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 little hollow ball in the oven! It makes delicious profiteroles, éclairs, cream puffs and Bossche bollen (a speciality from the South of the Netherlands). There’s a few little tips and tricks to make sure the choux pastry does turn out light and fluffy.
Recipes for choux pastry might look very complicated, however, 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!
Already got your choux pastry under control? Then it’s time to make a filling, for example (our favorite), this creme patissiere!
What is choux pastry?
Not really sure what choux pastry is? 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 can be filled with any filling. Choux pastry itself is savoury and doesn’t have a lot of flavour, it’s quite neutral, therefore the filling tends to be the element that makes a snack with choux pastry really stand out.
Making choux pastry
Choux pastry is a dough that has to be cooked, before baking in the oven. This makes it slightly different from most others. The process above describes the cooking section. Once you have this dough, dose it in smaller balls and bake in the oven (220°C, duration strongly depends on the size).
Now that we know how it’s done, let’s zoom in on why it’s done that way.
Step 1: Boiling butter & water
Choux pastry is made of only a few 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.
Why heat the butter and water?
There are two reasons here. First of all, the butter has to melt, else we won’t get a soft and flexible dough and won’t be able to mix it in. Second, we need the two ingredients to be warm to make sure the strach in the flour of the next step will gelatinize.
Gelatinization? Flour contains starch and when starch is mixed in hot water, it will absorb water and start swelling. This will give a nice thick gluey consistency. This is very similar to what happens when using flour to thicken the filling in a pie or when making a roux for a bechamel sauce or for donuts.
A question does rise up. Why boil the water and butter and not just heat it?
Step 2: Mixing flour with warm liquids
It’s time to add the flour now. Just about all recipes say to add all in at once and stir quickly. It should be stirred until the dough forms a ball. This will give the right consistency to continue and shows that enough water has been absorbed and starch gelatinized.
But why can’t we merge these two steps into one (so just heat water + butter + flour and mix while heating)?
In order to see whether the two steps can indeed be merged, I performed a little experiment. I made a total of four different batches in which I changed steps 1 and 2. However, the last few steps, mixing in the egg and baking in the oven at 220°C for 10-12 minutes were done in the same way. Here’s what those batches looked like.
|Batch 1||Batch 2||Batch 3||Batch 4|
First of all: all 4 methods gave puffy profiteroles! All four methods worked fine without any big issues. We, non-profiteroles/choux pastry experts couldn’t taste a difference. Only difference was that those of recipe 2 might have puffed a little less, but still, they puffed.
So what happened? Let’s start with recipe 3. After adding in the flour with the melted butter and water, the mixture looked very liquid, see photo below. However, I just kept stirring and heating the mixture, and voila! It turned into a ball as well (photo on the left). This is exactly what happens when making a roux.
|Recipe 3, after it’s been heated and stirred for a little longer||Recipe 3, just after the flour has been added to the butter & water|
|Recipe 2, after it had been heated in the pan too long.||The inside of a nice little puff|
The exact same happened for recipe 4. It needed some careful stirring, but in the end it also turned out fine. The main risk with method 4, especially if you’re making larger batches, is that it will be harder to mix everything into a homogeneous mass without anything burning before all butter has melted. Apart from that, it works just fine.
Continued heating of the ball after the ball has been formed doesn’t make it look very appealing (see photo, you can see clumps, it seems to have separated). However, it also turned out just fine at the end!
I prefer method 4 since it just saves time and fuss. But, when making large quantities (think more than a kg or so), I would prefer method 1 (the original one) since it’ll be harder to whisk that through.
So why doesn’t the method really matter that much? Well, as I explained above, 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!
There are of course a lot of other changes we could test. We won’t do that here, except for one. What if you notice that you forgot to add either water or butter to your mixture after adding the flour?
Forgetting the butter: My hypothesis is that 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. My advice: start over. Note that with the other recipes (e.g. scones & pies), butter can prevent extensive gluten formation.
Forgetting the water: This shouldn’t give you as much trouble. It’ll be a little like making a rough. Just remember fast enough that you’ve forgotten the water, else your roux will turn brown, you’r making a dark roux and this will be very flavourful, but doesn’t have as much thickening power.
Step 3: Adding the eggs
Ok, we’ve finally made our ball of nearly-finished choux pastry. Now it’s time to take a break and leave it to cool down. Unfortunately, no short cuts here, do not skip cooling! Why?
Eggs contain proteins (learn more here). 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 (more about that later), not before. By cooling down the mixture before adding the eggs curdling of the eggs is prevented.
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. This is the curdling and denaturation I was just talking about when discussing the moment at which to add the eggs. Third, eggs contain fat and prevent the puff from becoming dry.
Step 4: Baking the profiteroles/choux pastry
Now that the eggs have been added, it’s time for the final step: baking the pastry. Make little balls of the dough and place these on a baking tray. The choux pastry should be baked at 220°C, probably 10-12 minutes (if you’re making small profiteroles, else it will be longer).
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.
That’s it, now your all set to make some delicious profiteroles. While they’re baking, be sure to check out how to make creme patissiere. The puffs themselves are pretty bland in flavour (they don’t have any sugar) and this creamy filling will make it into a perfect little snack.
Profiteroles – the recipe
Since you can’t really eat choux pastry by itself, the recipe below also contains a suggestion for a filling: creme patissiere. Of course, feel free to ad other fillings such as whipped cream or jams.
- 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 of 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.