The past week I made several pies, some went well and some went very poorly. The most common problem for my failed pies? The Crust. I was driving home last night reflecting on my culinary failings, while listening to National Public Radio’s rambling on about the fiscal cliff. As I pulled up to my destination, I heard a segment called “America’s Test Kitchen.” Among the many topics they were covering was the “Perfect Pie Crust.”
For anyone who has attempted a pie crust, you know that that adding more water makes spreading out the dough easier and resistant to cracking. Although this technique is is akin to making a culinary deal with the devil. Sure the extra water makes it easy to roll out a crust, but results in a dense pie crust that does not live up to the “Light and Flaky” gold standard.
According to Chris Kimball from America’s Test Kitchen, the problem with extra water is that it activates the gluten in the wheat flour. All flour contain protein and when activated with liquid and mechanical action, it results in strands of gluten. When you make bread, you want these gluten as they form a complex web to trap the gas in the bread, making it rise. Although any pastry chef will tell you that they treat gluten as their awkward roommate, a relationship best left at an arms distance.
For a pie crust you do not want too many gluten strands forming, so that you get the light and flaky crust. The scientists at America’s Test Kitchen discovered that alcohol over 80 proof does not create gluten strands. By replacing a portion of the water liquid with alcohol liquid, you get the benefits of malleability and the light and flaky crust. The alcohol in the crust burns off during the baking. Vodka is recommended because it does not leave residual flavors behind.
Below is a pie crust recipes that substitute Vodka in the recipe from seriouseats.com and is Chris Kimball’s recipe from America’s Test Kitchen:
- 2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon table salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch slices
- 1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
- 1/4 cup cold vodka
- 1/4 cup cold water
Process 1 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.
Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.