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Passionate pie bakers tend to have a religious zeal about what type of fat goes into their crusts, and not without good reason.

"Fats and shortenings are absolutely critical to pies," said Ernest Miller, research and development chef at Coast Packing Co. of Vernon Calif., a major supplier of animal fats and shortenings for cooking, baking and frying. The type of fat determines flavor and can influence the final texture and color of the crust. Bakers tend to use one of three kinds -- butter, shortening or lard -- or a combination. But which, and why?

Lard is among the most traditional of kitchen fats, once made from heritage pigs specifically bred for their fat. "In certain points in our history, lard was actually more expensive than pork," Miller said. Never mind the cost of butter. "You wouldn't be using butter for baking unless you were wealthy."

Lard makes a light and flaky crust. Leaf lard and rendered caul fat (another fat preferred by many bakers) have the benefits of lard with less flavor, perfect for dessert pies.

Miller notes that shortening, with the introduction of Crisco in 1911, was created to mimic the effects of lard, but at a fraction of the price. "An all-Crisco crust will give you the best border," notes Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of The Pie and Pastry Bible, "but I don't use shortening, because there's no flavor."

Shortening has a high melting point, which will give you a light and flaky crust and allow for creative decorations, but it lacks the flavor found with butter or lard.

As people began shunning shortening for health reasons, bakers looked for alternatives such as butter, even oil. Over the years, I've taken to making my crust using a ratio of two-thirds butter to one-third shortening. I've found, particularly when I keep the fats cold until the crust goes in the oven, I get some of the benefits of shortening in my detailed borders, along with the flavor of butter. (For savory pies, I'll usually substitute lard, or even bacon, goose or duck fat, which lends great savory flavor and rich coloring to the crust.)

Butter adds flavor to a crust, along with color from the milk solids in the fat. However, over-mixing the butter can make the crust tough and crunchy.

Food on 11/15/2017

Print Headline: For crafting perfect crust, it's all about the luscious fat

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