The Pie Crust Experiment

I am pretty proud of my pie crust recipe.  There have been very few things in my cooking past that have been made as repetitively as pie crust, and it is one of those things that I’ve made and made and altered a little bit and a little bit more until it came out just the way I like it.

And then, someone told me I should use vinegar.  And then someone else did too.  And then I encountered the recipe I used to make Sassy Pies from Emeril which used vinegar and turned out really nice.  And it was just too much suggestion to ignore.  It was time to revisit my pie recipe and consider the introduction of vinegar.  I was also interested in comparing all lard crusts to my usual 50% lard/50% butter crust, so with those two variable, I had an experiment to run.

Recipe 2

A little more on the reasoning for this experiment:  the addition of acidic vinegar to pastry is supposed to help prevent the formation of gluten which forms when moisture is mixed into flour.  Overworked or over-handled pie crust forms too much gluten and becomes tough.  Everything in making pie crust, such as using a pastry blender, having ingredients really cold, minimizing the amount of water and blending, is done to minimize gluten formation while still forming dough.  Adding vinegar is said to produce more tender pastry.

An all lard pie crust would not have the superior flavor of crust with butter in it, but it would have a much stronger ability to resist sogginess.  When used in custard pie applications, or fried pies that do not allow steam to escape, this soggy prevention could out way the loss of flavor when there is a high risk for sogginess as long as the loss of flavor was not too great.  So the goal of the experiment would be to compare 1) the texture of crust with and without vinegar as well as 2) the taste of crust with and without butter.

Experiment Layout

I made four batches of pie crust with the following characteristics:

Number Recipe Origin Fat Content Vinegar Content
1 Pretty Pie 50% Butter/50% Lard None
2 Pretty Pie 100% Lard None
3 Emeril 50% Butter/50% Lard 1 tbsp
4 Emeril 100% Lard 1 tbsp

Prebaked Samples

I cut out flower shapes of each type of dough, labeled them and baked up a set for me and the Mojo Monster to try.  It was obvious from the first batch that #1 and #2 brown much faster than #3 and #4 and cooking times would need to be adjusted. 

Baked Samples

The Mojo Monster didn’t initially know the differences so her comments are not supposed to be biased by knowing what was in the crust.  The Mojo Monster definitely like the texture of #3 and #4 better; she thought #1 and #2 were too salty but still had good texture; and she liked the flavor of #3 better than #4.  I thought #1 had a rich flavor.  I thought that #3 had a good, rich flavor too and a medium texture.  It definitely wasn’t tough but not remarkably tender either.  #4 was more tender but less flaky than #3.  #2 was the most flaky and most tender.  We tried the samples plain and later with jam too.  When with the jam, the distinguishing characteristics were harder to pick out, and while we preferred the crusts with butter, all the samples were adequately tasty when put with filling.

09.25.11 Crust Sample

A few days later, Betty Deville and Pretty Boy were both around and I baked up another set for them to try.  They both have the most experience eating my pies and applied that to their tasting.  They both also did not know what was in each crust when they tasted them. 

Batch Two

Betty Deville thought #3 was the prettiest and most puffy.  She described the flavor as buttery, smooth, and light compared to #4, though she said #4 was the most flaky.  She thought #2 was more dense and substantial and #1 was the most substantial.  She liked the saltiness of #1 and #2 and thought it would hold up well with filling.  Pretty Boy said #1 had a lot of “taste” and would be really good with filling.  He thought #1 and #3 were very similar and though #4 was bland.  He ranked the samples like this: with filling his preference would be #1 first, then #2, #3, #4 and without filling his preference would be #2, #3, #1, #4.

Sample Tasting

Although everyone agreed that each sample would make a fine pie, I have drawn some conclusions.  Lard lacks the flavor of butter and needs to be supplemented with additional sugar and salt if it is going to be used on its own.  Vinegar does improve the flakiness of the crust.  Some people weight taste and texture differently when judging crust, like the Mojo Monster, who preferred the improvement in flakiness over the lighter flavor or like Pretty Boy, who categorized all samples in terms of “tastiness” and didn’t rank the extra flake samples high.

I think I will reserve all lard pie crusts as a viable option for special applications that require the extra soggy resistance.  I will keep the sugar and salt content of the crust high.  It is good to have flavorful and substantial crust when paired with particularly sweet or tart fruit fillings, and typically the ratio of filling to crust is high enough that a really strong flavored crust will still be balanced by the amount of filling.  I may consider reducing the salt content if I was making a custard pie or something with delicate flavor.  Besides being stubborn and set in my ways, I can find no valid reason to not incorporate vinegar into my pie crust.  From this experiment the potential to improve texture is high and I see no negative effects in any other regard.

Sample Texture

So here it is.  My new and improved pie crust recipe:

2 1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 tbsp granulated sugar
2 tsp salt
1 stick (1/4 lb or 1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
1/2 cup lard
2/3 to 3/4 cup ice water
1 tbsp white vinegar

Place flour, salt, and sugar in a food processor.  Pulse until combined.  Add lard and pulse several times, until combined.  Add butter and pulse until just combined.  Dump out mixture into a large mixing bowl.  Combine water and vinegar and using a pastry blender, cut the liquids into the mixture until just combined.  Form into two disks, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until firm.

4 responses to “The Pie Crust Experiment

  1. Was it really a fair trial when #1 and #2 cooked faster than #3 and #4?

    I like the flower shapes btw…

    PS I finally found ONE pie plate on all of ONE…amazon…

  2. Pingback: Outstate Dining Highlights and Morning Roundup | The Heavy Table - Minneapolis-St. Paul and Upper Midwest Food Magazine and Blog

  3. Pingback: Cookies, Biscuits, and Scones | Pretty Pies by Lindsey

  4. Pingback: Australian Pie Crust | Pretty Pies by Lindsey

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