Pie-makers far and wide are talking excitedly about the November issue of Cook’s Illustrated, in which writer J. Kenji Alt comes up with a novel solution for a persistent pastry problem (recipe only available for online subscribers). You see, the wetter pastry is, the easier it is to work with. But the more water you add, the more gluten is formed, which makes the pastry tough. Alt’s solution? Substitute vodka.
The idea’s so weird it’s off-putting at first, but the science behind Alt’s notion is solid:
Eighty-proof vodka is essentially 40 percent ethanol and 60 percent water. As it happens, gluten cannot form in alcohol, which means that for every tablespoon of vodka I added, only 60 percent of it contributed to gluten development.
Curious, I gave Alt’s recipe a whirl this afternoon. Now, I know it drives recipe developers crazy when home cooks mess with a successful formula, but Cook’s called for vegetable shortening. I don’t care how many people rave about the flakiness of shortening crusts, I look at that tub of white goo and think “No.” I used butter instead. I also combined the flour and butter in the recipe by hand instead of with the specified food processor. Then my hand shook while I was measuring the vodka (perhaps I needed some hair of the dog?) and way more spilled out than was supposed to. Despite all these blatant screwups, the dough was, as promised, as pliable and easy to work with as Play-Doh, and baked up tender and toothsome. Success!
Almost as impressive as Alt’s recipe acumen is the way he’s answering readers’ questions about the crust on the America’s Test Kitchen boards. He makes the (yummy!) point here that other liquors tested well as water replacements and a booze like Calvados would be great for apple pie. Mmm, pecan pie at Thanksgiving with a bourbon crust. Oh my.
Naysayers have correctly pointed out that alcohol doesn’t completely vaporize in the oven as Cook’s states, but since my finished peach pie didn’t have a hint of boozy flavor, tasted incredible, and was the easiest crust I’ve personally ever rolled out, call me a convert.