dough doesn’t clump together, add another tablespoon of water until it comes together in big clumps.
- Using your hands, quickly press the dough into a flat disc. Wrap the disc in plastic wrap and leave to chill in the fridge for one hour. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 175°C/350°F and line a cookie sheet with baking parchment.
- Once the dough has properly chilled, roll it out between two sheets of baking parchment to a thickness of about 5-mm (or one fifth of an inch).
- Use a cookie cutter to cut out cookie shapes (mine were about 5-cm/2-inches in diameter), place the cookies onto the lined cookie sheet and bake in the middle of the oven for about 15-18 minutes, or until slightly browned.