It’s a debate bakers know well: Which makes the flakiest piecrust — butter or lard? Author Andrea Chesman digs into the reasons to opt for the purer form of fat.
You have undoubtedly cooked and baked with butter yourself, or others have prepared food with butter for you. But have you tasted a superior piecrust or a biscuit made with lard or beef tallow? Fat tastes good — and it defines the flavor of traditional cuisines around the world. If you browse the Internet for traditional recipes, you’ll find many of them were originally made with animal fats, particularly lard. Why lard? Because it was abundant and cheap, and produced great results. Butter, even in northern dairy regions, was always more limited in supply than lard.
Animal fats work much the same way butter (also an animal fat) does in baking. The fat interferes with the development of gluten by “shortening” the protein strands that are created when flour is mixed with water; this tenderizes a dough. Fat conducts heat through a batter to aid in browning. When beaten, the fat holds air to lighten a batter or frosting, though not as fully as butter does. Finally, fat provides the illusion of moisture or wetness on the palate.
The fat crystals in animal fats are also larger than those in butter, which means there is more empty space left behind when the fat melts — more empty space also means more layers and flakes.
Animal fats are 100 percent fat, just like vegetable shortening, whereas butter is about 80 percent fat, 15 percent water, and 5 percent milk solids. You can substitute any animal fat in any recipe that calls for shortening without making any changes to the recipe. If you are substituting an animal fat for butter, you will sometimes have to compensate for the absence of either water or milk sugars or both.
The misconception that people have about baking with animal fats begins and ends with the idea that the animal fats impart a meaty flavor (with the exception of bacon grease; more on that below). Properly rendered lard and tallow simply do not have a meaty flavor. Poultry fats do have a detectable flavor and are softer than tallow and lard, and that does limit their use somewhat. That said, I’ve made piecrust for sweet pies with chicken fat and no one noticed any odd flavors — and it was marvelously crisp.
When it comes to greasing the bakeware, lard is most easily applied with a paper towel in much the same way butter is used. It will offer superior nonstick qualities and will not cause a buildup of a gummy finish. Poultry fat and bacon grease can also be used, though bacon grease will definitely contribute flavor. This may be exactly what you want in a corn bread, but not in a pound cake.
Baked goods made with bacon grease tend to have a greasy mouthfeel, and the bacon flavor is too pronounced (in my opinion). If you want to experiment with bacon grease, try using just a tablespoon or two and using lard for the remaining fat needed. Consider also that bacon grease will add salt and sugar, further affecting the flavor of whatever it is you are baking.
Pastry and Pie Dough
In a pastry or pie dough, the fat distributed in the flour physically prevents the proteins in the flour from bonding with each other and with water to form gluten, which toughens a crust. During baking, the water turns to steam and the fat melts, leaving empty pockets between layers of pastry to give a crust its flaky quality. Many chefs prefer a mixture of lard, for the texture, and butter, for the flavor. This suggests that butter is necessary for the flavor. In fact, an all-lard piecrust tastes just fine. Poultry fats, leaf lard, and tallow all work well here; bacon grease does not.
In most pastry and pie doughs, the absence of water is an advantage. This is the reason pie doughs shrink less when made with an animal fat other than butter. But the absence of milk sugars delays the browning, and overbaking can result in an overly crisp pastry. Also, while butter imparts a buttery, nutty flavor, lard and tallow should be completely neutral and contribute nothing in terms of flavor. Poultry fats add an elusive richness that is almost like butter and does work in a sweet pie.
To adapt recipes for pastry and pie doughs:
- Increase the salt by ¼ teaspoon per cup flour if you usually use unsalted butter or by ½ teaspoon per cup flour if you usually use salted butter.
- Increase or add sugar by 1 tablespoon per cup flour for savory recipes or by 2 to 3 tablespoons per cup flour for sweet ones.
- Avoid overbaking by checking the feel of the pastry as well as the color. An overbaked pastry will shatter when cut.
- Poultry fats are quite soft compared to butter and other animal fats, with chicken fat the most soft, duck fat a little more solid, and goose fat even more solid, at least when very cold or frozen. When making pastries with poultry fats, work with frozen or very, very cold fats for the best results, and chill the pastry before baking.
- When making pastries, use about three-quarters of the fat the butter recipe calls for to avoid a greasy texture.
- Leaf lard is better for texture than lard made from other pork fats.
Lard vs. Leaf Lard
When a recipe calls for lard, rendered lard from any part of the pig is fine, including leaf lard. (The only lard to avoid is the shelf-stable supermarket lard.) But when a recipe — almost always a pastry or dessert recipe — specifies “leaf lard,” only leaf lard will do. Leaf lard is the fat from around the pig’s kidneys. It is mostly pure fat, with some collagen shot throughout. This is the fat that you want to render into a pure white fat to bake with. Leaf lard is a hard fat. The crystalline structure of leaf lard is slightly different from rendered lard from elsewhere on the pig, which in turn affects the texture of the finished dish.
I have been obsessed with making a perfect apple pie for years. I want the crust flaky and tender. Well, I probably solved that with a lard crust, though a poultry fat or tallow crust works fine. Then I want a juicy filling, but it can’t be runny or gummy. Cooking and thickening the apples before putting them into the crust, a make-ahead technique, solves the runniness problem because you know exactly what you are putting into the crust. This works particularly well with Granny Smith apples, which retain a pleasing firmness. Other varieties may soften more; I leave it to you to find the apple or combination of apples you like best.
- Double-Crust Pastry made with any animal fat (except bacon grease) — recipe follows
- 4 Granny Smith or other large apples
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons any animal fat (except bacon grease)
- ¾ cup firmly packed light or dark brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- ¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup water, plus more as needed
- 1 teaspoon milk
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- Keep the pastry refrigerated while you make the filling.
- Peel, core, and slice the apples. Toss them in a bowl with the lemon juice to prevent browning.
- Melt the fat in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and apples. Cook until the brown sugar is melted and the apples have given up their juice, about 10 minutes. Make a slurry with the flour and some water, starting with ¼ cup water and adding more as needed. Add this to the skillet; the juices should thicken immediately. Cook for 2 minutes longer. (At this point, the filling can be refrigerated for up to 1 day.)
- Preheat the oven to 425°F with a rack in the lower third of the oven.
- Remove the pastry from the refrigerator. Divide in half, with one piece slightly larger than the other. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the larger half to a round about ⅛ inch thick. Fit into a 9-inch pie pan, tucking the pastry into the bottom edges, and trim to leave a 1-inch overhang.
- Spoon the filling into the pastry with a slotted spoon, leaving behind any excess liquid.
- Roll out the remaining pastry to a round ⅛ inch thick. Fold the dough in half over the rolling pin, lift off the work surface, and place on top of the pie. Trim to leave a 1-inch overhang and fold and tuck the overhang under the bottom crust so that it all fits inside the pie pan. Crimp the edges with a fork or make a fluted pattern with your fingers. Cut several decorative slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape.
- Bake the pie in the lower third of the oven for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350°F and continue to bake for 30 minutes longer. Remove the pie from the oven, brush with the milk, and sprinkle with the granulated sugar. Return to the oven and bake for 10 to 15 minutes longer, until the crust is golden and the juices are bubbly.
- Cool the pie on a wire rack and serve warm or at room temperature.
Double-Crust Pastry Made with Lard
Lard pastry handles beautifully and makes flaky, tender piecrusts. Although it is quicker to make the crust in a food processor, cutting the lard into the flour with a pastry cutter or two knives — or by rubbing it in with your fingers (my preferred method) — results in a more tender, flakier crust. If you like, you can swap some of the lard for butter for heightened flavor. A little sugar (1 tablespoon) brightens the flavor of an all-lard crust, but my jury is out on whether two or three tablespoons of sugar is best for a sweet crust. In my opinion, the sweeter the filling, the less sugar is needed in the crust: A tart apple pie benefits from more sugar, while a chocolate cream pie doesn’t need it.
Makes enough for 1 double-crust pie
- 2½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1½ teaspoons fine sea salt
- 2–3 tablespoons sugar
- ¾ cup (5.5 ounces/155g) leaf lard
- ⅔ cup very cold water, plus more as needed
- Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons and whisk until well mixed. Cut in the lard with a pastry cutter or two knives or rub in with your fingertips until the mixture has a pebbly, sandy consistency. Stir in the water until well mixed. Alternatively, combine the flour, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Cut the lard into pieces and dot over the top of the flour mixture. Pulse until the mixture is just combined. Add the water and pulse until well mixed. You should be able to form the mixture into a ball. If needed, add more water, a teaspoon at a time, until the dough will form a ball.
- Gather the dough into two balls. Wrap well in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.