The texture of your pie crust largely depends on what type of fat you use. Not all shortenings and oils perform the same… and while most people have come to love the flavor that butter brings to all baked goods, lard’s fat composition and chemical make up make it the superior choice for consistent flaky pie crusts every time! It’s bland flavor make the taste of the filling stand on its own and the ingredients do the talking. Whether you’re making a fruit pie, meat pie, or tart… lard outperforms all your shortening options.
The reason lard is better in products like biscuits and pie crusts is because the crystal structure is very different from any other shortening. A functional bakery shortening is a beta prime crystal, which blends in and creams into dough. Think of what cookie dough looks like when you make something from a store-bought mix. Lard on the other hand is an alpha crystal, spiny and non-uniform, making it unable to mix well with flour. It’s more folded in, and you can see the fat as you fold the dough into itself. This is what creates those extra flaky layers and give your dough a fluffy and voluminous texture.
Lard also has a low moisture content – meaning there is little water in the fat itself. This helps your crusts hold its shape and prevents excess “shrinking” in the oven because there is less water evaporating from the mixture. Butter differs from lard in that there is on average 18-20% water. Once this is baked that water evaporates and causes the crust to not only brown faster, but shrink in size. So if you’re the creative baker and want a nice basket weave, or to cut out shapes or leaves, or to decorate the top layer of your pies – they will hold their shape better with lard and not shrink down during the baking process.
The other reason a butter crust will brown faster is due to the smoke point. Lard has a higher smoke point of 400°F+ compared to butter at around 320°F. This means that it will start to “burn” or oxidize at that temperature. So if you’re baking a pie around 325°F or higher, your butter crust will brown faster as it warms to that smoke point temperature.
We see butter in a lot of these recipes now to help add flavor back into crusts and dough’s that also have a vegetable shortening in them. Butter is delicious, but it’s flavor can also overpower whatever ingredients you’re cooking with. It’s also 80% saturated as opposed to lard at only 55%. Lard is healthier for you, and also lets the flavor of your food shine rather than overpower it with other distinct flavors.
Lard has been used in crusts and dough’s dating all the way back to the 1400’s. It was a natural and whole fat that was easy to access from a local butcher, or render yourself in the home kitchen. When we moved to processed vegetable oils, you not only lost the flavor in your pie crusts… you lose some aspects of performance as well. You don’t get those flaky layers or the resistance to heat that lard brings to the table. There’s a lot more that needs to be added to these processed shortenings in order to try and match the properties that lard chemically is made up of. The solid vegetable shortenings are not so “pure” and turns out, didn’t help the waistline after all these years of the “fat free” and “low-fat” diet push.