Genius Recipes

Cook's Illustrated's Foolproof Pie Crust

By • November 13, 2013 • 55 Comments

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Every week -- often with your help -- Food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: The secret pie crust ingredient (and technique) that changed what we thought we knew about pie. 

Cook's Illustrated Foolproof Pie Crust on Food52

We all get in pie ruts. Well, crust ruts.

While what goes on inside is an ever-changing rainbow of fruit and whip and spice, the flaky buttered shell stays stubbornly, almost superstitiously unchanged. Dough can be such a fickle animal, and pies such emotional commitments, that once we find a crust that doesn't fail us, we cling.

So it took an obsessive recipe developer like J. Kenji López-Alt, and a place like America's Test Kitchen, to upend everything we think we want in a pie. This is not just about a little more butter, or some novel rolling method. 

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Instead, under contract for Cook's Illustrated, López-Alt dissected the method we know -- dismembered it really -- to fundamentally understand what makes it work. You probably already know what's coming: back in 2007, he went and put vodka in pie crust. And it worked. 

He didn't come upon it lightly: López-Alt says there were over 130 individual tests to arrive at the vodka magic trick. But once he got there, it all made perfect sense. 

Foolproof Pie Dough on Food52

The trouble had always been this: there is only so tender a crust can be with the known available ingredients -- fat, flour, water. Water is what allows a dough to bind together enough to be malleable and rollable; it also helps gluten -- the gremlin that makes crusts toughen -- form. And proliferate. 

So he needed a stand-in for water, one that would offer moisture but not encourage gluten, and would leave no unsavory traces behind. The answer, of course, was vodka, the most forgettable of spirits. Vodka is 40% alcohol, which evaporates in a hot oven -- it sticks around long enough to keep the dough together, then politely disappears when it's no longer needed. 

Foolproof Pie Dough on Food52  Foolproof Pie Dough on Food52

Foolproof Pie Dough on Food52  Foolproof Pie Dough on Food52

Foolproof Pie Dough on Food52  Foolproof Pie Dough on Food52

You can use this trick in any flaky pie crust recipe -- just swap half the liquid for hard liquor. You can even use booze with real flavor, if you like -- like rye in apple pie crust, or rum in coconut cream

Cook's Illustrated Foolproof Pie Crust

And once you understand vodka's properties in cooking, it can do even more. "Try replacing some of the water in a tempura-style batter or some of the beer in a beer batter with straight up vodka," López-Alt told me." Just like with the pie crust, you'll find that your batter comes out lighter and crisper because of alcohol's high volatility and gluten-inhibiting abilities."

Foolproof Pie Dough on Food52  Foolproof Pie Dough on Food52

But, as he's learned since, the vodka isn't even the most genius part of the technique he developed: it's the blending. Instead of leaving pea-sized chunks of butter like we're taught, López-Alt blends it completely with part of the flour, then cuts up that paste with a bit more flour.

Cook's Illustrated Pie Crust  Cooks Illustrated Foolproof Pie Crust on Food52

Cook's Illustrated Foolproof Pie Crust on Food52  Cook's Illustrated Foolproof Pie Crust on Fod52

Cook's Illustrated Foolproof Pie Crust on Food52  Cook's Illustrated Foolproof Pie Crust on Food52

"That was the one that I think should really have put it on the map," he said. "Because it challenged some basic assumptions about how pie crusts look on a microscopic level." We don't need pockets of butter like we always thought; pockets of flour-butter paste are just as good.

Most importantly, this means that the dough is more predictably tender and flaky (since it's based on a more homogenous flour-butter paste rather than jagged bits of cold butter) and easier to roll out too. Foolproof, for once, isn't an overstatement. 

Cook's Illustrated Foolproof Pie Crust on Food52 

Cook's Illustrated's Foolproof Pie Crust

Makes one 9-inch pie crust

1 1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 tablespoon sugar
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (3/4 stick), cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/4 cup chilled solid vegetable shortening, cut into 2 pieces
2 tablespoons vodka, cold
2 tablespoons cold water

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom, except Kenji courtesy of Food Blog South

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected] Thanks to hardlikearmour and a few other trail-blazers for this one!

Jump to Comments (55)

Tags: genius, pie, baking, how-to & diy, holiday, Thanksgiving, dessert, food science, Serious Eats, J Kenji Lopez-Alt, Americas Test Kitchen, Cooks Illustrated, pie week

Comments (55)

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5 months ago cookscorner

I use this recipe for sweet pies, but for savoury ones nothing matches the hot water/lard recipe. Be sure to use the one with the egg and lemon juice or vinegar, though.

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6 months ago Michael P Wall

I use plastic wrap stretched across the counter which I have wiped with a damp cloth to roll out on. Throw a little a flour on the plastic and it rolls out slick as can be. Works for pizza dough or pie dough.

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6 months ago Leslie

Can I substitute lard for the butter and shortening? butter prices have skyrocketed and lard for my area is still very cheap at the butcher shop.

Alice

6 months ago Alice Gardner

You certainly can! Just make sure it is leaf lard, which should be snowy white and have littleto no ...porky smell, for lack of a better term. Lard makes the best pie crust, in my opinion.

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8 months ago Ellen

My name is Ellen and I'm a pie crust phobic... However, I made this recipe for a wild mushroom tart this weekend and it was perfect. The very definition of flaky. Left out the sugar, of course for this savory pie. I had less luck grating the frozen butter with the box grater. Some got stuck in there and I had to retrieve it, probably losing a little bit. Next time I'll use the food processor or get my sous chef (AKA husband) to chop butter into tiny pieces. I'm not concerned about using a little shortening in my baking. My mother did and she lived into her 90s!

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9 months ago Aly Waterfall

My version of this recipe is the 3-2-1 ratio recipe and I use only butter and freeze the butter until it's rock hard, then grate it in the food processor.. Then I scrape the grated butter into a medium bowl and hand mix in the flour and salt quickly until the butter flakes are well coated with the flour. (I skip the sugar. ) I measure the water into a cup filled with ice cubes and then gently stir in first the vodka and a couple tablespoons of the chilled water, judging whether to addi in a tablespoon more at a time if the flour/butter mixture turns out to need more water to bring the dough together. As the dough starts to absorb the water and begin to change, I use my hands to assess and feel how if the dough needs more water and to form the dough into a slightly tacky ball and chill for at least 15 minutes while working on the filling. This year I was inspired and used my grandma's old pinking shears and cut a 24" x 24" pastry cloth out of some organic unbleached muslin to roll the dough out on. I also changed to a French rolling pin. What a huge difference it made to use the well floured pastry cloth and the French rolling pin! I found I had much better control over directing the dough into a circle as I could control the pressure easily while rolling. This made the rolling part and transferring the dough circle to the pie pan so easy! My pies turned out perfect each time. So I made a pastry cloth for my mom and ordered her a French rolling pin and put together a pie dough making kit to gift her for Chrsitmas. I just returned from a visit where I walked her through the steps of making pie dough! It was the her best pie ever! She is 78 and pilsbury will no longer show up in her kitchen! You are never too old to learn to make a good pie crust from scratch. and that also applies to me as well. :-)

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10 months ago jdifeo

I used Rum 1 time by mistake. It was still really good.lol

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11 months ago Candace Honey

Do I need to grease the pan before baking?

Miglore

11 months ago Kristen Miglore

Kristen is the Executive Editor of Food52

Sorry for the delay -- no, you don't need to. Happy Thanksgiving!

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11 months ago abbyarnold

The LA Times recipe for pumpkin pie a couple of years ago used bourbon for the vodka and bacon fat instead of the shortening.

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11 months ago Pat Bagg

Can someone please confirm my conversion of the flour to grams. I get 163.

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11 months ago I_Fortuna

I get 156.25 or 156 and 1/4 grams for plain flour and 150g for whole wheat. Close enough.*
I googled "convert cups to grams" for an internet chart.

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11 months ago Baketress

Hey! I use kitchen pro conversion app and it gave me 156 g as well. 160 should do.

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11 months ago ellen

INSTANT COOKING UNITS CONVERTER: Select your ingredient. Find your unit. Type your value next to it. Touch "Convert Me" and get all conversions...
http://www.convert-me.com...

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12 months ago zenith5

Has anyone tried this technique with gluten free flour? Too many of my friends hopped on the GF fad bandwagon. ONE has a legitimate health concern.

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10 months ago Jenee

Yes, it does work! I have a recipe very similar to this and since my mom always used vodka in her pie crust, I went ahead and added vodka to mine. Probably not necessary since there's no gluten, but hey, I gave it a go. Came out perfectly!

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9 months ago I_Fortuna

zenith5 - There is gluten in all wheat products. 1 in 133 Americans has celiac disease. 83% are undiagnosed or misdiagosed. So your friends' concerns about gluten are very valid. There is a screening process to determine if this disease is present. It is a very real and potentially dangerous autoimmune digestive disease. For some, gluten present in people with celiac disease can cause malabsorbtion of certain vitamins and minerals and cause anemia, weight loss, and affect bone density as well as other health issues.
Lacto-fermented veggies in the diet may help with digestive concerns for most people as I understand it. Fermented dough such as sourdough and no knead type of doughs break down the proteins in wheat but still may not be suitable for those with celiac disease. Still, these processes are still beneficial, in my humble opinion, for many people.

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12 months ago Sarah

FYI, for the shortening haters, it's easy to find a non-hydrogenated trans fat free shortening. I usually use all butter, but I do have some Spectrum brand shortening on hand, which is made from palm oil.

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12 months ago Baketress

Mmm... Palm oil ...

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9 months ago I_Fortuna

Yes, as it turns out, coconut oil, palm oil, butter and other saturated fats have recently been determined to be more healthy than hydrogenated fats. Most veggie oil oxidizes when heated at certain temperatures. Coconut oil withstands higher heat without oxidation. Some research has shown that oxidation is the cause of cholesterol concerns. Since we have been using coconut oil and butter, our health and diet seems to have improved and instead of gaining weight we are actually losing it. Hubby's cholesterol that was previously high is now in the normal range so there may be something to this recent science.

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12 months ago Douglas

I've been doing this for years -and- I add some white vinegar that also helps prevent gluten development ... but careful handling is the real key to flakiness.

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12 months ago Baketress

The best part? We don't even need vodka, the mixing technique alone is genius for the best easiest and flakiest pie pastry in the whole universe! Yes, I am a fan.

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12 months ago samanthaalison

This is my go-to recipe, though I sub the shortening for more butter.

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12 months ago jdifeo

Shortening has so little partially hydrogenated oils that the can so 0g trans fat

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12 months ago James Kling

Seriously?

Crisco ingredients: SOYBEAN OIL, FULLY HYDROGENATED PALM OIL, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED PALM AND SOYBEAN OILS, MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, TBHQ AND CITRIC ACID (ANTIOXIDANTS).

Soybean oil is terrible, it's an unstable PUFA that oxidizes easily when heated; trans fats are worse, and yes, even a small amount (enough to slip under the 0 g. labeling loophole) can still cause damage to the endothelium. Trans fats literally fry your arteries. I would avoid at all costs.

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12 months ago Bob

Yeah, go ask those 90 year olds how much trans fats they ate, my grandma put Crisco in ALL of her dough & lived to be 89. If you are so health conscious perhaps you should skip the pie.

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11 months ago I_Fortuna

Is it possible that Crisco was made differently in the past? I get it though. My grandma lived into her 90's and they had a Black Angus ranch and she used Crisco to fry chicken. Boy was it good. So she ate a lot of red meat and fat, did not excercise strenously and hardly at all in her last 30 years but she did not smoke and had a whiskey sour each evening. Is this the formula for all of us? I don't know. I now use coconut oil because it tolerates a higher tmeperatures without oxidizing into cholesterol. This means that I can cook my food longer at lower temperatures without it burning or smoking. As a result we have lost weight and and hubby's cholesterol has returned to normal levels. I feel that genetics play such a big role in our health too.

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9 months ago Holly

Yes, it used to be made from cottonseed oil before they switched to soy and palm.

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12 months ago Tonie

I have been a subscriber of Cooks Illustrated and all their .coms for years and have been doing this recipe and suggesting it to friends since it was first published... I am not a hard liquor drinker but I am on my 3rd bottle of Vodka for just pie dough making...

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12 months ago the totally not-foolish pucko

This was on Good Eats years ago. I think he used whiskey, I like applejack since I usually do fruit galettes when I make pie crust. I was thinking for more savory applications you could use stuff like aquavit or ouzo, too.

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12 months ago Julie

Have been using this recipe for years...love it. But thinking about substituting the shortening with coconut oil. Thoughts?

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12 months ago James Kling

Someone else in this message thread mentioned using it. From a health perspective, yes, absolutely a big improvement. I've used CO in biscuits with success, but never tried it in crusts - I just like the all-butter or butter-lard crusts, but maybe I'll try this too...

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12 months ago kfh

I've made it using half coconut oil, half spectrum shortening( trying to avoid dairy for an allergy). It was not as flaky, and a little disappointing. I was considering switching to lard instead of butter, and still using spectrum.

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12 months ago RT

Is more alcohol/less water better? Can one use higher proof vodka, or even Everclear and skip the water altogether?

Alice

12 months ago Alice Gardner

You do need some water to create some gluten, otherwise your crust wouldn't have any structure. The alcohol is basically an insurance policy so you can work the dough more without risking a super tough crust. If you do choose to use a higher proof liquor, you would have to so some math. I have used all 80 proof vodka (40% Alcohol to 60% Water) before and I had some crumbling problems. There does come a point where expense is an issue where alcohol is concerned as well. I just stick to the 80 proof on the next to bottom shelf.

Alice

12 months ago Alice Gardner

I have been using vodka for my pie crusts since I saw it done on ATK. I am actually guilty of bringing a bottle of the stuff to the church kitchen to make pies for a dinner event. One person caught me but he took back his scolding after he tasted my pie!

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11 months ago lisa dowe

Vodka helps with the shelf life of the pie dough. You can use lemon juice or vinegar as a replacement.