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Why is shortening such an important ingredient in pie crusts?

Why not just use all butter? So asks reader Victoria. Victoria, the main reason North American pie makers use shortening (or lard) in their crusts, instead of just using all butter, is to keep the moisture content as low as possible. Butter can be up to 18% water, and that can be a very bad thing for the texture of a crust. 

We talk about gluten a lot on the site. That’s because North American gluten can be a real pain to work with, making pastry tough and prone to shrinkage in the oven. Gluten is always present in wheat flour, but it takes water to “activate” it, which is to say, cause the gluten molecules to bond to one another in a springy network. So we a.) minimize the amount of water that’s in the crust, and b.) try to work it as little as possible since agitation is the other thing that activates gluten.  

If we were all living in France we could probably employ some of their “dry butter” for our crusts, that might solve the problem. However we aren’t in France, and making dry butter is a hassle, so we make do with whatever’s available. Normally that’s vegetable shortening, but as I said above, some bakers use lard, which is also very low moisture. Some bakers use 100% lard in their crusts, which makes for superior texture but tastes a little “piggy” for some people. Vegetable shortening offers a neutral flavor and brings no water whatsoever to the party. 

My favorite crust is 50% butter and 50% lard. But the trick there is that great baking lard can’t be bought these days, it has to be made. Which I suppose is another reason most people, faced with a choice between rendering their own lard and simply buying shortening, choose the shortening. Thanks Victoria!

4 thoughts on “Why is shortening such an important ingredient in pie crusts?”

  1. When making NY cheesecake I’m more often seeming to have moisture problems with the graham cracker crust. Pre-baking has helps; I assume that drives most water out… but what about shortening in a graham cracker crust. Genius or crazy talk? I’ve not yet experimented.

      1. After years of success with this Frugal Gourmet recipe, but never a crisp crust):
        1 cup graham cracker crumb, 1/4 cup sugar, 1/4 cup butter. Blend and press into bottom of spring-form pan. Fill with cheesecake custard and bake. No water bath.

        Crust was soft but not tasty. A couple of years ago the crust started bleeding butterfat… a lot.

        Started chilling before Filling and baking… less butterfat bleeding but greasy sugary soggy.

        Reduced sugar by 50%, chill a long time, then pre-bake and re-chill before filling and baking… no bleed but after 1 day (the leftovers) oozing is sugar syrup goo from crust. I never noticed this before because never had leftovers, but lately the family eats one piece, thanks me profusely, and that’s it. Not normal for teen boys and a wife with sweet tooth!

        Has butter or sugar or crackers changed over the years or has my technique become sloppy? Maybe I just need a new crust recipe?

        1. Hey Brian!

          Sorry for the late reply. I wonder if it isn’t the butter you’re using. We think about butter as a constant ingredient. In reality the composition of fats changes throughout the year as the diets of the cows change. When cows are on a cheaper (or non-grazing) diet, the butter tends to be greasier, more prone to separating, as it doesn’t have as many crystal-forming fats in it. That’s my best suggestion on how to fix the problem. Let me know if it works for you!

          Cheers,

          Joe

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