OK, before some moderator moves this thread, please consider that 'Pies' is the essence of Maine, which is a "New England" subject.
Someone just let slip a little ecstatic yelp about a wonderful pie -- "with lard crust!". And I just have to say: why is this so fantasmagorical? I know it's supposed to be the pinnacle of something or other, but I'm thinking this is really just old-time 50's mindless glorification. That is, I make pies w/o lard and would never let that stuff pass my threshold -- so why am I traveling 300 miles for what I just *bet* is some "quintessential" -- read: lard crust, at the end (that is, I'm traveling to the fabled Helen's in -- just a few hours. Really! We're really going this time....I think).
We just tried Moody's heralded four-berry pie with presumably a lard crust. It just tasted thick and lumpy and, well, thick, to me. I liked the filling. But the crust was pretty tasteless. Note that I'm not complaining heartily -- I do understand all this wonderfulness has a context -- that is, Maine. Still, I'm getting worried that this Helen's, so long upheld as the be-all and end-all of pies, will be just another -- lard -- tasteless pie crust. Just thinking about it makes me feel fat, though I suppose butter is probably equally caloric.
So my question is, is lard really all it's cracked up to be or are these recent lard pies I've had just sub-par?
Note, btw, that it's actually incredibly easy to make a very supple pie crust with only butter. I mention this because once it was explained to me that this was a unique quality of lard, but I disagree.
My grandmother only used lard and her pie crusts were fabulous. (Sadly, we have no recipes.) But my daughter and I found it very hard to work with. We've ended up doing a combination of butter and lard.
Is the lard supposed to contribute a specific taste, or is it used for texture?
My impression was that lard (and other solid shortenings) produces a flaky crust, where as one made with oil makes a mealier one. Pure refined lard should have little flavor itself. Flavor in the crust would come from salt and sugar, if anything. Butter will contribute its own flavors, mainly from the milk solids in the butter.
I think the flavor depends on what kind of lard you use. Hydrogenated lard is most common. When you go to your local national chain grocery store this is what they sell (usually Armour brand). It's not even refrigerated. It has a very mild flavor and isn't terribly good for you. This is NOT what was used generations ago to create fantastic pie crusts.
Freshly rendered lard has a much stronger and very noticable flavor. It makes a big difference. When I use it in my crusts I cut it with butter to and/or shorting to reduce the flavor. It's that strong a flavor. Good lard can be found at good butcher shops and various ethic markets.
I think the texture and flavor of lard can make an enormous difference but it depends on what kind of lard is used.
I have experimented for years with lard crusts, which are traditonal in my family, and find lard-only crusts to be a bit heavy and lumpy as you described. A 50-50 mixture of butter and lard gets really good results. It moves the crust a bit away from being shortcake-ish, which happens with all butter IMO and the lard balances out the butter and the resulting crust is golden, flaky, supple and light. I've used vegetable shortening in place of lard with butter and it's no-go.
Some years ago, my parents along with my aunt and uncle purchased a pig for butchering. The butcher gave my mom the rendered lard and she made pie crust with it. I remember that as being the absolute best pie crust I ever ate--flaky, tender, tasty.
As another poster implied, the lard in the green box at the grocery store is not the same as the unprocessed product we got from that pig. I don't think I would bother with the grocery store product, but if you found a butcher that would give you fat to render, or lard, you'd see what the fuss is about.
I think an important thing to remember is that "lard" has changed significantly over the years as pigs are bred to be leaner and more, well, chickeny. It stands to reason the lard would take a major hit in flavor and texture. I'm sure the pies made with lard crusts back in the day were better than they would be now.
Lard gives a pie crust a wonderfully flaky texture that is different from a crust with butter.
Having said that, I will note that most lard available at the grocery is not worth using. Also, if you can taste the differences in fats, a lard crust will taste really funky with a fruit filling. I would use it only for a meat pie and make a dessert pie with a butter crust.
I can't speak much to lard's applicability in pastries, but, having been raised in a Mexican household, I can say that entire regional cuisines would be decimated if deprived of the porcine lipid.
The difference between tamale dough (or refried beans) made with and without is as night and day.