In Baking Hows, Whys, and WTFs, food editor Shilpa Uskokovic will answer your burning baking questions and share her tips and tricks for flawless sweets. Today: What is tangzhong?
Each time associate food editor Zaynab Issa set out a pan of these fluffy cinnamon rolls in the test kitchen, the chubby swirls would vanish at an alarming rate. Similar reaction when I made these pull-apart dill rolls dripping in garlic butter. Pans upon pans of bread rapaciously demolished. What was it about both of these rolls that turned us all into carb-starved zombies?
Ultimately, it boiled down to the texture. Both breads boast a squishy softness and tender bounce, a boing-boing spring when you press down gently. Most remarkably, they stay that way the next day, an uncommon feat for homemade bread, which lacks the dough conditioners and preservatives that keep supermarket bread pliable for weeks.
Just look at the start of each recipe: You cook flour and a liquid (either milk or water) into a sticky goo on the stovetop, then add the rest of the ingredients and knead into a soft dough. That sticky goo is called tangzhong, a Mandarin term, and it’s the secret to their excellent texture.
The technique of cooking a bit of the flour before making a dough is found in many baking cultures. Japanese bakers utilize yudane, a method where boiling water is poured over flour (usually in a 1:1 ratio) and mixed until a stiff paste forms. Many European rye breads also use pre-cooked dough to strengthen their structure.
When you pre-cook some of the flour with some of the liquid from the recipe, it forms a thick gel that locks in the liquid. The gel (and all that locked-up liquid) can now be added to the rest of the dough without throwing off the dough’s performance. Think of stock or broth, so thin that it sloshes off a spoon. But add a little cornstarch, heat up the stock, and suddenly, you have gravy: thick enough to stay on the spoon until you bring it to your mouth. Visualize tangzhong as a similar way of thickening liquid, so it behaves more like a solid.
Almost all tangzhong follows a similar template: Remove anywhere between 10–25% flour from the recipe. Mix it with two to five times the amount of liquid (also from the amount listed in the recipe) until no lumps remain. Cook this paste over medium-low heat just until it turns snotty (sorry!) and slightly translucent, a good indication that the starches in the flour have gelatinized. This takes a few minutes at most, depending on how much tangzhong you’re making.
The change usually happens at 150°F or 65°C, at which point you remove the tangzhong from the heat and either use it right away or allow it to cool in an airtight container for up to 2 days in the fridge. If you overcook the tangzhong, you’ll evaporate out the moisture, defeating the purpose of adding it in the first place.
Enriched breads—breads enhanced with rich, fatty ingredients like oil or butter, eggs, and sugar—generally become more tender and lofty when you push the amount of liquid they contain (ideally to 65–75% hydration, or liquid by weight of flour). But maximizing the amount of liquid isn’t as simple as pouring more water or milk into the mixer. More liquid creates a softer, stickier dough, which can be annoying to handle. This is where tangzhong shines. By allowing a baker to introduce more liquid to the dough without making it too wet to handle, tangzhong helps the final rolls or loaves rise more, feel squishier, and stay fresh for longer.
A tangzhong is unnecessary in leaner breads like sourdough, focaccia, baguettes, or bagels, all of which pride themselves on being crusty and chewy. But it’s very effective in soft, pillowy breads like sandwich loaves, buns, and rolls. The proof is in the poof. You’ll just have to bake some and see for yourself.
On a roll