Thursday, August 11, 2011

My Go-to Pie Crust with a Secret Ingredient

Pie crust can so easily go wrong. One week, your favorite recipe yields a flaky, tender pie crust. The next, an overworked, tough crust that distracts from the pie. The crust might crack while rolling out or break apart when transferring to the pie plate.

Cook's Illustrated just wasn't alright with the major variations that crop up when pie crust recipes are made on different days. They set about creating a foolproof pie crust, and, I think, they nailed it.

They use a combination of butter and shortening. Butter has a lower melting point and a higher water content than shortening. Shortening is just the opposite. Shortening provides that great, flaky quality in a crust, but butter contributes rich flavor.

They blend their flour into the fats in two batches. The first batch of flour is blended thoroughly with the fats, creating a fat/flour paste. The rest of the flour is barely pulsed into the fat/flour paste, ensuring that there are still bits of flour that can bind with water to form gluten.

My favorite pie crust recipe calls for a secret, surprising ingredient: vodka. Yes, you read correctly. Traditionally, pie crusts use water (in addition to fats) to bind the flour. Gluten forms as water mixes with flour. Unfortunately, too much gluten makes pie crust tough, and not enough water makes the pie crust impossible to roll out.

That's where the vodka comes in. Vodka is eighty-proof, meaning it's made of 60 percent water and 40 percent alcohol. Gluten has a hard time forming in alcohol. Vodka works perfectly because even though it provides 4 tablespoons of liquid to bind the pie dough, it only contributes 2 1/2 tablespoons water, limiting gluten formation and ensuring the crust stays tender.

This month's issue of Cook's Illustrated had a great Quick Tip for getting that ice water you need for your pie crust. A home cook suggested filling a cocktail shaker with the desired amount of water, adding ice, shaking vigorously, and then pouring the water through the shaker. You get the water you need, sufficiently chilled, and the ice is left behind. If only the issue had arrived before I made this pie dough!

This pie crust rolls out like a charm. Deb from Smitten Kitchen recommends rolling the pie dough out between layers of plastic wrap. This technique made the crust easy to roll out and easy to transfer to the pie plate.

A special thank you to Nancy Jean Home for a delightful feature on my fresh fruit fraisier! Visit Nancy Jean's blog to read the delightful feature, learn about new artists and blogs, and see her beautiful art! You can also visit her Etsy page to see her delightful farms and little bird nest paintings. 

Foolproof Pie Dough
from Cook's Illustrated, November & December 2007

This recipe yields one 9-inch double pie crust.

2 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
12 tablespoons 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

Make a Fat and Flour Paste: Process 1/12 cups flour, salt and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogenous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds. The dough will resemble cottage cheese curds, and there should be no uncoated flour. Scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around the processor blade.

Add More Flour: Add the 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 the mixture into medium bowl.

Add Water and Vodka: 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 disks. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes, or up to 2 days.


  1. Sounds good to me. I think my Polish Grandmother uses that secret ingredient often, for all occasions, illnesses and issues

  2. I'm pinning this to pinterest so I can try it later. Pie crusts are my biggest weak point..some times good other times so 'meh' that I don't make it again for a loooong time. Time to try again!

  3. Everyone has made this...except me, I do believe. I need to remember to try it soon. I have a favorite pie crust recipe already that I have used for years and never have needed another after searching for it...taste, texture, ease of rolling, flakiness all present. I will give this one a go to see how it compares when I remember to buy vodka. Thanks. Yours looks very nice.