Alton Brown’s Pie Crust
Quinn has a love/more love relationship with Alton and his methods. So, it came as no surprise to me when he turned to Alton when he decided to make a pie crust. Unfortunately, I don’t possess the patience for things such as pie crusts, so I am glad to turn that responsibility over to him.
Jennifer and I have a strong personal attachment to pies. Sure, it’s more the mathematical π variety, but I’m certainly not one to turn down a pretty piece of pie. Considering that the crust is literally and figuratively the foundation of a good pie, when I was tasked with making an apple pie for our Thanksgiving festivities, I naturally turned to our chief food engineer, Alton Brown. Actually, I’d seen his episode Crust Never Sleeps ages ago and have been yearning to try out his techniques ever since.
In this episode, Alton explores the clichéd culinary contradiction of “tender and flaky.” In his typical style he details the oxymoron pointing out that “flaky is crisp, structural like puff pastry. Tender is soft, pliant like a biscuit.” He proclaims the combination impossible, but only for a moment (it was an episode about pies, after all).
Being a good little food engineerlet, I researched a number of other pie crust recipes and methods. While his recipe is fairly typical with respect to other pie crust recipes, varying only in a few cool ways, his technique is unique in my readings. Bring on the sprayer:
As Alton says in this episode (yes, it’s been taking up valuable Tivo real estate for countless months) with regard to sprayer selection: “you don’t have to have a dinosaur, but you know, if you’re lucky you will.” I’m definitely lucky enough to have Jennifer who found this sprayer in an extremely-cool-gift-for-your-husband kit for me last Christmas. The significance of the sprayer is that it provides an efficient technique to introduce 3 Tbsp of liquid evenly into 3 cups of dry goods. Just dumping that liquid in at once and trying to mix it in will lead to small, muddy lump in a big bowl of dry stuff. Adding the minimal amount of water into flour will minimize gluten formation. Gluten is not the stuff of great pie crusts: less gluten = more tender.
There are some intriguing differences in Alton’s recipe from more traditional pie crust recipes. The most evident is the use of apple juice concentrate as the liquid instead of just water. This adds some apple flavor to the crust, which is certainly appropriate for an apple or pear pie, but it also brings some acidity to the crust party which will help prevent gluten formation. If using the crust for savory purposes instead of sweet ones, cold water alone can be used instead of the apple juice concentrate (also useful if you don’t happen to have any handy).
The presence of cornmeal in the dough gives the crust some “toothiness” according to Alton. I’d love to be able to type that I knew exactly what he meant by that, so I did some extensive Googleing. I’d still love to be able to type that I knew roughly what he meant by that. Compared with other pie crusts I’ve eaten, this crust felt a little more substantial when chewed which I attributed to the cornmeal.
The key to achieving the seemingly impossible combination of tender and flaky is the integration of fats into the dough in two separate ways. One fourth of the butter is softened to room temperature and thoroughly integrated into the flour which will lead to a tender crust. The remaining stick and a half of butter is diced and chilled and quickly integrated into the dough leaving pea-sized and larger chunks of butter coated in flour. This second batch of butter is integrated in two passes. The first pass gets processed more than the second leading to varying sized butter chunks in the final dough. When the dough is rolled out, these chunks of butter will form layers of goodness in the crust that will form flaky layers. This is the same magic that happens in croissants to create their wonderful layers, just on a much smaller scale. The thin layers of butter can be seen in the picture above as light areas of varying sizes.
If you give this pie crust a try, and I recommend that you do, don’t be concerned that the dough is too dry. The goal is a dough that will hold together when squeezed in your hand and show the creases of your hand and will break in two pieces instead of crumbling. This is all aimed to put as little moisture as possible into the dough. The proof is, ultimately, in the pie and this crust was a success at Thanksgiving under and atop an apple pie filling, details of which are coming soon.