Vinegar in pie dough: What does it do?

Great pie dough is easy for some and a quest for others. Flour, salt, butter, water — how can it be so challenging? Sometimes, recipes call for one extra ingredient: a splash of vinegar in the cold water that brings the pie dough together.

What does that vinegar do? The most common answer — that it affects gluten development — isn’t actually that useful. If you had a mass spectrometer at home, you could measure the teensy difference vinegar makes in the tensile strength of gluten strands in the dough, which in theory makes it a bit more tender.

But there are two much more important perks to using vinegar: it provides a little insurance against overworking the dough. And, that splash of vinegar will keep your dough from oxidizing and turning gray.

When a pie dough recipe calls for vinegar (or lemon juice, or buttermilk), what does that do for the crust? King Arthur Flour has the answer. Click To Tweet
Pie dough via @kingarthurflour

Fresh All-Butter Pie Dough with vinegar (right) and without (left).

Putting vinegar to the test

To watch the oxidation process play out, I made two batches of our All-Butter Pie Dough and mixed 1 tablespoon of vinegar into the ice water of the second batch.

Pie dough via @kingarthurflour

Three-day-old All-Butter Pie Dough with vinegar (right) and without (left).

Here’s the same recipe after three days. The water-only version has become noticeably grayer. It was also a bit more slack to work with when rolled out.

Pie dough via @kingarthurflour

Top row: water only, oxidized dough baked with egg wash (left) and without (right). Bottom row: vinegar dough, egg washed (left) and without (right).

What happens if your dough is gray and oxidized, and you bake it anyway? Good news. It’ll be fine. While the oxidized dough was a little floppier to work with and didn’t hold the pattern of the pie top cutters, the look and flavor of the baked dough were pretty much the same.

In the end, if you prepped your dough without vinegar, forgot about it, and worry you’ll have to start over, fear not. Use your gray dough and give it a little egg wash on top before baking.

Pie dough best practices

The biggest determining factor in the quality of your pie crust is the technique used to make it. Vinegar, buttermilk, lemon juice, and vodka all change the interaction of the liquid and gluten in the dough. But the difference between a dough with acid in it and one without (when made with the same technique) is infinitesimal. In other words, no ingredient can cure poor execution.

So remember the essential rules of pie baking:

  • Keep your fat cold, and leave half of it in larger chunks, bigger than you think they should be.
  • Add liquid, but not too much.
  • Fold the dough to bring it together, and don’t be anxious if it’s a little crumbly, as long as it feels damp.
  • This is where overworking is a risk; as long as the dough is mostly holding together, you don’t need to spend a lot of time kneading it.
  • Chill in disks with round, smooth edges. If you do, you’ll get smooth edges when you roll it out.

When it comes to pie dough, practice makes perfect. The most essential pastry ingredient is confidence. But if you’re a busy baker and aren’t sure when you’ll be making the leap from dough to oven, a little splash of vinegar (or lemon juice) in your recipe is a good idea.

If you’re a visual learner, check out the video tutorials in our Complete Guide to Perfect Pie Crust.

Our thanks to Anne Mientka for the photos in this post.

Susan Reid
About

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.

comments

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Tina! You’d follow the same rules and use vinegar or lemon juice in gluten-free pie crust just as you would for a regular one. Annabelle@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Baker and blogger PJ Hamel writes about this very technique in the article called, How to make the best pie crust. We recommend checking out the full post to learn as much as possible about the art of pie crust-making, but here’s a snippet from the section that talks about using vodka: “Vodka in pie crust has been a popular substitute for ice water [in pie crust] in recent years. Why? It’s said that its lower percentage of water (alcohol is part water, part ethanol) means less gluten development, yielding a more tender crust.

      In my experience this is partially true; using vodka in pie crust makes a soft, silky dough that’s lovely to roll out. But the resulting crust isn’t any more tender or flaky than an ice water crust.

      And crust whose liquid is 100% vodka can border on being too tender, since less of its gluten has been activated. An all-vodka crust (especially one made with higher-proof vodka) can occasionally fall apart as you move it from countertop to pie pan.” We hope this helps you make an informed choice about what kind of liquid to use when making your next crust. Kye@KAF

    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Vinegars sold in grocery stores are all at the same acid %, so it’s mostly a matter of what flavor you may (or may not) wish to add. White vinegar is the most neutral; in baking I usually reach for cider vinegar, because I like the subtle fruit notes it imparts. Susan

  1. MelissaH

    Whoa. I’m a chemist, and I’ve done enough mass spectrometry to know that it won’t measure the tensile strength of anything. For that, you would probably use a universal testing machine.

    I value your knowledge of all things baking. But this one, you got wrong.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Go Melissa! Despite being surround by engineers in my family, I have not absorbed enough. My brother would have beaten you to it if he read baking blogs. Now I want a universal testing machine, though! Thanks for writing. Susan

    2. Sarah

      Thank you Melissa, this is exactly the comment I hoped to find. =P

      Susan, looks like you’ve attracted a bunch of scientist bakers to this post! I appreciate the details you’ve put into this, was really wondering what the vinegar did. Thanks!

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