Better Than Butter? Here's What Different Fats Do to Pie Crusts

Mark Driskill
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Better Than Butter? Here's What Different Fats Do to Pie Crusts

Bakers, this is your season. From pies to tarts, cookies to galettes, the holidays are your time to shine. You're no stodgy pastry practitioner, however. You're in tune with baking trends (naked cakes, anyone?), and you're eager to try new things for your guests to test and critique.

That's why, with the rise of so many fat alternatives, you may be considering switching up your basic pie crust dough. Pie crust is among the simplest of recipes—flour, sugar, salt, and butter—but it's also one of the most finicky. 

Swapping fats in baking is trickier than you might imagine thanks to chemical reactions that take place in the baking process. Those reactions determine how flaky, doughy, or crispy a crust might be. They also determine a good deal about flavor and texture. Over kneed and your crust will be tough and chewy. Don't mix enough, and you'll taste bitter flour in every bite.

Bakers with an eye toward healthier ingredients may choose to skip butter in their pie crusts, but at what cost? We decided to try five different alternative fats in place of traditional butter in the same full-fat pie crust recipe. We cooked each dough at 400 degrees with pie weights for 15 minutes, then without the weights for another 10 until each crust was crisp and golden.

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Butter

Calories per tablespoon: 106

How It Baked: Butter was used as our control dough. It did not get overly dark, and it had the flaky texture you love and expect from a classic pie crust. It was pretty easy to work with and stayed together when rolling the formed crust into the pan.

How It Tastes: The flavor was the most natural and subtle. The crust's flavor won't compete with any pie filling.

Vegetable Shortening

Calories per tablespoon: 110

How It Baked: This dough got darker and crisper than the butter. The texture has more of a cracker-type crumble instead of flakiness, but it still maintains a little flake. It's fairly easy to work with.

How It Tastes: The flavor is very neutral. Like butter, it has no additional flavors that will compete with a pie filling.

Vegan Shortening

Calories per tablespoon: 130

We used Earth Balance Vegan Shortening for this experiment. Several other vegan shortening products are available.

How It Baked: This dough got the darkest and the crispest. It did not have any flakiness at all and was very cracker like in texture. It did not require as much water when making the dough. This dough seemed to break down more as it was processed, and it stuck to the rolling pin and surface more, even with additional flour.

How It Tastes: It had a pretty strong vegetal flavor—green, and plant-like. It might compete or clash with more subtle pie fillings like custards.

Note: If you choose to use this fat, reduce your cook time a bit to ensure it doesn’t get too crispy.

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Coconut Oil

Calories per tablespoon: 117

How It Baked: This dough actually acted the most like butter. It was very flaky, and the color stayed nice and lightly golden. This dough was a favorite among taste-testers, but if you like a crisper pie dough, you would not like this one. This dough had a little more trouble staying together when rolling it out, but an experienced baker would find it completely manageable.

How It Tastes: The coconut flavor came through quite strong, and it was actually a little sweet. The flavor of this dough will certainly affect whatever you are putting in it, so that needs to be taken into consideration.

Palm Oil

Calories per tablespoon: 120

How It Baked: Palm oil turns the classic flour mixture into a bright yellow dough. This dough definitely absorbed more moisture and needed a little bit more water than the other doughs when kneeding. This was also the hardest dough to work with; it was drier and more crumbly when rolled out and required the most finesse.

How It Tastes: The palm oil crust was the most off-putting in flavor in terms of the vegetal nature of it. Tasters liked the texture the most, if you could get past the color and flavor. This would definitely be better suited for a savory pie, but sweet pies might not work well with this crust.

Important Note: We found that all the fats we used, even if they were solid at room temperature, worked better when we were making the pie dough if they were chilled.