A pie’s credentials still rest on the maker’s dough

July 15, 2009

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The quality of a woman’s pies used to matter. Every good baker had a crust she knew by heart because she made pies all the time. Her pies broadcast her skills. Those fruit-filled crusts were made with lard rendered from her own pigs (later the fat was bought from the local butcher), or lard combined with butter (also made on the farm), a method suggested in cookbooks as far back as 1796.

In the early 20th century, two brands of solid vegetable shortening hit the market. First came Crisco, then Spry. Both offered recipes for all-shortening crusts, and as bakers did when they used lard, they learned to add some butter for richness. Around the same time, Wesson Oil jumped into the pie business with an oil and milk recipe and began marketing it as an easy alternative. All-butter crusts, similar to sweeter French pate brisee, came later.

Today, everyone who bakes has a different notion of what constitutes a great crust: a certain method, a particular fat, a way to roll, crimp, or bake. We decided it was time to taste - not to try every technique and pie crust formula on earth, but to make enough pie crusts to discover which fat is best. We headed for the kitchen with mountains of flour, plenty of blueberries and some lemon for punch, and oil, lard, butter, and shortening. SHERYL JULIAN