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:

Alton Brown dinosaur sprayerAs 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.

Alton Brown’s Pie Crust

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 2 single layer crusts, or 1 double layer crust

Ingredients

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup stone ground cornmeal
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 ounces (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 6 ounces (1 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, diced and chilled
  • 3 tablespoons apple juice concentrate
  • 2 tablespoons cold water

Instructions

Thoroughly mix flour, cornmeal, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl and place into refrigerator. Soften 1/2 stick of butter to room temperature. Chop the remaining 1 & 1/2 sticks of butter and return to the refrigerator.

In a food processor, mix the dry ingredients with the 1/2 stick of softened butter until the butter is completely integrated (no more lumps visible). Remove the chopped butter from the refrigerator and add half to the food processor. Pulse the food processor ten times for about one second each time. The goal is to chop the first half of the butter into pea-sized chunks. Add the other half of the butter and pulse about four times to achieve larger chunks of butter.

Mix apple juice concentrate and cold water in a spray bottle. Spray the surface of the dough in the food processor bowl until there is a sheen of moisture, then fold the dough with a rubber spatula. Repeat this procedure until about 3 tablespoons of the liquid has been added. The dough mixture should be dry to the touch, but stay together when squeezed. If the dough does not hold together, continue adding moisture in the manner above. Remove the dough from the processor bowl and form into a ball. Rest the dough in the refrigerator wrapped in wax or parchment paper for at least 20 minutes.

This recipe makes enough dough for two bottom-only crusts or one full top and bottom pie crust. To prepare, divide the dough in half and roll out to a 1/4″ disk on a floured surface.

Notes

Recipe adapted from Alton Brown's Good Eats

http://www.bakeorbreak.com/2007/11/alton-browns-pie-crust/
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8 Comments

  1. Kimberly Yates November 30, 2007 Reply

    Think of pasta when you think of “toothiness”. When its overdone its soft and sort of falls apart but when its al dente you have to chew it a bit. I’m guessing that’s what Alton meant and it sounds like that’s how the crust turned out. I made homemade pie crust for the first time last year for my dad’s birthday. He asked for the same thing again this year…I’ve been so nervous about what I assume to be my beginner’s luck (because it was a beautiful crust with almost everything going for it) that my dad is still waiting for his pie…a good 6 months after his birthday. After reading this I know I must try, try again!

  2. Anna December 3, 2007 Reply

    I’ll have to see how this one stacks up to Greg Patent’s recipe.

    I think we’ve all built up this crazy irrational fear of pie crust making. Compared to so many other things, how difficult is it really??? Especially now that we have the luxury of food processors. My girlfriend’s mom has been making pie crusts from years and of course, did not use a processor. At Thanksgiving, my friend decided to do it herself with the processor. With her mom standing behind her, skeptically, they both doubted the crust would work out. End result, best one ever.

  3. jennifer December 3, 2007 Reply

    Kimberly, thanks for the “toothiness” clarification. Quinn & I could see what he meant but found it hard to put into words. Good luck with your pie baking!

    Anna, you’re absolutely right. Pie crusts, like many other things, are nothing to be feared. I, however, lack the patience to make them very often.

  4. Kendall December 7, 2007 Reply

    I used this recipe a few weeks ago to make a few pies in testing for christmas baking. I had such a hard time with this recipe! I am certain that it was the size of the spray bottle that botched the experiment for me. My spray bottle was very small causing it to take what felt like hundreds of squirts to get the right amount of liquid into the mixture. I recommend using the size Alton and B.o.B. uses so that you don’t kill your hand and your dough.

  5. Glenda March 24, 2009 Reply

    Thanks for this blog post. I didn’t see the Alton Brown episode about pie crusts, but this info makes me feel as if I did. I made my first homemade pie crust tonight (using Martha Stewart’s pie crust recipe) and, while it was flaky and flavorful, I feel that it could use a bit of tweaking. This post has good info on ways I can tweak making a pie crust next go ’round.

  6. Dorothy November 14, 2011 Reply

    I just tried making this for the first time. I realized I didn’t have cornmeal so I used semolina instead. I hope it works ok (I froze the crusts, so haven’t tasted them yet). Two questions – I end up with cracks in the middle when I roll the dough out – any thoughts on what I’m doing wrong? Second, any tips on freezing pie crust? I covered in parchment and then plastic wrap. Would love other suggestions.

    Thank you!

    • jennifer November 15, 2011 Reply

      Dorothy, my guess is that you need a tad more liquid or you need to roll a little more slowly. As for freezing pie crusts, I never have. What I’ve read indicates that you can freeze it in a ball or in a pie plate. I would wrap it well with plastic wrap and put it in a freezer bag.

  7. Bob August 2, 2013 Reply

    Its not your spray bottle. In the video, the dry mass of dough he puts in the refrigerator for 20 minutes to hydrate has no chance of becoming a workable dough. Only the magic of television could of transformed that mess into properly hydrated dough. There is no chance 3 tablespoons of liquid is even close. I love what Alton does but this recipe is fundamentally flawed and is misleading to less experienced cooks.

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