[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]
I’ve been talking about choux pastry a lot recently. My three-year-old almost certainly thinks I’m saying “shoe” pastry. Others might hear “shoo” pastry, as if its very existence is an annoyance. But if you ask me, the translation of pâte à choux’s French name is even worse: Unlike pâte feuilletée’s description of delicate pastry sheets and pâte sucrée’s clear statement of sugary sweetness, pâte à choux announces itself as a cabbage, thanks to the cabbage-like shape it can puff up into. I mean, I love cabbage, but I don’t want even the suggestion of it near my desserts.
In English, we sometimes call it “cream puff pastry,” which is infinitely more appealing, but fails to communicate the impressive versatility of choux. Cream puffs are just the beginning—master this staple of the pastry kitchen and you can bake gougères (cheese puffs), chouquettes (little sugar puffs), cream puffs and profiteroles, Parisian gnocchi, beignets, crullers, churros, and more.
Kitchen lore can make choux seem a daunting task, but with our method, it’s as easy as pie. Easier, actually. A lot easier.
A Guide to Choux Pastry
What Is Pâte à Choux?
The Science of Choux
The Origins of Choux
Essential Choux Ingredients
The Key Techniques for Choux Success
Choux Baking Tips
What Is Pâte à Choux?
Choux is a multi-purpose “paste” that hovers somewhere between dough and batter. It’s made by cooking flour with water and/or milk and butter, then mixing in eggs off heat to form a pipe-able, spoonable consistency. It’s then cooked a second time, either by baking, frying, or poaching, depending on the specific recipe the choux is being used for.
Unlike typical batters, choux is thick enough to hold its shape without spreading out flat like a pancake or needing a vessel to contain it, like a Yorkshire pudding. Unlike your average dough, though, it’s thin enough to pipe by hand into a wide variety of fun shapes and sizes (think puffs, tubes, rings, and more). This rare combination of traits helps explain choux’s unique value proposition in the pastry world.
But choux’s real magic trick is that, when baked, it puffs up big and hollow like a Yorkshire pudding (a close cousin), tender inside, but with a crispier shell that, once baked, sets firm without deflating. It can also be fried or poached for a similarly puffy effect.
The Science of Choux
Of all choux’s peculiarities, perhaps the biggest is how it’s actually made. Choux isn’t new to me, but only in recent weeks have I spent so much time reflecting on what a bizarre dough-batter it is. Most doughs and batters call for combining cold liquid, like water or milk, with flour and then cooking it. But choux starts with a cooking step: the liquid is brought to a boil with butter, flour is mixed in, and then the doughy paste (what the French would call a panade) is cooked on the stovetop. After the panade has cooled down slightly, eggs are beaten in, and the resulting choux pastry can be piped or shaped before it’s cooked for the second time. This makes choux a twice-cooked dough-batter.
To understand why choux is twice-cooked, it’s important to know that choux needs lots of moisture: it’s the steam generated by its high water content that causes it to swell and puff so much (there’s no baking soda, baking powder, yeast, beaten egg whites, or any other leavening agent to help give it extra lift). Normally, a batter with such a high water content would be more of a liquid, like the batter for Yorkshire pudding, making it impossible to pipe into the stable shapes we need to make churros and cream puffs and éclairs. By cooking the initial flour-water paste, we rapidly hydrate and gelatinize the starch granules in the flour so that they swell and burst. Just as a cornstarch slurry thickens a gravy once it’s brought to a simmer, the gelatinized starch in the choux paste thickens the batter, helping give it that strange hybrid dough-batter consistency that’s so dang useful yet uncommon in the kitchen.
Cooking the flour panade does more than that, though. It also alters the choux’s gluten structure so that it’s less elastic, meaning it’s less capable of retracting into its original shape the way a stubborn bread dough often does after it’s been kneaded for a while. Its limited elasticity is essential for forming—and then holding—whatever shape you’re trying to produce.
After that initial cooking of the flour panade, the eggs are mixed in to give the final choux paste its necessary texture, consistency, and baking qualities: the gluten-rich, starch-strengthened mass is stretchy enough to swell as steam inflates the expanding pocket of air within it, strong enough to contain that growing bubble without tearing apart, but not so elastic that it might spring back on itself before the exterior has set and collapse like a deflating balloon. The added fat from the butter and egg yolks, along with the proteins from the whites, help crisp the choux for a firm, golden exterior.
The Origins of Choux
The more I’ve thought about how choux works, the more I’ve marveled at this weird bit of pastry engineering. How the heck did anybody ever think this up? Many stories point to a chef named something like Pantarelli, who, it’s said, invented the original choux pastry some time after he travelled with Catherine de Medici when she moved from Tuscany to become the Queen of France in the mid-1500s.
That may be—I certainly don’t want to deny the chef his due, if it is at all deserved—but it seems to me there’s a more obvious origin for choux beyond a single cook’s stroke of culinary genius. Really, it’s likely just a variant of a hot water crust pastry, the kind that is used today to make things like British pork pies.
Hot water crust doughs are old, older than chef Pantarelli, and they’ve long been used as casings for pies, with their particular advantage being that they have enough structure to not require a baking vessel beyond the dough itself (compare that to an American pie crust, which would flop flat on the counter with all its contents spilling out if it didn’t have the pie plate to support it). They get their structure—can you guess?!—by mixing fat and flour with boiling water, which gelatinizes the starch and produces a stronger pastry that can hold its shape and keep its contents locked inside.
When you realize hot water crusts were already being made all the time in Medieval European kitchens, it’s not much of a stretch to see how the extra eggs got incorporated.* Instead of a hot-water crust container for pie fillings, choux is an egg-enriched hot-water crust container for…air!
*In fact, there are hot water crust recipes dating at least to the 16th century that add at least a couple eggs, something that is still done by some today. It’s yet another sign that choux was, as a technical concept, well within reach without any single chef inventing it all on his own.
Essential Choux Ingredients
Let’s take a closer look at each of choux’s primary components, in order of appearance.
- The Liquid: You can use water or milk, or a combination of the two. Water allows you to bake either hotter or longer (or both) without as much risk of the choux over-browning, while milk, thanks to its extra proteins and sugars, leads to a more rapidly browned crust. In many instances you can use one or the other in the same choux recipe without issue, though it can be useful to take advantage of a milk-based choux’s enhanced browning when baking smaller pastries like chouquettes and éclairs, allowing you to achieve a good level of color development without risk of over-baking the choux puff and drying it to a crisp.
- The Fat: Butter is the fat of choice for choux, making for a rich and crispy pastry that plays just as well sweet or savory.
- The Seasonings: At the very least, choux should be seasoned with salt. If it’s going to be used for a dessert, a small amount of sugar can also be added to the paste to gently push it in a sweet direction.
- The Flour: Choux can be made with a range of wheat flour types. Some cooks prefer low-protein cake or pastry flour for the delicate choux puffs they can create, while others swear by high-protein bread flour for the sturdier choux it produces. I focused my recipe development on a standard all-purpose flour like Gold Medal. It works well, sitting nicely between the delicacy of a low-protein flour and the heft of a high-protein one. It’s also the one type of flour home cooks are most likely to have in stock at all times.
- The Eggs: Eggs loosen the thick, cooked flour-water-butter paste thanks to the high water content of the whites, and enrich it with more fat from the yolks. And because eggs solidify as they cook, they also help ensure the cooked choux will set properly and hold its final shape.
- The Optional Add-Ins: A basic choux dough ends with the eggs, but in some cases you’ll want to mix in some other ingredients. For cheesy gougères, that would be grated Gruyere, plus possibly a pinch of nutmeg, and/or black pepper. For pommes dauphine (fried potato puffs), you’d fold your choux with mashed potatoes, then form it into balls and deep fry it. I’m sure if creativity struck, one could think up plenty more to mix into choux in new and delicious ways.
The Key Techniques for Choux Success
Most guides to choux pastry throw a lot of hocus-pocus baking nonsense at the reader, offering vague warnings about the humidity level of the air, uncertainty about evaporation rates during boiling and cooking, and your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine dithering over inconsistent egg sizes and flour amounts. It’s not uncommon to hear bakers say that they might reserve a teaspoon or two’s worth of egg, just to dial in the final choux paste consistency depending on subtle differences from one batch to the next. Read these guides, and the average home cook would be justified in walking away with the assumption that it’d take a lifetime of experience to learn to correctly read these ghostly signs. And it’s all just a bunch of garbage.
I don’t mean to say that the wetness of choux dough doesn’t matter, or that evaporation can’t be an issue. But based on my rounds of testing, I don’t think they matter nearly as much as so many bakers like to pretend, especially if you understand the science behind the process and make any effort to control those variables from the start. You have a decent amount of play on hydration levels while still being able to produce choux that puffs up reliably; a little more or less egg due to small differences in the size of a “large” egg isn’t going to do anything dramatic to your éclairs.
To the degree that these variables do matter, we can control them. That was my goal when setting out to develop this recipe, and it was easy to accomplish. The most important stages in making a choux batter are measuring, forming, and cooking the paste, and then beating in the eggs. Get those parts right, and you’ll be golden, just like your choux.
Given that so many choux tutorials warn about minor variables like the humidity in the kitchen, you’d think you’d be walking an insanely precarious line as far as ratios go—just a fraction of a gram more or less water could ruin the whole thing!
But of course it won’t.* I analyzed about a dozen classic choux recipes, comparing their ingredient ratios to see just how much variation existed from one to the next. They mostly followed a familiar pattern. For every one cup of flour (at Serious Eats, we define that as four-and-a-half ounces), almost all of them called for anywhere between a three-quarter cup of water to one cup water. And in our tests, while we had slightly more success with the full cup of liquid that our final recipe calls for, we mostly managed to make good choux with the lesser amount too; ambient humidity is clearly a non-issue in light of just how much wiggle room there is on the water quantity in the paste itself.
*It’s worth noting that this aligns with Kenji’s findings when testing Yorkshire pudding batters: the ratios are more flexible than many will lead you to believe.
Egg and butter quantities shifted around from recipe to recipe too, though four large eggs per one cup of flour was by far the most common, as were six tablespoons of butter. I tested a range of four to eight tablespoons of butter in combination with different hydration levels, from a half-cup of water to a full cup. At the extremes of these ratios, some minor problems emerged—splitting and deforming at the lowest end of the butter spectrum, and emerging with a slightly dry and pasty texture at the highest end when combined with the least amount of water—but most of the permutations came out well.
Ultimately, we settled on a very classic ratio of four large eggs, one cup liquid, and six tablespoons butter to one cup of flour. It works well across a range of applications, is most in line with the majority of other choux recipes, and should produce excellent results in just about any recipe for which you might need choux.
This ratio flexibility, of course, doesn’t mean one should be sloppy with measurements when making choux. Most importantly, the flour should be measured by weight, not volume. As Stella has demonstrated before, flour is a compressible powder, meaning that depending on how you load up the cup of flour, you can pack wildly different amounts into it. You want reliable choux? Stop fussing about a teaspoon of egg here or a tablespoon of water there and start weighing your flour. That’ll take almost all of the guesswork out of the equation.
Cooking the Panade: It’s All About Temperature
Once your ingredients are weighed and measured, it’s time to cook the panade. This begins with bringing the liquid, butter, and salt (plus sugar, if you’re using it) to a boil. By cutting the butter into small, half-inch pieces, you’ll ensure that it fully melts just about when the liquid hits a rolling boil. (If you just drop a huge block of butter into the pot, you may have to let the liquid boil longer as you wait for the butter to melt, which will lead to more evaporation. Given my ratio tests, it’d probably still be fine, but why add that variable if you can control it?)
As soon as the liquid hits its boil and the butter is melted, you take the pot off the heat and fully mix in flour. I call for sifting your flour, though you can technically use unsifted flour if you don’t mind working your spoon to get out any and all lumps. Once it’s combined and smooth, the mixture goes back on the heat.
This is another stage at which traditional recipes are really unhelpful. They tell you to cook the panade until a film forms on the inside of the pot and the mass of dough pulls together into a nice ball. There’s nothing wrong about any of that—those things do happen—but they’re vague enough that a home cook could easily undercook or overcook the panade here.
The solution? Break out your instant-read thermometer. I knew that tracking the temperature of the panade would likely be critical to consistent results, but before I dialed it in myself during testing, I found Pastry Chef Francisco Migoya’s video on éclairs, and he provided the answer: you want to bring the panade to between 165 and 175°F (74 to 79°C).
The reason is simple if you understand the science: You need to gelatinize the starch in the flour. Get the panade hot enough and the starch will properly hydrate and swell, readying it to thicken the choux as the eggs get mixed in.
Lots of guides to choux talk about this step as important for drying out the panade so that it can absorb more eggs later. But while some drying does occur, it’s really not what’s most important here. The evaporation of liquid that happens in the two or so minutes it takes to cook the panade isn’t going to drive off all that much water. Instead, it’s the gelatinization of the starch that both traps water (important for that blast of steam for a good rise during the second cook) and properly thickens the batter so it can take the eggs without becoming as thin as a traditional batter.
Adding the Eggs
Once the panade has cooked, it’s time to incorporate the eggs. It’s most easily done in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, and there are really only two important things to know here.
The first is that you want to let your panade cool down a bit before adding the eggs, since there’s a risk of cooking them prematurely if they hit it while still hot. Briefly beating the panade with the paddle attachment will cause its temperature to drop rapidly; as long as you have your thermometer out, you can confirm it’s cool enough with a quick temperature check: 145°F (63°C) puts you safely below the point where the eggs would coagulate.
After that, just make sure to beat the eggs in one at a time, letting each one fully incorporated before adding the next. If you try to put too much egg in at once, you’ll end up with egg soup with bits of thick panade floating in it, and no one wants that.
For those who don’t have a stand mixer, yes, you can add the eggs by hand, right in the pot where you cooked the panade. Same rules apply: cool the panade down first, then beat the eggs in one at a time. It takes a little elbow grease but isn’t too hard.
That’s it, you’ve made basic choux pastry that can now be used all sorts of ways. It will work in any recipe that calls for choux. That said, if you’re perfecting a specific recipe that uses choux, you may want to optimize it for that purpose, for example, opting for milk over water for enhanced browning in a shorter time (something that can be useful for smaller choux puffs that cook more quickly), or even reducing the water content of the panade from one cup to three quarter cups if you want a slightly drier choux puff (this could be helpful if it’s going to hold wet fillings like ice cream without softening too quickly), but those small tweaks aren’t at all required, and are better left to a discussion of those specific recipes.
At this point, you can safely let the choux rest at room temperature for up to a couple hours before using. Some say it performs better after an hour or two of rest; my testing didn’t show an obvious enough difference to say you shouldn’t use freshly made choux, but resting also isn’t a bad idea. Just make sure you keep it sealed in a pastry bag or wrapped tightly with plastic to prevent a skin from forming.
In a pinch, you can refrigerate uncooked choux paste for longer—some sources claim up to three days (and others advise freezing for up to three months)—but in my testing I found basic choux to be so easy to throw together in a matter of minutes that it was hard to imagine why a home cook would need a reserve of choux in the fridge or freezer for such lengths of time. What’s most helpful to know is that if you can’t cook your choux right away, you can safely sit on it for a while, but generally it’s better to make it when you need it.
Choux Baking Tips
There are so many ways to cook choux batter, from baking to frying to poaching, that there’s no way to cover all the possibilities in this article for basic choux. But since baking is one of the most common methods, it helps to offer just a few general tips on that here.
Know Your Oven
Of all the warnings and inscrutable advice people offer for choux, this crucial one is usually left out: know your oven, track its temperature, and adjust accordingly. It’s one of the most significant variables, and, as I found in my own testing, can be the secret culprit when choux goes wrong.
An oven can seem so straightforward. Set the temp, give it time to fully heat, then bake in it. But stick an oven thermometer or probe in, and you may be shocked to find that most ovens don’t run true to temp. They can be much cooler or hotter than the dial setting indicates, enough to seriously derail the baking of something like choux.
Worse, even if you get an oven running at the right temp, some fluctuate a little too dramatically over time as the heating element turns on and off, or don’t recover their heat quickly enough after you’ve opened and closed the door to put the choux inside.
This happened to me while testing this recipe. At home, my oven is calibrated well. I always have three dial thermometers in it, and add a digital probe when I want to know its exact status from moment to moment. And in all my testing, my choux puffed up perfectly every time. If I opened the oven door and its temperature dropped, my oven kicked back on and regained its heat in just a few minutes.
When it came time to cook some choux in our test kitchen for the photoshoot, I used the wall ovens, which I know can be temperamental. I spent the first couple of hours tracking their temps and changing the settings until the ovens were where they needed to be. But when I loaded them up with my gougères, they instantly dropped 50 degrees and then failed to recover that heat, even after 10 minutes. My choux puffed and then sank.
If you’re experiencing problems with your choux (or anything else you’re cooking), a careful examination of your oven’s temperature settings and cycles should be one of your first steps. If the oven is inaccurate, consult your oven’s manual on how to re-calibrate it so that it’s true to temp. If your oven is painfully slow to recover after opening the door (a digital probe thermometer is the best way to track this), you’ll have to get more creative. One idea might be to handle it like we often do with deep frying: heat the oven to a temp higher than you want (so, say 450°F if you want to bake at 400°F); as soon as you put your choux in and the oven hits 400 (hopefully very quickly given the higher starting temp), set the dial to 400 to keep it there. Whether this will work in all cases, I can’t say, so do your best to play with your own oven and getting working for you, not against you.
Parchment vs. Silicone Baking Mats
Choux should be piped or dolloped onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Stella has shown in the past that silicone baking mats like Silpats can do bad things to cookies and other confections. I tested my Silpat with choux and got good results, so you can use one in place of parchment for choux without worry.
One nice thing with parchment is you can draw lines or circles on it to help guarantee uniform puff sizes and straight, even éclairs. With practice you won’t need those visual aids, but they can help if you don’t bake choux often.
How you pipe or dollop your choux will depend on what specific recipe you’re making, but many classic choux preparations lean on a piping bag and pastry tip combination. It’s simple to fill a piping bag and, with some experimentation, to figure out how much pressure to use as you squeeze the filling through a tip. But if you urgently want to make choux and don’t have the official equipment, worry not: in many cases, you can also get away with filling a zipper lock bag with the paste and then snip off the tip of one corner to pipe albeit less precise dollops of choux. Still other recipes simply call for spooning the choux onto a baking sheet, so assess what you have and then decide which preparation will work best.
Finishes and Washes
In almost all cases you’ll want to glaze or otherwise finish the choux, which can reduce more extreme cracking and splitting while add even coloring and a nice shine to the baked puffs. Which finish you choose will depend on the recipe and also your own preferences.
An egg wash is one of the most common, but it’s slightly laborious to gently paint each unbaked blob of choux. I’ve found it most helpful when I want some kind of topping, like pearl sugar, to adhere well.
One of the fastest methods is to spray all the choux with a flavorless nonstick cooking spray like PAM. It takes just seconds, but doesn’t offer the adhesive advantage of egg wash. A light dusting of powdered sugar is another good choice for sweet choux, since it’s quick to apply and isn’t visible on the baked choux.
Oven Temperatures and Drying Methods
As for the best oven temperature, there’s no one answer. The goal is to get a good rise from the batter, and then have the exterior brown and set firmly at around the same time the interior is hollowing out but still has some remnant of custardy moisture. In general, you can go hotter with water-based choux (say, up around 425°F or so) without risk of over-browning, but overall our testing found 400°F to be a sweet spot that works across a variety of recipes. The one exception were the narrow lines of piped choux for éclairs, which baked better at 350°F, giving them more time to dry and set with good, hollow interiors.
One of the big challenges with just-baked choux is that the humidity trapped inside will soften the crisp exterior as it stands. There are several ways to deal with this. You can cut choux puffs in half, which can be a good, quick option for rapidly freeing that steam if you’re going to fill split cream puffs. If you want to leave your puffs whole, you can poke holes in them (usually on the bottom, but some folks make a tiny hole with a toothpick or cake tester slid into the sides); this is a good option for things like puffs and éclairs where you will pipe filling into them, allowing some steam to vent without fully cutting the choux open, though in my tests poked holes alone won’t stop post-bake softening.
Our best results came from a 30-minute rest in the turned-off oven with its door cracked but still hot from the baking (either with holes poked in the choux or not). This helps keep the exteriors dry as the interior moisture dissipates, resulting in choux that will hold their crunch for at least several hours at room temperature. Though, of course, you’ll probably end up eating them a lot sooner than that.
Why It Works
- Measuring the flour by weight removes one of the biggest variables in a basic choux paste.
- Tracking the choux’s temperature is an easier-to-follow method for novices and leads to far more consistent results than the kinds of vague doneness signs most recipes offer.
- A stand mixer makes quick work of incorporating the eggs into the choux paste.
What’s New On Serious Eats
- 1 cup (235g) water or milk (see note)
- 6 tablespoons (84g) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 2 teaspoons (8g) sugar (optional; see note)
- 1/2 teaspoon (2g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 4 1/2 ounces (128g) all-purpose flour, sifted
- 4 large eggs (200g)
In a 3-quart stainless-steel saucier or saucepan, combine water (or milk), butter, sugar (if using), and salt.
Set over high and and cook until liquid comes to a rolling boil and butter has fully melted, about 2 minutes (the small butter cubes should be fully melted just about at the same time the liquid hits a strong boil).
Remove from heat and add flour. Using a wooden spoon or stiff silicone spatula, thoroughly mix in flour until no lumps remain (make sure to hunt down and smash out any stubborn ones).
Return saucepan to medium-high heat and cook, stirring very frequently, until dough registers 175°F (80°C) on an instant-read thermometer; if you don’t have a thermometer, other signs the dough is ready include a thin starchy film forming all over the inside of the saucier and the dough pulling together into a cohesive mass.
To use a stand mixer: Transfer dough to a stand mixer fitted with the paddle and beat at medium speed until dough registers 145°F on an instant-read thermometer (you need the dough cool enough that it doesn’t cook the eggs when they hit it).
Add eggs one at a time, making sure each is fully beaten into the dough before adding the next; it can help to start the mixer at medium-low speed for the first egg and then increase the speed to medium once the choux batter begins to develop.
Scrape down sides of mixer bowl, then mix once more at medium speed just to ensure the choux batter is fully mixed, about 5 seconds.
Alternatively, to incorporate eggs by hand: Let dough cool in saucepan, stirring frequently, until it registers 145°F on an instant-read thermometer. Add eggs 1 at a time, stirring well between additions until each egg is fully incorporated before adding the next, until a smooth, shiny paste forms.
Use choux right away, or hold at room temperature for up to 2 hours before using; how you use the choux will depend on the application, though it’s important to prevent a skin from forming, either by transferring the choux right away to a pastry or zipper-lock bag and keeping it sealed, or pressing plastic wrap directly against the choux’s surface.
Source: Read Full Article