Donut dough rising in the oven

Why a Water Roux Improves Your Donuts

Who doesn’t want a light and fluffy, airy, donut? Well, maybe not everyone, but I sure prefer a light and airy donut over a dense greasy one. So when reading that a water roux (also referred to as tang zhong) can help you achieve exactly that, my curiosity was peaked. Why would a water roux create a lighter donut? And does it really work?

So we got to work and made a (way too large!) batch of donuts, with and without the water roux. Of course, we also had a look at our earlier donut repertoire (our sourdough donuts, cake donuts, and ‘regular’ yeasted donuts). And naturally, we dug into the science of this phenomenon. Bringing together bechamel sauce science, starch thickening agents, and donuts!

What is a water roux?

Before digging into the effect on donuts, let’s zoom in on the water roux. As the name says, it’s a type of roux. A roux is a mixture of flour and liquid (e.g. water, milk, stock, but also oil or butter) that has been heated. A water roux is a very simple type of roux. It’s made of just water & flour. In this instance, when making donuts, we’re using a roux with a flour:water ratio of roughly 1:5 (see full recipe below).

Note on the name tangzhong: Here we’re referring to water roux since that is a pretty good english description of what it is. However, you’ll often find it being referred to as tangzhong. This is an Asian (likely Chinese, see comments below) term for describing this same concept. Water roux is often used in Japanese breads to make them light and airy! We’re no Chinese nor Japanese language experts so will stick with the english description here.

Why does a water roux thicken liquids?

The heating process initiates a series of transformations in the mixture. The important one being that the resulting roux will have become a lot thicker in consistency than the original mixture. As such, rouxs are often used for thickening soups and sauces (e.g. in a bechamel sauce). In some cases, as is the case for a dish called gumbo, a roux is heated even further. This results in the formation of a range of delicious flavors and aromas but the thickening power will be less.

Thickening of the water roux is caused by starch molecules, which wheat flour contains a decently large amount of. Starch is a type of carbohydrate, a polysaccharide. Starch molecules are long, complex molecules that easily get entangled. Starch doesn’t dissolve well in water, instead, it floats in the water and absorbs just a little water.

water roux: mixing
Flour mixed with water, the pockets of flour don’t dissolve in water. If left for long enough they’ll sink to the bottom.

When you heat up the starch though it will start to absorb more water. From approx. 50-60°C (122-140°F), the starch loses its structure, the starch granules (which contain the starch molecules) burst. All these individual molecules will leak out and bind water. As a result, it thickens the liquid. We call this process the gelatinization of starch. It’s a very common process. It also happens when you cook potatoes, make another type of roux, a creamy creme patissiere or boil bagels.

Making a water roux

So, in order to make a water roux, you start by mixing together flour and water. It’s important the water is not warm at this point. You want to make sure you can disperse the flour in the water first, before initiating the gelatinization process (which can cause clumping at this point). You then gently heat up the mixture in a pan on the stove while stirring. Gently, because you don’t want it to burn on the bottom, starch burns easily. As it heats up you will notice that the mixture starts to thicken. This starts at approximately 65°C. When the resulting mixture then cools down it thickens even more, resulting in a gel-like texture.

Flour:Water ratio

In our donut recipe we used a 1:5 ratio for our water roux, but this ratio is not set in stone. You need enough water to properly hydrate the flour (based on our experiments we’d recommend at least twice the amount of water to flour). If you have a low moisture content recipe though, you might want to use a ratio of 1:3 or 1:4. That will allow you to incorporate more flour into the dough, without overshooting the water content.

So why use water roux in donuts?

It is commonly said that using the water roux method to make breads will result in lighter, fluffier breads with a longer shelf life. Even though that seems to be quoted commonly, proper evidence for this fact is actually very limited. So that leaves us to hypothesize what’s going on.

As we discussed, when you make a water roux, the starches in the flour will gelatinize. This process would normally also happen when baking bread. However, if would only happen during the final bake and not all starch would gelatinize. The amount of starch to gelatinize seems to depend, among other factors, on the water content of the dough. A higher water content will result in more gelatinized starch.

You want the starch to gelatinize to create a softer and bigger (thus lighter, less dense) bread. Some research has shown that pregelatinized flour (which is essentially what a water roux is) can help improve the quality of the bread. However, evidence is quite limited and not very convincing. As a matter of fact, simply changing the moisture content of a bread dough was shown to have similar effects as using the water roux.

Comparing donuts with & without water roux

Since the scientific literature wouldn’t tell us what was going on. We decided to test it ourselves. We made two batches of donuts, one contained a water roux (see recipe below). The other donut was identical in overall flour and water content, however, did not contain the water roux.

First of all, we noticed that the water roux dough needed more water to come together than the dough without a water roux. This made sense since the gelatinized flour was holding onto that water which then wasn’t accessible during mixing. Also, it was in agreement with previous research who found that water roux doughs do need more moisture.

After frying the donuts, those made with water roux were lighter and airier than those made without. The dough itself was also a little tougher to handle. However, since the two doughs needed adjusting for water content further optimizing of both recipes might have improved both. Suffice to say, there is a difference when using a water roux. But, you might be able to achieve similar outcomes by adjusting a non-water roux based donut recipe. The water roux donuts tasted great though, so worth a try, even if the evidence for them being softer isn’t as strong as we might have expected.

fried water roux donuts

Water roux in other doughs

Of course, you can use the water roux method in more products than just donuts. Research into water roux has looked into whole wheat breads for instance. By making a water roux out of some of the whole wheat flour you can pre-gelatinize the starch, but also pre-hydrate the whole wheat flour. Whole wheat flour contains the bran of a wheat kernel and this tends to make it harder to make it into a soft extensible dough. By making a water roux first though, you can help hydrate this bran.

We tested it out by making a 50% whole wheat flour (the rest is regular white bread flour) bread with two identical recipes. One used a water roux (made out of 100g of flour + 300g water), the other one did not. both breads turned out delicious but they clearly were different. The water roux dough was stiffer, it had clearly absorbed more moisture. As a result it was a little easier to shape into a ball. However, both breads tasted pretty much identical and apart from some visual differences couldn’t be distinguished.

fried water roux donuts

Water roux based donuts

Yield: 10-12 donuts + donut holes
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Additional Time: 2 hours
Total Time: 3 hours

These donuts are light and fluffy (but be careful, don't fry them for too long or they'll turn dry) thanks to the water roux in the dough. Don't just substitute the water roux for water + flour, the consistency will be very different (instead use our yeast donut recipe). This recipe was inspired by the 350 degree oven.

Ingredients

Water roux

  • 25g flour
  • 125g water

Dough

  • 245g flour (bread or all purpose)
  • 1 tbsp (15g) granulated sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp yeast
  • 60g water (option to use milk)
  • 1/2 egg
  • 20g butter
  • all the water roux

Frying supplies

  • Oil to fry in, e.g. sunflower, soy or peanut oil

Chocolate topping

  • 100g full fat cream
  • 100g chocolate (flavor of your choice

Instructions

Water Roux

  1. Mix cold water and flour in a pan. While continuously stirring, bring to a light boil on a low/medium heat. You will see it thicken as it goes, keep on stirring until you start to see bubbles.
  2. Take it off the heat and leave to cool to room temperature (don't add it straight to your dough! the high temperature will kill the yeast or, best case, speed up it way too fast). water roux: cooled down

Donut Dough

  1. Mix the flour with sugar, salt, and yeast.
  2. Add the milk, egg, and water roux and knead the dough until smooth. It's a little sticky, so using a (stand) mixer can come in handy.
  3. Once it's formed a smooth cohesive dough, add the butter and continue to knead until that's been fully incorporated. The resulting dough will be a little wet, but it should not be overly sticky. If so, add a little extra flour (1 tbsp at a time). It should remain a little wet so it doesn't lose its flexibility.
  4. Cover the dough and place it in a warm spot to prove. It should raise in size considerably, this might take anywhere from 45-90 minutes, depending on the activity of your yeast and the temperature of your ingredients and room.
  5. Gently take the dough out of your bowl and place it on a flour-covered surface. You'll need a little flour to prevent sticking.
  6. Roll the dough into a flat sheet. Don't go too thin or your donuts won't puff up as nice. Use a large and small round cutter to cut out donuts (use a size you have at hand, the exact size is not that important).
  7. Place the rings of the donut on a flour-dusted surface or on an oiled surface. Either way works well to prevent sticking (and don't worry about too much oil, you'll be frying these so they will be placed in hot oil).water roux donuts ready to fry
  8. Leave to proof for approx. another 30 minutes, until they've clearly puffed up again (they'll still be quite flat, the final puffing will happen when frying!).
  9. Fry the donuts in oil of 170-180C (338-356F). They will pop up as soon as you put them in, turn them rather quickly (until the top has just set) and continue to fry until both sides are a light golden brown (approx. 2-4 minutes).
  10. Take them from the oil and soak them on a kitchen towel. Leave to cool to room temperature.
  11. While they are cooling down, melt chocolate in the microwave and mix in the cream. Spread on top of your donuts and enjoy!

Resources

Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking; find our review here

Baking Industry Research Trust, Starch, link

Jenni Field, Tangzhong Bread Recipe | Perfect Pain au Lait Sandwich Bread, Pastry chef online, 2013, link.

Shigehiro NAITO+, Shinji FUKAMI,, Yasuyuki MIZOKAMI,, Rieko HIROSE-, Koji KAWASHIMA.,
Hiroyuki TAKANO/, Nobuaki ISHIDA+, Mika KOIZUMI+ and Hiromi KANO, The Effect of Gelatinized Starch on Baking Bread, Food Sci. Technol. Res., 11 (2), 194-201, 2005, link

Ottavia Parenti∗, Lorenzo Guerrini, Valentina Canuti, Giulia Angeloni, Piernicola Masella,
Bruno Zanon, The effect of the addition of gelatinized flour on dough rheology and quality
of bread made from brown wheat flour, LWT – Food Science & Technology, 106 (2019), 240-246, link

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22 Comments

  1. Hi there! Loved your scientific analysis of tang zhong (aka water roux). This is a technique we often use in making Japanese or Asian style “milk breads” to make them soft and fluffy (without going stale too fast).

  2. Glad you found my article useful. I love the Tangzhong method. And now I *need* to give it a try with doughnuts, although just like with you, mine would be gone too quickly to see if Tangzhong extends shelf life! lol

  3. Hi i just did your recipe using water roux.. Is it normal? Cause my dough is soft and sticky? Thank you

    • Hello, thank you for coming by! The dough is slightly more sticky and wet than a normal bread dough due to the water roux and high moisture content. However, you should be able to roll it out. Here are a few tips that might help: make sure that when you make the roux it has thickened up properly (it shouldn’t flow freely anymore). If it still feels too wet after it has risen, feel free to add some extra flour to knead and form it (it’s a pretty delicate dough, so be generous with flour to prevent it from sticking to the surface). Last but not least, I’ve noticed that flours from different regions require more of less water, if your dough hasn’t come together into a ball before adding the water roux but is still very wet, add some extra flour to compensate. Hope this helps!

  4. Hi, is the milk 60 gE in liquid or Powder ? Sorry This is My first time trying water Roux donut .
    Thank you !

    • Hi Tyler,

      Thanks for coming by! The majority of sources I have found state it is Japanese so I based my statement on that. That said, it is also used by the Chinese and I found statements for both, a few examples for Japanese are this one or this one) or this one, for Chinese I found this one.
      As usual with food history, origin stories of food tend to be messy and not super clear, so it might have been either. If you have a reliable source for me to quote on the Chinese origin, I’d be happy to include that as well!

  5. Is there any specific ratio, I have my own doughnut recipe and it already has water, more butter and eggs than yours per cup of flour.
    I already use a roux but I feel you use about 12.5%( roux) flour weight compared to the flour used in the actual dough recipe(20g/160gx100=12.5%). Is this a good ratio or will it be affected by my increased butter/water/milk levels so I will need less of the roux.
    Hope that makes sense.

    • Hi Dan,

      There is no ‘perfect’ roux:flour ratio, there’s some flexibility there. A few watch outs and tips, hope that helps answer your question:

      • Using too much roux will make your dough very hard to handle, it will become too sticky. Also, using more roux would limit your use of other liquids.
      • Of course, using too little roux won’t give you the effect of using water roux in a noticeable so I wouldn’t go lower than 7.5-10%.
      • Does your extra water/butter/eggs/milk take into account the water used in the roux in my recipe? If not, you could transfer some of your liquids into the roux. For instance, if you prefer using more milk as opposed to water in your recipe, it is possible to add milk to the roux instead of water. Milk does have a tendency to brown a bit faster, so keep that in mind.
      • If you plan on using more roux you will have to further reduce the amount of moisture in the rest of the dough. As a result, you will have to add the roux earlier on in the kneading process since else the dough won’t come together. In my case for instance, I could add another 10g of flour to the roux by adding the 60ml of milk to the roux. Keep in mind that while making your roux you do evaporate some moisture, so I might still want to add 10-20ml of milk to the dough later on to make up for that.
      • Hope that helps, and if it doesn’t answer your questions fully yet, please let me know!

  6. Hello, I was wondering how you would adapt any donut recipe to include the roux. I have one that I really like but would love to incorporate a roux to extend shelf life. Is there some sort of formula?

    • Hi Cheryl,

      Yes! You can definitely incorporate a water roux into an existing recipe. You might need to experiment a little since the roux does tend to soften your dough so handling may be slightly different. Some tips for a first try:

      • Take out roughly 10-15% of your flour out of your recipe. Use this to make your roux. Take that quantity (in weight, not volume measurements) and multiply it by 6 to know how much moisture to add (in my case: 20g flour + 120g water). Take that amount of moisture out of your recipe. A water roux is made with water, but, if you prefer using milk in your current recipe, you could also use that, take care since it might brown a little faster.
      • Follow your regular recipe for making donuts, but take care to add less moisture and flour and instead add the water roux you made. Make sure the water roux has cooled down to room temperature or slightly above so it doesn’t cook your eggs. To be sure, I would advise holding back another 10% of your moisture. Only add this when the dough consistency is clearly too dry. The water roux can make doughs a little more sticky and moist so your main concern would be to balance that out.

      Hope that helps! Good luck 🙂

      • Alright! Thank you for your message. I will do just that, follow your instructions and test with a 1/4 of the recipe. I’ll be doing some math this weekend

  7. hello, i’ve tried this recipe for the first time and its just amazing! the best one so far!

    but i do have one question, can you freeze the dough? and if yes how long can you keep it in the freezer before it goes bad?

    • Hi Gabriella,

      Yes, you can freeze this dough. I would recommend freezing it right after you’ve cut the dough into circles, just before the last raise. That was, when you thaw them, you can wake up the yeast and ensure that last proof happens for a nice and fluffy donut. From a food safety perspective, you can freeze it almost indefinitely (assuming your freezer is at -18C/0F). However, the dough can dry out over time because of freezer burn. As such, I would recommend freezing the rings on a tray in the freezer until they’re solid. Then put them in a sturdy plastic bag together and get rid of as much air as possible and wrap as tight as possible. That way you should at least be able to store them for 2-3 months.

      Good luck and glad to hear you’ve enjoyed the recipe!

  8. Plain flour not s. W. B. Flour.
    Roll out to 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick
    3 inch diam cutter and 1 inch cutter for centre.

  9. Hi, i just tried this recipe and it utterly failed! after the batch fermentation, it didn’t rise AT ALL, and the dough was so wet it didn’t stick together at all. When i look at the hydration percentage, taking into account water and milk, it’s at 100% hydration, which seems wrong. Any clue what I could have done wrong?

    • Hi Shelley,

      This was quite an old recipe (>5years) so we had to re-do the recipe to figure out what might have gone wrong. You were right, we noticed that there was an error in the recipe, it did not contain enough flour at all. We’ve upped the flour content and that made it work perfectly again! Our apologies for the error, but hope you’ll give it a try again. That water roux really does make a difference :-)!

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