Clarified Butter: A Substitute for Shortening?

By Cook's Illustrated Published July 2015

We wondered whether clarified butter or ghee, a type of clarified butter popular in Indian cooking, might make a worthy substitute in pie dough.

Many pie dough recipes use a combination of butter and vegetable shortening as fats. While the butter contributes richness and flavor, the shortening helps ensure tenderness. This is because unlike butter, shortening doesn’t contain water. That helps minimize the production of gluten, which can make crusts tough. Shortening also has a higher melting point than butter, so it helps keep the dough from getting overly soft during rolling out and shaping.

But we know some people prefer not to use vegetable shortening, and we wondered whether clarified butter or ghee, a type of clarified butter popular in Indian cooking, might make a worthy substitute. Like shortening, ghee and clarified butter are water-free—both are made by slowly simmering butter until all the water has evaporated. Another promising attribute: Both melt at higher temperatures than butter (though they still melt at temperatures lower than shortening).

To test out the idea, we replaced the shortening with ghee—which we chose over regular clarified butter for its nutty flavor, the result of browning the milk solids—in our Foolproof Pie Dough (which also contains vodka in place of some of the water to help prevent gluten formation) and in a more traditional pie dough recipe that called for both butter and shortening. We then compared them with the original recipes.

Tasters noted that the crusts made with ghee had a rich, buttery flavor that the shortening crusts lacked. In terms of texture, our Foolproof Pie Dough made with ghee was as tender and flaky as the shortening version. The traditional pie dough made with ghee—while still tender and perfectly acceptable—puffed up during baking, almost like a puff-pastry dough. This is because the recipe contained more water (which came from both butter and water rather than vodka) than our traditional Foolproof Pie Dough recipe (see related content). Also, we found that both crusts made with ghee were slightly greasier than their shortening counterparts because a small portion of the ghee is liquid at room temperature due to its lower melting range.

The bottom line? Substituting ghee or clarified butter for shortening in pie crusts will deliver a tender, flaky crust with a richer, more buttery flavor; just be aware that it will be a bit greasier and in some cases the crust might puff up slightly.

CLEAR ALTERNATIVE: Ghee, a type of clarified butter (which you can make or buy), can be subbed for shortening in pie dough.