Blair A La Carte: Making the perfect crust as easy as pie

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Blair Dunbar, Columnist

I find few activities more enjoyable than baking. Who doesn’t like putting together a masterpiece of sugary goodness? Undoubtedly within the repertoire of an avid baker is the all-American pie. But with pie baking comes the ever-daunting task of making the perfect crust. Pre-made crusts in their crisp square packages might entice you at the grocery store, but when it comes to pie, there is nothing like a homemade crust.

For all bakers, from the beginner to the professional, the essential question when making a pie crust is which type of fat to use: butter, lard or shortening. I’ve talked to professional bakers and read their books — they all have their own opinions. I’ve done some of my own personal experimenting, and I’m here to set the record straight.

Two factors determine the overall quality of a pie crust: flavor and flakiness. All three fats have their strengths and weaknesses. Let’s look at lard first. Lard is still preferred by many old-fashioned bakers. It’s more “natural” than either shortening or butter and tends to make a flaky pie crust. However, I don’t like the flavor as much as butter; shortening is just about as flaky and lard is much harder to find in typical grocery stores. I also think it’s just kind of gross.

For most contemporary bakers, the debate centers more on butter and shortening. The main complaint about shortening is the flavor; it certainly doesn’t have the melt-in-your-mouth taste of butter. Actually, shortening doesn’t have much of a flavor at all. But butter, undoubtedly, does not make as flaky of a crust. So which do you choose?

Shortening is the way to go. At the end of the day, what’s better — a chewy crust with a little extra flavor or a crust that dissolves on your tongue? Besides, who needs extra butter in a pie like pecan pie? The sweet taste of butter would clash with the tart taste of the Granny Smith apples in an apple pie or the bitter taste of raspberries in a berry pie. Chances are your mouth won’t miss the butter at all.

Butter also requires more water, making the dough harder in the end. It is more difficult to roll out and cut into the flour without using a food processer. We’re college students. Why make our lives harder than they already are?

At the end of the day, if you really miss the flavor of butter, substitute a third of the shortening for butter or buy butter-flavored shortening. You’ll get the flakiness that’s essential with the flavor you love. In the battle of the fats, shortening comes out on top.