The thing about pie is that it’s always in season. When peaches and cherries are at their peak, the most magical destination for a farmers market haul is inside a pie. When you’re contemplating what to do with the yield from an overzealous apple picking excursion, a pie is the obvious answer. And in the coldest months of the year, pumpkin, pecan, and cream pies beckon.
This means that if you or the people you love are pie people, there is no telling when you might be called upon to make one. It could happen at any moment! You must, as they say, stay pie-ready so you don’t have to get pie-ready. It helps to have a go-to crust recipe in your back pocket. And it helps most of all if that recipe includes a little booze.
I’m not talking about spiking your pie filling—though mezcal peach and whiskey pecan are ace flavor pairings for a reason. Instead, I’m referring to the technique of incorporating a little clear liquor, like vodka or gin, into the crust itself.
As bakers and scientists alike will tell you, the enemies of a tender, flaky pie crust are heat and work. Keeping things cold as you assemble your dough ensures that the butter stays solid until it hits the oven, at which point the steam, released as it melts, creates delightful layers. Messing with the dough too much (lots of mixing, vigorous kneading, etc.) develops the gluten in the flour, which is great for bread but tough (literally) for pie. Therefore, most crust recipes call for very cold butter to cut into the dry ingredients, and just enough ice water to hold the dough together. Shagginess is the goal; after some time spent chilling in the fridge, it will be cohesive enough to roll out.
But the flakiest crusts I’ve ever made have been those that replace some of the ice water with alcohol, which hydrates the dough without developing gluten the way water does. This provides you a bit of a buffer while mixing your dough and patting it into a disk to chill; because of the booze, you don’t have to worry that one pat too many will toughen up your crust. Sure, you should still add as little liquid as possible and aim to keep your butter very cold. But any help is good help in the quest for tender, flaky crusts. And the flavor cooks off, so you don’t need to worry about unwanted boozy notes.
In his recipe for the Almond Custard Pie they serve at Bocadillo Market in Chicago (one of BA’s 10 Best New Restaurants of 2022), chef James Martin calls for Spanish gin, like Nordés brand, in the crust. It’s in part to keep with the ethos of the restaurant, which is Spanish-inspired and features Iberian pantry staples throughout the menu. But it’s also the best way to create a crust that can handle nearly 90 minutes in the oven. I kept anticipating having to cover the crust with foil to keep it from burning as I cooked this pie in the test kitchen, but it never got too dark—and stayed crisp and layered despite the lofty filling. It is, I don’t feel I’m exaggerating to say, a magical crust, thanks to those four measly teaspoons of gin or vodka carrying it to the finish line. You might never know when the need for a pie will arise, but you can always nail the crust every time if you sneak in a little booze.