All Is Fair in Pie and War: The lard vs. butter debate comes to a climax

October 15, 2010

story by Colleen Hubbard
illustration by Elizabeth Zechel
This article originally appeared in 
Meatpaper Issue Nine.

IT IS NE ARLY 7 P.M., and the baby wants her meat. Tonight on the menu it’s late-summer peach pie two ways: one with an all-butter crust, the other half lard. At the kitchen counter, I’m knuckle-deep in grated lard; warmth from the nearby oven infuses the air with a porky aroma. The resident one-year-old, who prefers meat above all foods, sniffs the air and rattles the bars of  the gate locking her out of the kitchen like a raptor kept from prey.

My team of tasters, including the cage-rattling baby, will determine which combination makes the best dessert. Necessity (or impatience) demands that we sample it twice: warm from the oven that evening and cooled for the next morning’s breakfast.

For pie lovers, crust defines the art, and opinions are divided on the best fat. Butter imparts rich flavor, while shortening or lard contributes flaky texture. The debate has continued for some time. Review the cooking section of your local used bookstore — or, these being modern times, browse the virtual aisles at Powell’s — and you’ll notice the heyday, death, and rebirth of lard in America through crust recipes.

Books specializing in early American or regional cooking tend to recommend lard or a lard/butter blend. In Masters of American Cookery, M.F.K. Fisher and Betty Fussell cite lard as the traditional choice for American crusts, supplanted by shortening in the early 20th century when it was understood to kill you more slowly than animal fat. In 1912, Crisco touted its product’s ability to produce more uniform and “digestible” crusts than lard; an advertisement in American Cookery promised a more wholesome crust in part because Crisco “is always the same” (emphasis theirs). Housewives across America bought the concept, and the mid-century recipe books I consulted overwhelmingly recommended shortening crusts.

Thy Tran, a chef and writer who produces the blog Wandering Spoon, learned how to bake butter/shortening crusts when she grew up in the Midwest, but became interested in lard as an adult. After the tide turned away from trans-fats, she eschewed shortening and concocted all-butter pies, but missed the flaky consistency that shortening provided.

Starting on lard crusts 15 years ago, when the product was not in vogue, she rendered her own. “It wasn’t just my apartment,” she remembers. “The entire building smelled like pig.”

Many home cooks prefer butter, which is easily available and won’t be rejected by non-pork consumers; because of lard’s reputation, some believe butter a healthier choice as well. Among all-butter proponents count Chris Bauer, who delivers pies in Northern California through his Pie Truck business.

“Basically, all butter is the way I’ve been able to get what I want out of a crust,” he says. “From a practical standpoint, I like that all the butter lets me offer 75% of my pies to vegetarians without changing a thing.”

But lard is making a comeback. Cooks are attracted to its high smoking point, minimal processing, and connection to whole animal consumption. With the resurgence in popularity, lard and the pastry holy grail, leaf lard, which is taken from the kidney area and offers the cleanest, non-porcine flavor, are increasingly available. Tran, who used to freeze her rendered lard in an ice cube tray for later use, now buys it from a local butcher. Reminiscing on the cubes of white fat that regularly stocked her freezer, she muses, “If you’re turned on by lard, it was gorgeous.”

For our tasting, I decide against producing an all-lard pie, which no one seems keen to recommend outside of dusty cookbooks on early New England cookery, and instead focus on whether a half-lard crust is superior enough for anyone to take note and will merit a trip to the butcher.

I use a basic recipe of two cups of flour, a bit of sugar and salt, and 8 ounces of either butter or a half-and-half butter/leaf lard blend. In working with the raw dough, lard is easier to manipulate. One of the other tasters, an experienced baker, rolls out a circle of each and comments that the half-and-half crust rolls more smoothly, with less fraying at the edges.

Forty minutes later and the pies are out of the oven. The tasting panel — four members of my family, including the baby — find the warm slices difficult to distinguish and are split over which is preferred. They know they’re tasting one half-lard crust but don’t know which is which, and it’s interesting to see how expectations color the commentary. A taster from Madrid, who hasn’t eaten much lard in her food, says that one crust tastes fatty. “I like the all butter,” she says, and points to her preferred crust, which is lard.

In the morning, when the pies are served along with milky coffee, the benefits of each are more apparent. Panelists agree that the butter crust is soggier, especially the bottom crust. The expert baker notes the half-lard crust “holds up better” and “maintains shape.” One taster reports that the peach flavor sings against the lard/butter background but seems muffled against the rich butter crust. Each of the adults prefers the half-lard crust.

For pie lovers, crust defines the art, and opinions are divided on the best fat.

The baby, who retired after dinner and missed out on the late-night judging, is the first awake for the morning tasting. As we assemble around the table, she fists butter crust into her mouth, chews, and looks pensive. Enjoyable enough, it seems — nothing is spit onto the molded plastic table. Next she eats a soft slice of peach, then tries a bite of lard crust. She sits back in her chair — and then she claps. No one can believe it. A fellow taster delivers another piece of lard crust. Again she claps, more loudly this time, a resounding approval generally reserved only for the robotic rabbit that dances when you squeeze its paw.

From the mouths of babes: Lard rules.

COLLEEN HUBBARD is a full-time writer and part-time cheesemonger. She writes the Segment and the Line, a Web site about food and books.

ELIZABETH ZECHEL is the author and illustrator of the children’s book Is There a Mouse in the Baby’s Room? and illustrator of The Little General and the Giant Snowflake, by Matthea Harvey. She lives and works in Brooklyn.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Ninesubscribe

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