April is prime pie-making time. The warmer weather brings with it more berries, stone fruits, and rhurbarb, yet ambient temperatures are still cool enough for handling pie crusts. Unlike bread, cookies, or really any any other baked good, pastry crusts celebrate the deliciousness of fat suspended in flour: formed quickly with just a bit of water to moisten the dough, tender and flaky pastry crusts are an explosion of fatty flavors in the mouth.
Why use lard in pastries? Butter produces extremely good crusts, yet lard holds two distinct advantages over an all-butter crust:
- First, lard produces flakier crusts than butter. Butter begins to melt into the dough at a lower temperature; even the small amount of water present in butter may cause the dough particles to stick to one another rather than separate into the discrete layers that constitute a flaky pastry
- Second, while butter (especially the European-style butters with their higher fat content) is primarily a saturated fat, lard by percentage is primarily an unsaturated fat
Still, embracing the lard in pies comes with its own set of limitations. Whereas butter retains the properly malleable-yet-firm consistency for making pastries at a temperature range of 58 to 69°F, Harold McGee says that lard only has a workable range at a slightly higher temperature, up to 75 degrees. If you've ever worked with lard as well as butter pastries, you've noticed this critical difference between the two kinds of fats: Lard, set at room temperature for even a few minutes, softens considerably more quickly than butter.
Shortening, the most forgiving medium to work with, maintains a hard consistency for the widest ambient temperature: from 53 to 85°F. However, given its relatively higher melting point, shortening remains solid at room temperature and, having very little flavor to begin with, will never yield the burst of deliciousness that butter and lard can produce.
Pie enthusiasts have and will continue to debate the intricacies of crust-making, but if you're looking for a change from butter or shortening, consider the crust that's half-butter and half-lard. Using both butter and lard consistently yields a well-textured, tender yet manageable crust.
In a taste test comparing all-lard, all-butter, and half-lard/half-butter pies, the crust with both lard and butter was easily the most tender and flaky. At first, only the butter is added to the flour and worked into pea-sized lumps, after which the lard is quickly cut into the mixture. Just enough ice water binds the mixture to form a dough. The resulting crust carries a porky note that's barely discernible once the the pie is filled. (The dough, which follows the classic baking ratio of 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat, and 1 part water, may also be used to line tart pans.)
Finally, as is the case for incorporating lard into any kind of baked or fried pastry, leaf lard is the type of pig fat you want to use. Fat stored under the skin of an animal, such as fatback, is softer than that which is stored in the cooler core of the body. Leaf lard, which clings to the belly cavity of the pig, is hard and glossy; when rendered, it is ideal for incorporating into flour.
Lard and Butter Flaky Pastry Dough
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 6 tablespoons ice water
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, very cold
- 1/2 cup rendered leaf lard
Place the flour and salt into a bowl. Add the butter and cut it into the flour with a knife or pastry bench scraper until the butter is in pea-sized pieces. Add the lard and cut it into the flour until it is in pea-sized pieces as well.
Add the water to the bowl, one tablespoon at a time, mixing with a fork until the dough begins to come together in a shaggy mess.
Turn the dough out onto a mat, form it into a rough ball, and divide into two. Shape each piece into a 1-inch thick disk, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least two hours before using. The dough may be refrigerated for up to 3 days, or frozen. (To use the frozen dough, thaw overnight in the refrigerator before using.)
strong>4. Proceed with the directions of your particular pie or tart recipe. For general use: place a disk of dough on a lightly floured surface and roll out to 1/8-thickness, rolling from the center towards the edge. Lift and rotate the dough every few rolls to prevent the dough from sticking. Dust with extra flour as needed. Gently ease the dough into the pie or tart pan(s) and trim the edges to fit the pan.
For recipes that call for unbaked shells, refrigerate until ready to use. For partially baked shells, chill the shells for half an hour or so, until firm, prior to baking to ensure a flaky crust.
Preheat the oven to 375°F. If necessary, line the pie shells with parchment paper and fill with pie weights. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on whether you want a partially baked or fully baked shell.