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Flaky Pastry Crust: Butter vs Shortening

This is really a follows-up from my last post about "Why Chill The Dough?"

The original recipe call for using shortening (Crisco) for fat in the dough. I read other recipes online call for butter, so I tried both. I didn't adjust for the fact that butter has a lot more water in it. I did a straight substitution.

To my surprise, the crust/shells made from Crisco is tighter and crispier, but NOT flakier. The butter one is actually a slightly flakier. As I bite into the butter one, it crumbles and falls apart in thin flakes. I was expecting the shortening one to be flakier because that is I am always told. Is this normal? I wonder if I overbaked, so the Crisco one dried up and the butter one holds up because of the extra moisture.

Ok, now I am onto trying different temperature. The last batch was baked at 325F for 35 min. The up-coming batch are baked at 410F for 10 min. I will update.

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  1. Butter. Always.

    The texture difference may be questionable but for flavor and moistness, butter always wins.

    1. I really like half butter and half vegetable crisco. Get the flavor and flaky of the butter, and the good structure from the crisco.

      Looking forward to your next installment of "Dough Stats."

      7 Replies
      1. re: smtucker

        Ditto on the mix of butter & crisco but I don't exactly do half & half, more like 2/3 butter to 1/3 crisco. I like the texture much better

        1. re: Cherylptw

          I agree. I like to use about 2/3 or even 3/4 butter, and the remainder Spectrum Organic Shortening, which is palm oil. A lot more expensive than Crisco, but I think it tastes better and I only use a little so it lasts a long time.

          1. re: Cherylptw

            Other advantage of using some Crisco (even 25%) in a butter crust is that it improves the workability of the dough quite a bit--seems to broaden the optimal temperature for rolling and handling the dough quite a bit. Helpful especially for beginners, for whom a 100% butter crust tends to split when being rolled out.

          2. re: smtucker

            That's what I do as well. My favorite pie crust recipe if from Baking with Julia. Really excellent crust. Recently I have switched to half butter and half lard.
            It makes an amazing crust.

            1. re: mendogurl

              I like lard also especially when making savory crusts

              1. re: mendogurl

                I just switched recently too. I won't go back. I am going to try and get some leaf lard from the farmers market when they open. Also used it to fry chicken and the chicken absorbed very little of it.

                1. re: mendogurl

                  Another vote for half butter/half lard. I was a diehard half butter/half Crisco pie baker for years, then I got scared of the trans-fatty acids, so no more Crisco. I tried a few faux Criscos, which were crap. All butter was decent (and incredibly flaky), but the butter/lard combo is the best. Just make sure you don't inflict it on veggie friends by mistake!

              2. I always thought that flakiness came from the water in the butter producing steam pushing apart layers of the dough.

                1. Ok, update from the higher temperature baking. It seems high temperature and short baking time produces marginally flakier crust, but then this could simply be a batch to batch variation. In this high temperature batch, the butter one again is flakier than the Crisco one. The difference is noticeable and this diffeence is consistent in at two temperature.

                  Actually, I am not 100% if flakier is the right word. They both crumbles, but the butter one take less force to crumble and there are larger air pocket between layers of crust. When the butter one crumbles it comes off as bigger flakes. The Crisco one crumbles but it comes off as smaller pieces. If I want to exaggerate, I will say imagine a cracker biscuit. It take much force to crumble and when it does, it comes off as very tiny little pieces.

                  Everyone told me Crisco is supposed to create flakier pie crusts. Is there a reason why Crisco can create flakier pie crusts but not tart shells?

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                    Tarts? Oh, butter all the way. Why? Cause that is what my French cousins do and it pairs really well with pastry cream and fruit.

                    1. re: smtucker


                      But I don't want to be French. :P

                    2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                      Chem, you hit on it when you said you were not sure if flakier is the right word. Traditionally, pie crust was made with lard, which (I'm guessing since I never did it that way in the past, and am now veg so it's not gonna happen) combines the best attributes of taste and flakiness to the crust.
                      You don't want soft crumbles (as you saw happen with the all butter crust) in a pie crust. You want some substance to stand up to the pie filling. You aren't making pastry which will stand on its own; pie crust is a component and you have to think of the entire product, both crust and filling.
                      I usually use straight Crisco (again, can't use lard), or a butter and Crisco combo.
                      Your diligence and reportage are to be commended!

                      1. re: mrsdebdav


                        Anyway, I have lard and I have made other stuffs with lard. I so want to make my mini tarts with lard, but I also want to bring my mini tarts to share with coworkers and some of them are vegetarians, so lard won't work.

                        You make perfect sense now. A pie crust requires more strength than my little pasty filling (which does stand on its own). I can see it now. If I had use the butter crust in a filled up full size pie, then it will probably not hold, whereas my stronger Crisco crust will hold. Yeah. Now, it makes sense. Cool. Thanks.

                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                          Hi Chemi,
                          I do use Crisco - maybe I wasn't clear?
                          But I'm glad my answer helped.
                          You're terrific!

                          1. re: mrsdebdav

                            Yeah, I re-read and realized I made a mistake. Thanks for your helpful explanation.

                    3. The most critical point for making a flakey crust has been overlooked here. Unless you make certain that the dough is kept very cold while handling it, whether you use shortening or butter makes little difference. If your dough "dried" up it could be due to the shortening melting in the dough mixture instead of remaining somewhat intact as individual bits and pieces as it should if kept cold.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: todao

                        Yeah, I froze and then refrigerated them. The butter one and the Crisco one are placed in the same muffin tin, so they should be at similar temperature during refrigeration and during baking. Thanks for making sure.

                      2. Butter or good lard. Shortening coats my mouth and gives me a funny mouthfeel. The easy part about shortening is that at room temperature, and higher, it's a solid so you don't have to worry about it melting the way you do with butter. But, butter is so much better. And, as mentioned in your other thread, a big part of getting a flaky tender crust is not to overmix it and develop too much gluten. Technique is so important with pie dough.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: chowser

                          I'm with you. Shortening coats my mouth and gives me a funny mouthfeel too. I use butter and lard or all butter if i'm serving to veggies or people who don't eat pork.

                          1. re: chowser

                            Ack! I made my recommendation hereinabove totally ignorant of lard.

                            I've only used lard in a crust twice in my life, but it's my go-to fat (with a little butter -- no shortening) for biscuits.

                            1. re: chowser

                              YES: over-handling is the kiss of death in pie crust, and I would argue that it may be even more important than the butter/lard/Crisco decision.

                              OTOH, the French and Italian recipes aim for a different technique and intentionally handle it for a different, non-flaky crust. Personally, I subvert those recipes and make them flaky, because I'm American and I like the flakiness, even if I follow the rest of the recipe to the letter.

                            2. I'm thinking that butter makes a flakier crust while vegetable shortening (like Crisco) makes for a more tender (but also more managable) crust. Your shattering of your butter crust comes from too much water used in your butter crust (a problem I've had many times). Cooks Illustrated developed a pie crust recipe using vermouth as part of the water (the alcohol content limiting gluten formation) that a lot of people have found works very well for them. I recently tried Rose Beranbaum's cream cheese/butter crust and it makes up into a crust that both tender and wonderfully flakey. From my trials, a higher temp yields a better crust since the structure of the crust sets up more quickly.

                              2 Replies
                                1. re: greygarious

                                  Thanks for your correction, guess I wasn't thinking straight. You're right; vodka.

                              1. I do a ratio of butter to shortening-- I think it's about 2 sticks butter to 5 T shortening. The recipe is from Julia's MTAOFC Vol. II, is no-fail, reliably flaky and delicious. Made in the stand mixer, it never overheats so the fat bits are always the right size to make the crust flaky.

                                1. Another update. I tried using all-purpose flour vs cake-flour as dough last night. The crust made from the cake flour crumbled easier which is expected because of the lower amount of proteins, but the difference is small. I had to eat the two tarts side by side, back to back to notice the difference. I won’t able to tell if I were to eat them 10 minutes apart. The difference between all-purpose flour vs cake flour is not as dramatic as butter vs Crisco.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                    Cook's Illustrated books have some of the best discussions on pastry dough/crust:
                                    The Best Recipes, p 480 for pie dough
                                    The America's Test Kitchen Cookbook, p. 274 for sweet tart crust
                                    These are their older publications. Their newer books will probably have the same information.
                                    For most savory crust such as quiche, I use their pie dough recipe and increase the salt and decrease the sugar.
                                    For an even more depth discussion, Shirley O. Corriher's book, Cookwise p.101. I have not read it, but her recent Bakewise will probably have a dissertation on this subject.

                                  2. PERFECT PIE CRUST (or at least for me)

                                    2 cups all purpose flour
                                    2/3 cups lard
                                    dash of salt
                                    cold water - 6-8 tbsp

                                    place 1 cup flour in food processor, then 1/3 cup lard by tbsp then 2nd cup flour and last 1/3 cup lard. pulse until mixture resembles coarse crumbs - about 5-6 pulses. Hit start on processor and stream in water quickly. Turn off as by now dough should be formed. Remove from processor and chill 20-30 minutes. Roll out on floured board.

                                    I use a marble rolling pin and board. I also take one egg white, beat until frothy and coat the pie crust letting the egg white dry before placing filling in crust. It helps keep crust from becoming soggy from the filling. i have been using this recipe for 25 years and always have requests for my pie crust recipe.

                                    1. The moisture in the butter creates steam "pockets", which translate to flakiness.

                                      1. I want to thank everyone on this thread. I grew up in a household that took its pie crusts seriously. Mom has always been known for them, enough so that I have often suspected some of her flat tires and other car problems were sabotage by people who knew if they offered her a ride home or changed her tire, she would bring them a homemade pie the next day. I always made my crusts with Mom's recipe, a shortening recipe. Belief in this recipe was like a second religion in our household. And, I should say, it makes a good crust.

                                        But after reading this thread yesterday, I decided to finally switch things up. I made a half shortening, half butter crust for blueberry pie today. And it is divine. Absolutely fantastic crust (and pie). So thanks for converting me. I doubt I'll tell Mom, or my siblings, but I have a new crust recipe.

                                        1. Sorry to intrude on your question but I am in desperate need of an answer. I am trying to bake some butter tarts for a bake sale and the first batch came out way too....moist shall I say? I have tried butter tarts before and very much enjoy the flakiness of the crust. What have I done or not done to get a moist crust? I should note that I did not use any lard for religious purposes. I used half cup of butter and about a 1/4 cup of water. Also my mother mixed the dough like her life depended on it...is that where we went wrong? After reading all of your threads I'm guessing just the butter was enough and there was no need to add water, also we over mixed? All answers are welcome, thanks everyone!

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: LillyHabidi

                                            <I used half cup of butter and about a 1/4 cup of water.>

                                            You said that you have done butter tarts before with the same recipes. Maybe you have changed the butter? Different butter can have different amount of water. American butter has higher water content than European butter, for example.

                                            Over mixing/kneading the dough can definitely build too much gluten strand and therefore resulting more bread like and less flaky.

                                            Anyway, try to have minimal kneading on the dough. Unlike bread, you want to avoid building up the gluten strand.

                                            Many people even use fork or fingers (not the hand) to mix in the butter in order to minimize gluten strand build up.

                                            You can marginally cut down the water, but definitely try to minimize kneading the dough.

                                            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                              Yes I have made another batch with the same butter brand so I'm guessing we're deff over mixing! I'm going to try half butter half crisco and us a fork to "mix" next time. Thank you for the fast reply! Highly appreciated!