Tuesday, October 6, 2009

American Pie and Vodka... and I'm Not Talking About Tara Reid

Dear Tricia, I'm told my pie crusts are pretty good. But I ran into a recipe that calls for vodka! I know the alcohol would bake out, but why in the world would I even want to add it? (And if I was going to pick a booze to add, it would be tequila....)

Sometimes when I think I'm too much of a bad ass in the kitchen (or just too good at pretending like I am), I get an email like this that makes me think, "Wow. I really don't know!" So this was a fun one to research.
It turns out I'm not that behind on my baking skills, as this is a recipe that Cooks Illustrated (For those of you that aren't familiar, Cooks Illustrated is sort of like an awesome science magazine for recipes... everything is fool-proof and it never features Rachael Ray!) just developed last year that had most bakers scratching their heads. They suggested that you take half of the water in the pie crust recipe and substitute it with vodka. So, if your recipe calls for 1 cup of water, use 1/2 cup of water and 1/2 cup of vodka. "But why in the world would you want to waste good vodka?", you ask. If you'd rather have a martini than a glorious flaky apple pie, then get out of the kitchen and go ahead and get back on Facebook. But if you're willing to donate the martini to the pie crust, then this recipe guarantees the flakiest pie crust you'll ever taste. Here's why:

1. Gluten doesn't form in alcohol:
What the hell is gluten? Well, if you're a loyal reader, you should know this. But if not (shame on you!), here's a brief overview: if you've over-worked your pie dough and then try to roll it out, its super hard to get it to roll without it springing back like a piece of elastic. That's because it has a lot of gluten in it. As a visual, pretend that water and flour are like... thanksgiving. And too much thanksgiving = elastic pants.
When you mix water and flour together and keep stirring/kneading/over-all-messing-with it, gluten forms. Gluten is a natural protein that makes baked goodies like bread chewy. But when you're making pie dough, you don't want a lot of gluten to show up at the pie crust party because it makes the crust end up chewy and tough. This can be avoided by not over-working the pie dough. You simply mix the water/butter/flour together until it just forms a ball and then refrigerate it. It's also a lot easier to roll out that way. But as an added bonus (I feel like I'm channelling Billy Mayes here), gluten won't form in alcohol. It's like magic! For some strange reason, gluten just hates alcohol and stays far far away.

2. The alcohol evaporates in the oven:
Lets play pretend again. Pretend you have a really soggy and wet pie dough that you put in the oven to bake. What you're going to take out of the oven in 45 minutes is a doughy, heavy, definitely-not-flaky pie crust. Not enough of the water evaporated out of the dough so it just stayed gross and soggy. But what alcohol does is evaporate completely in high heats. (The same thing happens when you cook with alcohol... you keep some of the flavor but the boozy stuff disappears.) So if you're taking half of your water and substituting it for alcohol, half of the liquid is guaranteed to evaporate, and some of the water will evaporate too. This makes a flaky, light pie crust.

So why use vodka and not some other delicious liquor? Vodka is the most odorless, tasteless alcohol, so it leaves a classic pie crust flavor without any other interference. But if you prefer tequila (or bourbon, like myself. Helloooo Woodford Reserve), why not use it? Have a little nip for yourself and then try it out and let me know what happens. Any other liquor will have more sugar, which means your crust might possibly brown more, but keep a good eye on it while its baking and use some foil to cover the top if it happens to get too dark.
Another helpful hint I learned from researching this recipe is that the dough can be a little more wet and difficult to work with, so try rolling the dough out in between pieces of wax paper or parchment paper to avoid bigger mess to clean up later. But if you're sampling the tequila while baking, a mess might be unavoidable anyway. And I support that.

Here's the recipe:

2 1/2 cups 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

1. 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.

2. 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.

For similar blog entries, check out my archives under the titles, "Rootin' Tootin' Gluten" and "Whoever made up the phrase "Easy as Pie" was a Big Fat Liar."


qBaz said...

The question I mused on, as I stood in a liquor store at 10 a.m. with my baby daughter strapped to me, was whether or not to use bottom shelf vodka in my pie crust. It evaporates, right? So Smirnoff should work just as well as Ketel One?

In the end I went with a mid-range bottle that I wouldn't mind drinking. If I wind up using the majority of it in pie crusts, I'll be very fat. (If I simply drink it, of course, I'll risk alcoholism, but hey: nobody ever said baking was risk-free.)

Tricia Reisch said...

80 proof is 80 proof and you're right: it all evaporates anyway. My recommendation would have been Monopolowa which is a cheaper-priced, but good quality vodka. And it tastes excellent in a dirty martini. (The second one tastes even better than the first.)