Should You Use Lard Instead of Butter When Making a Pie Crust?
Does it make the flakiest, most flavorful pastry? It depends who you ask.
What's the most delicious pie crust? If you ask any of the food editors who work in our test kitchen, or Martha herself, chances are they'll answer, "pâte brisée." The French-style, all-butter pastry has been their hands down favorite since the earliest issues of the magazine, and was the dough of choice in Martha's original Pies and Tarts book, published in 1985. As long as pâte brisée is handled minimally (overworking is the enemy of a flaky crust) and kept nicely chilled as it's mixed, rolled, fitted, and filled, it bakes up beautifully.
Ask a random sampling of pastry chefs, bakers, and home cooks the same question, however, and you're bound to get a few other answers along with countless theories and suggestions. For something as simple as pie dough (it's little more than flour, fat, and water, after all), differences of opinion abound. Many bakers insist that lard, rendered from pure pig fat, produces the most incomparably crisp, impossibly flaky crust. In fact, lard was once commonly used for pie dough, until it was largely replaced by commercially available vegetable shortening in the early 20th century.
In recent decades, however, concerns about the hydrogenated fats in vegetable shortening, combined with the increased availability of artisanal, farm-raised products, have helped lard to stage something of a comeback.
Sarah Carey, our editorial director of food and entertaining, is a pâte brisée loyalist, but she does use lard in the dough for some of her pies, especially savory ones. "The flake you get is unsurpassed," she says. "If you're used to an all-butter crust, beware. The additional fat content of lard (it's 100 percent fat, compared to about 80 percent for butter) can make the crust quite delicate." Since she finds the flavor of lard "intense," Sarah suggest using it judiciously with fruit pie fillings. "I like it with apple, for instance, rather than something that's also intensely flavored, like peach pie."
Because lard melts at a higher temperature than butter, it makes dough that's easier to work with. You're less likely to overwork it than when handling all-butter pâte brisée, for example, and you don't have to stress as much about keeping it super cold. The best way to experiment with lard in pie dough is to use it in some combination with butter. Start with a proportion of about 70 percent butter, 30 percent lard. You should end up with a crust that features the best of both fats—gorgeous flakes from the lard and rich flavor from the butter.
Be sure to seek out pure rendered leaf lard, which is made from the fat around the pigs' kidneys rather than from other parts. Look for leaf lard at quality butcher shops, specialty grocers, farmers' markets, and from online retailers. The boxed lard sold in supermarkets is partially hydrogenated, loaded with preservatives, and not a good substitute for the pure leaf lard.
If you're so inclined, you may consider rendering lard yourself on the stovetop. The process is not at all difficult, and once you've seen how well the lard works in pie crust, you might want to work it into other baking recipes. Try swapping in some lard for the butter or shortening in your favorite biscuits, or baking a batch of Biscochitos the New Mexican sugar and spice cookies that get their signature flavor from pure, sweet, old-fashioned lard.