Choux pastry truly is a little piece of magic. It starts out as a small little ball of dough, but turns into a light, airy and fluffy hollow ball in the oven! It makes delicious profiteroles, éclairs, cream puffs and Bossche bollen (a speciality from the South of the Netherlands).
Recipes for choux pastry might look very complicated. You have to heat butter and water, mix it with flour and it somehow seems complicated. But, that’s mostly because it is such a different type of dough! Once you understand why you have to take those steps, it will become a lot easier to do and understand.
In this post we’ll zoom in on the science and reasoning behind a recipe. At the end you should know how to make a good choux pastry and understand what all the different steps are for (and which steps you can skip). And learn that it’s not at all that hard to make!
What is choux pastry?
Choux pastry is the dough that makes profiteroles (see photo on top of this post), but also those beautiful éclairs. The main characteristic of choux pastry is that it forms a very airy structure with large holes that are ideal for introducing a filling into.
Choux pastry itself is savoury and doesn’t have a lot of flavour, it’s quite neutral, maybe a little eggy. That’s why the filling tends to be the element that makes a snack with choux pastry really stand out.
Making choux pastry
Choux pastry is its own type of dough. It’s probably most similar to hot water crust pastry since both doughs require you to cook the dough, before you put it into the oven. The dough is then baked in the oven which is when it puffs up.
Choux pastry is made of 4 ingredients, and each of these has a clear role in the recipe:
- The water is required to make a flexible dough.
- The butter serves to give the dough a richer feel and flavour. If no butter would be added, the choux would have more of a bread like consistency.
- The flour gives structure to the final bun.
- The reason eggs are added are various. First of all, it adds extra moisture to the mixture and makes it more flexible. It needs flexibility to expand. Second of all, the proteins will form a sturdy structure when heated, this will support the airy shape of the profiteroles. Third, eggs contain fat and prevent the puff from becoming dry.
What you’re trying to do while making the pastry, is to create a dough that is soft enough to expand, but firm enough to hold onto its shape before and after baking. To do so, you need to follow four steps:
- Heat up the water and butter
- Mix through the flour
- Add your eggs
- Bake the choux buns!
Step 1: Boiling butter & water
You start by heating up the butter and water for various reasons. First of all, the butter has to melt, else we won’t be able to mix it through evenly, you might end up with lumps of butter. Also, the soft butter softens the overall dough consistency. When it cools down again, it will contribute to its firmness. Second of all, we need that heat to ‘cook’ the flour in the next step.
Most recipes call for bringing the water and butter to the boil. The reason for doing so is that it helps accelerate the next step. That said, you can still make perfectly fine choux pastry if you just heat the two enough for the butter to melt. You might need to stir a little longer in step 2 because you have to make up for that lost heat.
Step 2: Mixing flour with warm liquids
Once the butter and water are nice and warm, it’s time to add the flour. Just about all recipes say to add it all in at once and stir quickly. you should continue stirring until the flour + water & butter mixture form a nice ball. It shouldn’t puddle and that ball should still be soft and flexible.
During this step you accomplish an important step of choux pastry making: you cook the flour. The starch in the flour needs to gelatinize. When flour and hot water are mixed the starch granules within the flour will absorb water and ultimately swell and possibly explode. This releases starch molecules and is what thickens the mixture here. You need enough heat for this to happen.
It is important not to stir the mixture for a lot longer than after it has formed the ball like consistency. If you continue stirring and heating the binding power of the starch can go down (kind of what happens to some more extreme in a dark roux). We did test heating and mixing it for a little longer than necessary. It did turn a little clumpy but the final profiteroles still turned out fine. Showing that there’s some flexiblity.
Why not merge step 1 and 2?
Technically, it is possible to add the butter, water and flour to a pan and heat and stir them all together from the beginning. For smaller quantities especially, your profiteroles can still come out perfectly fine. However, it is a lot more of a hassle. You need to be more careful not to get lumps or not to burn the mixture.
So why doesn’t the method really matter that much? Well, the main purpose of this treatment is to melt the butter, heat the flour, gelatinize the flour and form a thick paste. Whether you do that by heating on the fire or preheating liquid doesn’t really matter, as long as you mix everything homogeneously and don’t burn anything. The science stays the same!
Forgetting the butter or water
So what will happen if you forget either the butter or the water? In both cases, you’re up for a bit of a challenge, but there can be ways to fix it.
Forgetting the butter: This could give you a more chewy/firmer pastry. By whisking the flour and water without the butter, you run the risk of developing the gluten. Also, it’ll be hard to mix in the butter homogeneously in the little flour ball that will have formed. It’s probably best to start all over.
Forgetting the water: This shouldn’t give you as much trouble, the butter and flour will form a roux. As long as you remember in time that you’ve forgotten the water, you can still add it and thicken up the mixture.
Step 3: Adding the eggs
Now that you’ve got your ball of pastry, it’s time to take a break and leave it to cool down. You have to cool it down before adding the eggs, or you run the risk of cooking the eggs prematurely!
Eggs contain proteins. These proteins will curdle and set when the egg is heating. This is what happens when boiling or frying an egg. You want this curdling to happen once the eggs are in the oven since it will help stabilize the final profiterole. But you don’t want this to happen prematurely or they won’t be able to flex and stabilize the newly expanded structure anymore.
Step 4: Baking the profiteroles/choux pastry
Now that the eggs have been added, it’s time for the final step: baking the choux pastry. The choux pastry is placed on trays in either balls or longer slivers, depending on your final preferred shape.
During baking, the doughy, heavy pastry is converted into a light and airy puff, as is shown below. The dough is such that it is very flexible but also contains a lot of water. Because the flour has already firmed up during gelatinization it won’t break but expand because of all the evaporation of moisture inside the puff.
- 50ml water
- 25g butter
- 30g flour
- 1 eggs
- 125ml milk
- 1 egg yolks
- 25g sugar
- 12,5g flour
- Add butter and water to a pan and heat it until it's boiling.
- Turn down the fire.
- Add all flour in one go and stir through, be quick here and keep on stirring until it has formed a ball.
- Turn off the heat and leave to cool.
- Once cooled to room temperature mix through the egg.
- Pre-heat the oven at 200C-210C.
- Place the mixture on a baking tray covered with baking paper. Make small piles of mixture, remember, they will puff up quite a bit so keep them small!
- Bake in the oven for 25minutes. They should start puffing up after about 10 minutes. Keep them in the oven until they are a nice golden brown and are dry on the inside.
- Heat the milk in a pan to just below the boiling point.
- Mix sugar and egg yolk. Once that's mixed, mix in the flour (do not mix in the flour from the start, it will make it a lot harder to mix without any clumps!).
- Slowly pour in a little of the warm milk and whisk through immediately (you have to make sure that the egg doesn't cook here, so mix quickly).
- Pour in the rest of the milk and whisk through.
- Pour the mixture back into the pan and heat while stirring. The mixture will thicken up, once it's thickened, take it off the fire and leave to cool.
- The creme patissiere will thicken further upon cooling so don't worry if it's not yet as thick as you would like. If it stays too thin try putting it back on the fire and heat through a little more.
If you want one of those perfectly round puffs, you can add a craquelin on top. It also gives your puffs just a little more oompf.