If youâre entering the county fair pie-baking competition, hereâs a tip: use vodka. No, you wonât make the judges tipsy. Instead, the special ingredient of ethanol--the chemical name for alcohol (you'll also see it referred to as ethyl alcohol) --makes a particularly light and flaky crust.
A pie crust is made of flour, some form of fat (such as butter or lard), and a liquid, which is often water. The liquid in your crust is necessary because it holds the dough together.
Gluten Powers Activate
But when you use water, you activate gluten. Gluten is a combination of two proteins that structure the dough as theyâre stretched in the mixing. While having some gluten in your crust is good, too much makes the dough tough.
80 proof vodka, at only 60 percent water, holds the flour and fat together without activating too much gluten. Use plain vodka as half the required liquid in your dough, and most of the ethanol bakes off in the oven, leaving you with a flaky crust (and no vodka flavor). Or replace all the water with a strong spirit if you want to taste, say, a bourbon-infused crust with your pecan pie.
While at the fair, you might discover alcohol in other bready foods, too--such as in the batter for fried fish. Beer has carbon dioxide, which dissolves at low temperatures--not hot.
So when that beer batter hits the hot frying oil, it bubbles, because it isnât soluble. Foaming agents in the beer, including some proteins, stop these carbon dioxide bubbles from bursting quickly.
The result? A bubbly batter thatâs lacy and crispy. Now you know: whatever crust youâre making, add a little alcohol, and you can wow the judges.
Thank you to Susan Ebeler of the University of California for reviewing this episode's script.
Sources And Further Reading:
- Eplett, Layla. "How Alcohol Makes A Flakier Pie Crust: The âProofâ Is In The Pie." Scientific American. 14 March 2014. Accessed June 12, 2018.
- Faculty of Science â University of Copenhagen. "Practical cooking tips for your red wine sauce." ScienceDaily. June 6, 2017. Accessed June 12, 2018.
- Gibbs, Wayt W., and Nathan Myhrvold. "Beer Batter Is Better." Scientific American. February 1, 2011. Accessed June 12, 2018.
- Joachim, David and Andrew Schloss. "Alcoholâs Role in Cooking." Fine Cooking, no. 104, pp. 28-29. Accessed June 12, 2018.
- Weeks, Kevin D. "Spirited Cooking: Keep Some Liquor In The Kitchen." National Public Radio. January 19, 2010. Accessed June 12, 2018.