Forget about Harley vs. Kawasaki, Beatles vs. Rolling Stones, mulching vs. bagging…if you want to witness a true breakdown of civilized discourse, try asking a group of octogenarian bakers what kind of fat makes the best pie crust or biscuit. Butter or shortening? Or maybe lard? Here in the South that subject is dinner party taboo.
Why the big flap? Well it all depends on where your allegiances lie in the whole flavor-vs.-texture debate. If a tender texture is what’s important to you, then you’re probably a shortening advocate. If flavor is what really rocks your world, then you’re a butter person. For you can’t have both perfect flavor and perfect texture in a pie crust or biscuit, and the reason comes down to some important differences between butter and shortening.
What is that difference? Primarily moisture. About 17% of butter is water. Compare that to shortening which contains no water. And that makes a big difference in a dough. For as I mentioned earlier in the week, water goes hand-in-hand with gluten. The more you have in your dough, the more likely you’ll be to inadvertently create active gluten. Even if you go to extremes to avoid working a dough, where moisture is present, those long spindly molecules find a way to hold hands. And that means toughness.
A pie crust made with all shortening is an incredibly tender affair. Especially when made with a Southern-style soft wheat flour, it can be so delicate it barely holds its shape (the fact that the very outer layer of the crust essentially “fries” in the oven heat also gives shortening crusts a somewhat “crispy” edge). The trouble is flavor. Shortening is extremely bland (plus it has that characteristic tongue-coating mouthfeel). Butter by comparison is loaded with rich flavor. It browns a crust nicely due to the proteins is contains, and its just-below-body-temperature melt point means no greasy feeling on the tongue. It also tends to create a flakier crust since its moisture turns to steam in the oven, creating a small rise that helps preserve the butter-layers.
Of course more than a few people attempt to split the difference. There are very few home bakers out there that employ an all-shortening pie crust (though there are plenty of people that make all-shortening biscuits). Still there’s very little agreement as to how much is enough, or for that matter too much.
The third-party spoilers in this partisan debate are the lard-crust advocates, who argue that lard is the best of all possible worlds. Like shortening it’s all fat and so gives thirsty gluten molecules no help. Like butter it has a low melt point (providing a non-greasy mouthfeel). It browns fairly well and is loaded with flavor, granted it’s a porky kind of flavor, but the people who love it swear by it.
So, I guess it’s a pick-your-poison kind of dealie (though actually all these fats are about the same in terms of their “health value”). The general rule of thumb when considering a fat for your Biscuit Method bakery: shortening (or lard) = tender, crispy and denser, butter = flaky, flavorful and lighter. Choose your side. Or alternately join the search for the ultimate compromise. Should you find it, you should probably run for president.