Better Living Through Chemistry – Flaky Pie Crust

Peach Pie Number One

As the title of the 1996 Fatboy Slim album suggests, this post is about Better Living Through Chemistry. With apologies to Mr. Slim, (whose stage name is perfect for a food blog written by a compulsive exerciser, don’t you think?) I’ve been messing with chemistry to create an excellent peach pie.

Thanks to the America’s Test Kitchen / Cook’s Illustrated people, I’ve learned that chemistry can be your friend in the pursuit of excellent pie crust.  Two keys to flaky pie crust are cold ingredients, and limited gluten development.  Reducing the gluten is best done by reducing the water content, since water + flour = gluten, so less water would mean less gluten.  In order to have a pie dough that is easy to roll out, however, it needs a high liquid content.  What to do?  Replace part of the water in the recipe with a non-water liquid: vodka.  Since alcohol + flour <> gluten, and the alcohol evaporates when you bake a pie in a very hot oven, you have the liquid when you want it, without developing a tough pie crust.

Great Crust, and An Egg Wash

The folks at America’s Test Kitchen explain this eloquently, and a well tested recipe is in the September/October 2010 issue of Cook’s Illustrated magazine.   My own version below is slightly different.  I choose to use only butter as my fat in pie crusts, since I like the taste, and I don’t like vegetable shortening as a product.  Let’s just say I’ve heard too many “fat in the can” jokes, and I’m choosy about my hydrogenation.  I keep unsalted butter in my freezer, and find that frozen butter works very well in this application, but very cold is OK, too.   I like to use the leftover trimmed dough to make impromptu turnovers with some jam filling.  You could also make some pretty pastry cutouts as garnishes for other dishes.

Flaky Pie Crust

modified from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe called Foolproof Pie Dough 101, makes a two-crust pie with leftover.


  • Food processor
  • silicon or rubber spatula
  • Pyrex measuring cup
  • Dry measuring cups
  • measuring spoons
  • mixing bowl
  • knife
  • cutting board
  • rolling pin
  • 9 inch pie pan
  • plastic wrap
  • fork, small bowl for egg wash
  • pastry brush


  • 0.25 cup vodka, cold
  • scant 0.25 cup ice water
  • 2.5 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 20 tablespoons (2.5 sticks) unsalted butter, very cold or frozen, cut into 0.5 inch chunks
  • 1 egg, beaten, for egg wash


  1. Put 1.5 cups of flour, salt, sugar in food processor, and pulse to combine.
  2. Add butter and process just until a dough starts to form in clumps, about 15 seconds.  Redistribute the dough evenly around the food processor blade, scraping down sides with the spatula.
  3. Add the remaining flour, and pulse 5 or 6 times until the dough is broken up.  Transfer the contents to a mixing bowl.
  4. Sprinkle vodka and ice water over the dough, and mix lightly, pressing on the dough until it sticks together.  Divide the dough into two equal balls,  flatten the balls into disks, and cover with plastic wrap.  Chill for at least 45 minutes before rolling, or up to a few days.
  5. Roll bottom out on a lightly floured surface, to about an eighth of an inch thick, and about four inches wider than the edge of your pie pan.  Put in the pan, and trim the edge within a half inch of the edge.  Cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate while you prepare your filling.
  6. After your filling is prepared, roll out your top crust, and cut vents or holes in the top crust, to allow steam to escape.  Place top crust on your pie, and seal the edges with a fork, or by crimping with your fingers, and trim away excess dough.
  7. Brush the top of your pie with a beaten egg, for improved browning.
  8. Refrigerate or freeze your pie for at least 30 minutes before baking to assure a crisper crust.  This may extend baking time, but a crisp bottom crust on a pie is a revelation!
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2 Responses to Better Living Through Chemistry – Flaky Pie Crust

  1. MOM says:

    In your Pi plate! Beautiful.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Thanks, MOM! It was pretty tasty, too. Not quite the best pie I’ve made, but you know how that goes. There’s always something that could be just a wee bit better.

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