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Jun 8, 2013 01:40 PM

Fats and pie crusts [moved from San Francisco board]

[We've moved this discussion from this thread on pie in San Francisco -- The Chowhound Team]

Don't overlook that after public-health data on trans-fatty acids became widespread in the 1990s, followed by a US food labeling requirement, food manufacturers have been eliminating the cheap hydrogenated cooking fats like Crisco (tm) -- some firms faster than others. My query at the Sunnyvale Marie Callendar's was easily 10 years ago and the fats used may have changed.

Of course, artisan specialty bakers, unlike the "industrial" ones, have long used more traditional fats, like butter. Many of the appealing pie-source references I've read on this board were to those. Pies seem to be another recurring thread topic here.

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  1. Industrial bakers haven't stopped using cheap shortening, it has just been reformulated so that "one serving" contains less than half a gram of trans fat, which they can round off to zero.

    11 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      Yes Robert. I assumed most well-informed CH readers were aware of the "zero grams trans fats" labeling hustle you refer to (a shameful and heavily used loophole in US nutritional labeling and not the only one, but this is the wrong board for that tirade) so I deliberately didn't mention it.

      The larger reality is that industrial bakers still use cheap fats, even without any hydrogenated oils at all -- just different ones, usually tropical oils today, and some of the resulting pastries truly contain no transfats, not just half a gram. (The "zero grams" hustle when I've spotted it has been usually in convenience foods that retain some hydrogenated oils in their recipe.) And, while dishonest, a hidden half gram is substantially less transfat than the several grams per serving you might find in a classic industrial HVO-based pie crust.

      Cheap butter substitutes have been an industrial holy grail since even before Napoleon famously offered a prize for them.

      There's a remarkable 1990s book by a lipids chemist -- Enig, "Know Your Fats" -- detailing misconceptions about dietary fats that entered popular culture, early science that was discredited but endures in public perceptions, etc. Lipid nutrition is remarkably complex, poorly suited to education by slogan and sound bite.

      1. re: eatzalot

        Nutrition and health issues aside, cheap fats mostly taste like nothing or worse. Some can give you flaky crust, but the flavor will be somewhere between cardboard and salty cardboard.

        Butter and/or lard crust taste better because those ingredients taste good. So does better coconut oil.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          The taste of Lard is subjective. I'd prefer an all butter crust, but they're less forgiving and a lot of local bakers seem to have a difficult time producing them in large quantities with consistent quality.

          1. re: sugartoof

            All taste is personal, but lots of people like butter and lard, and I doubt anyone likes the flavor of Crisco.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Lard, or leaf lard, is fat from the kidney area of a pig. Recipes call for it because of the belief it creates a flakier crust. Then because few render it themselves or buy it freshly rendered, they use factory processed leaf lard. It's disgusting. You were complaining about cheap fats, weren't you?

              There was actually a point in the 80's where Crisco was touted as having health and taste benefits.

              1. re: sugartoof

                Hydrogenated lard is about as gross as Crisco, it's true.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  I remember cooking class back in junior high....this was in the early 90s, and we used Crisco far more than butter and margarine. ick.

                  1. re: Cary

                    Margarine is _essentially_ butter-flavored Crisco. In industrial baking it has other jargon as I mentioned in the earlier recent pie thread.

                    Artificial hydrogenation came into use to make vegetable fats more solid (i.e. more saturated with hydrogen) and it also can extend keeping time, which is why it was used industrially even for liquid fats and lard.

                    To sugartoof, (1) crust flakiness depends on flour type, fat type, and if the fat was kept in small solid granules (in the classic method with chilled fat and "pastry knives") rather than melting into the flour. Same reason puff pastry is kept very cold during the fold steps.

                    (2) Promoting Crisco and margarines for health, rather than just economy as earlier, came in in the 1950s and 60s with some understanding of saturated-fat metabolism. By the 1990s this was bring obsoleted by trans-fatty acid effects.

                    30 yrs ago I read in a report that 1960s test subjects who followed then-fashionable diets deliberately heavy on synthetically hydrogenated fats with high polyunsaturate content were found 10 years later to, indeed, have lower rates of some circulatory diseases. And higher rates of others, and much higher rates of cancers.

                    1. re: eatzalot

                      right, it's about technique, but many bakers insist the fat (or combination) you use is key to a flakey crust. it's more challenging with all butter.

                      a lot of it had to do with war time rationing, and then just finding supposedly healthier substitutes to butter.

                      1. re: sugartoof

                        Economy was the original motive for butter substitutes, at least 200 years ago.

                        One or more editions of Larousse Gastronomique has had details for decades on the controversial genesis of the word "Margerine." (As with the Martini cocktail, multiple conflicting stubborn opinion camps exist. Some credit a Duc de Marguery IIRC.) Anyway, as I mentioned in this thread, Napoleon had offered a prize for a "cheap butter" to supply his army. (Running out of monasteries to loot, perhaps.) Early versions used animal fat bases, still cheaper than butter. Around late 1800s, mass production of seed oils began (before then, the cookbooks that I have always assumed butter or rendered fat, including for deep frying, which is why deep-fried foods historically were luxuries or special-occasion dishes -- fats as a whole were expensive.) Artificial hydrogenation arrived around 1900 (Nobel prize for chemistry, 1912), whence modern shortenings and Margerines.

                        I go further than Robert concerning Crisco-based pastries, they always tasted like soap. I've heard that from others too. Today's palm oil and other industrial replacements for HVO seem more palatable, as well as less toxic.

                      2. re: eatzalot

                        Proctor & Gamble's original interest in hydrogenating cottonseed oil was as a cheaper substitute for animal fats in making candles and soap. When the candle market declined, they sold it as a substitute for lard.