On Pie Crust “Additives”

Several readers have written in to inquire about texture-improving pie crust additives. I didn’t include any in the standard pie crust recipe below because, well, it’s just the standard. But I frequently do add things like a little baking powder or an acid of some sort to my crusts to enhance their flakiness.

Lemon juice, vinegar or cream of tartar are great for tenderizing a crust because acid undermines gluten development. As I recall it inhibits the ability of the molecules to bond end-to-end. Something about a change in polarity that I’d need to look up, but really wouldn’t completely understand once I did.

Baking powder can be very nice also, but in a different way. Baking powder helps create flakes and lightness. Here I should probably insert that there’s fundamental tension in a pie crust between tenderness and flakiness. “Tender” is a quality most commonly associated with moisture and, well I guess I’d say a spongy-type texture. “Flaky” is associated with drier, brittle textures. It can be a tough balance to strike.

Pretty much all the regular pie bakers I know have their own definition of the perfect crust, but then also more than one crust recipe in their repertoires. If you like pie, you might want to consider a little experimentation. Start with a standard crust, then do a little branching out with some acid here, a little baking powder there, a little modifying of your process at other points.

You’ll probably find you’ll like one crust for open pies, another for dual-crust pies, yet another for savory pies, etc.. Though it might not seem it at first, the world of pie broad and varied. I contains quite a bit more than any single crust can hold.

18 thoughts on “On Pie Crust “Additives””

  1. Cook’s Illustrated offers adding alcohol. That may be a tenderizer being acidic. Any thoughts?

    1. Yep, did I forget to mention that? Probably so. Some bakers like alcohol instead of water since it moistens the dough without adding water, thus denying the gluten the thing it needs to activate. I’ve tried that and I can say it definitely works!

      – Joe

  2. I agree, there are a lot of different crust recipes/techniques and some work better for particular applications than others, so it’s good to have several from which to choose.

    One of my favorite single crust recipes uses 2-3 Tbsp of sour cream instead of water. Mix the flour (1 1/4 c), sugar (1 T), and butter (1/2c) as usual, then stir in the sour cream just until it forms moist clumps. A food processor works very well for this dough. It can be pressed into pie plate or chilled and rolled out between sheets of plastic wrap or whatever (it’s kind of a sticky/tacky, dough. ) It will shrink so it should be frozen then docked before using. The crust is paritally baked (at 375) before filling it and baking at the temp your recipe instructs. It’s my go-to crust for custard fillings because; a) it has a wonderful flavor, b) is sturdy, yet tender and flaky, even when the dough is pressed out, it’s still breaks up flakey which is unusual. I’m not a big user of pie weights.. it makes pie crust making too long and tedious and…okay…I’m lazy! There, I admit it!

    1. That’s really neat, Susan! Never heard of that but I’m keen to try it.


      – Joe

  3. I just recently started using a pie crust (from a friend – I think it’s an early 20th century American recipe) that includes a) vinegar and b) an egg?! I thought it was going to be a horror but it’s perfect. I’m surprised the egg and the vinegar don’t freak each other out. Note: That perspective is not based on science…

    1. Hey K!

      Egg is a tenderizer…a non-flour “bulk” ingredient that interrupts gluten networks that try to form. Another one of these or corn starch. You’ll find both not only in pie crusts, but in biscuits and cakes layers.

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

      1. I find that egg leads to a more crumbly rather than flaky pastry, i.e. on the way to cookieville. As such, it’s nice for small handheld pastries, but I don’t love it for pies. I believe that standard shortcrust pastry with egg instead of water and also a bit of sugar thrown in is what is used in many Italian pastries, including some of the richer crostate.

        1. That jibes with my experience as well, Jen. At least where pie crusts are concerned. Thanks for the comment!

          – Joe

  4. My best guess about the lemon juice/vinegar/tartar is that the electron-poor atoms on these acids are stealing electrons from the thiol (Sulfur–Hydrogen) group’s hydrogen. when that happens, the thiol’s hydrogen moves onto the electron-poor atoms (like oxygen) in the acid, and the sulfurs on the gluten strands are forced to bond with their neighbors on the protein strand, causing it to fold back up. For example, the gluten protein’s S-H bonds could turn into disulfide bonds, S-S. Disulfide bonds are commonly known formations in the more balled-up protein structures… Now it’s been a long time since my biochem class, so you may have to edit me on this one! But thanks for letting me nerd out a bit. 🙂

    1. This is the trouble with people who actually know things. They’re so darn knowledgeable! Thanks Ann! I greatly appreciate your expertise here.

      – Joe

  5. I forgot to add that doing an acid with the baking powder probably would work extremely well for lightening… the baking powder base would react with the acid, creating CO2 gas pockets for airiness. It would probably counteract the acid reaction with the gluten protein side-groups though. So the combo might not work to tenderize very well.

    1. You may well be right there, Ann. My recommendation is one additive solution at a time. I don’t think I’d combine acids with leavening and/or alcohol, or an other combination, frankly. Thanks again!

      – Joe

  6. Joe, in your infinite spare time and given your infinite food science wisdom, here’s a suggestion for a series that would surely appeal to the experimenters, inventors, and tweakers among us: a little reference guide about the effects of each basic ingredient depending on type and quantity, for each basic type of baking. This could be organized either by ingredient or by baking category.
    E.g. Bread
    – Water: role of water, how quantity affects outcome, signs that you have too much or too little
    – Fats: effects of different types (solid, liquid, vegetable, melted), signs that you have too much or too little
    – Flour: effects of different types and grinds, signs that you have too much or too little
    …etc, etc!
    And so on for every other major category. If you want to be really impressive, maybe also include interactions to look out for. Have I convinced you yet? 🙂

    1. Hey Jen! I’ve thought about doing something exactly like that, actually. But would anybody buy such a thing? Present company excluded of course. 😉

      – Joe

      1. Buyer #2, unless Jen gets collaborative rights (and the subsequent gratis copy), at which point I’d be buyer #1, and would appreciate a numbered-and-signed version. 🙂

        1. Roger, it’s a deal. A title like this might well sell upward of seven copies worldwide.

          But it’d still be worth doing. I’ll let you know!

          – Joe

  7. Just remember, Joe, there is quite a few of us in your “present company” category. *smiles*. Just let us know before your new ingredient book comes out so we can let ALL of our baking friends know. You could name it “What happens in the oven… usually doesn’t stay in the oven.”

    1. I may just steal that, Marykay. Hilarious.

      Thanks and I’ll keep you informed!

      – Joe

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