We’ve entered pie season—and with that also comes the season of people telling you their secret pie crust ingredient. For most people, that secret ingredient means one thing: vodka. I know because I used to be one of them. Until I found something much, much better.
The vodka pie crust recipe from Cook’s Illustrated is a classic for a reason. It’s simple, reliable, undeniably flakey, and it’s a fun science project to boot. The mix of vodka and water in the crust means that there will be less gluten formed in the final crust. In other words (and in a perhaps more palatable description) the vodka makes it flakey.
And, yet, despite getting pretty good results each time I made it, something was bothering me. I’ve never been much of a vodka fan. Its much-vaunted lack of flavor has never been a selling point, for either drinking or baking.
So, last year around this season, I approached America’s Test Kitchen’s Science Editor Guy Crosby to ask why vodka, and not something with a stronger profile, like bourbon or rum? Other spirits would also work to cut down on gluten and up the flake-factor, Crosby told me, “but they may leave a little taste in the crust.”
Indeed they did leave a little taste in the crust—and it was exactly the taste I was after.
The pie I’m making this time around is a bourbon apple pie. You can keep the proportions of the Cook’s Illustrated vodka pie crust recipe (which you can check out right here) the same, while simply subbing out the vodka for something a little more to your own tastes.
It’s important to keep both your water and your chosen spirit extremely cold. When you’re using vodka, you can just stick the whole bottle in the freezer for a bit, but for something a little warmer-flavored—like this bourbon—I pour out the amount I want and stick just that portion in the freezer (where I’ve already stuck the butter and shortening to chill).
Don’t put the bourbon away yet, though—you’ll need it again soon.
I had a bottle of Four Roses small batch (a pretty nice drinking-bourbon on its own) on hand, so that’s what I used in place of vodka. But, in general, if you’re out shopping for something, there’s no need to be particularly picky for baking purposes. Look low on the shelf. Is there something suspiciously cheap, with perhaps an unsettling cartoon character or a clear example of infringement on the brand of a local sports team on the label?
You’ve found your spirit. This is also a good chance to use up any particularly unpalatable liquor cabinet leftovers or the odd gifted bottle of something.
Part of the fun of the miscellaneous-spirit pie crust is the crust itself—and the little bit of flavor your chosen-liquor leaves behind in it. But just as good is figuring out which filling will pull out that flavor the best. In this case, I went with a mix of Braeburn and Golden Delicious apples. While not much good can come from eyeballing the proportions of ingredients in your crust, the filling is another story.
I mixed up the apples with a bit of flour, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove powder, allspice, and a couple glugs of the same bourbon (I told you we’d need it again) to taste. I also zested some lemon, squeezed half of its juice over the whole mix and dumped it into the bourbon-crust that I’d rolled out. Then I threw a lattice top over the whole thing and baked it for just under an hour.
The result was pleasantly, subtly, but unmistakably of bourbon and apples, throughout both crust and filling. It was just as light as the vodka crust, but somehow more cohesively (and a little more interestingly) flavored.
I still love the vodka pie crust, especially for pies that are not so sweet (Thanksgiving leftovers make amazing savory pies, folks). But, instead of letting the spirit disappear into the recipe, it’s nice to let it work with whatever flavors you already have going on. Bourbon works out nicely for most fruits, but rum is also a good choice for apple or peach, maybe something a little minty for a chocolate pie.
Your pies will still be just as flaky as they were with the vodka crust—but much more memorable.