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Six ingredients, a fancy French name, and the promise of great pastries.
If there’s one classic French pastry recipe to have in your back pocket, it’s pâte à choux. It’s one of those totally technique-based foods that alone isn’t so special. But it’s the foundation for incredibly tasty treats like éclairs, cream puffs, and (my favorite) crullers—the lightly crisp but dreamily soft fried pastry that rivals even my favorite yeast-raised doughnut.
(Note: There are also varieties of crullers that are made with yeast-raised dough and more similar to a traditional doughnut, but the traditional French cruller is made using pâte à choux. Second Note: Both are equally, if not differently, delicious.)
I adore the process of making pâte à choux, primarily because of its fancy French name (oui oui!), but also because it’s one of the most flexible baking items I’ve ever made: Unlike so many baking recipes, this one allows for wiggle room in several areas.
There are a few things to know about pâte à choux, but there are lots of elements working in your favor, too: The ingredient list is short and the procedure is relatively quick. All the in-between stuff is easily mastered once you know the basics:
1. The ingredients.
Here’s the good news: There aren’t a lot of them. Six max, to be more precise. With that being said, these six ingredients have a lot of variables to consider. Pâte à choux is typically made with liquid (meaning water or milk), butter, flour, salt, and eggs.
The first debate in pâte à choux world: Water or milk? Some folks swear all milk is the way to go. Others say don’t waste milk—water does just fine. I’ve always used 50/50, so I’m pretty much toeing a neutral line on this argument. Essentially, the only real difference is that the additional fats, sugars, and proteins in the milk can promote more (and more even) browning of the choux when it’s baked. The milk also contributes (somewhat nominally) to tenderness, though the butter in the recipe pretty much takes care of that already.
I like the browning results, but I also like how crispy choux products made with water are, which is why I opt for a combination. But water alone definitely works. Basically, if you’ve got enough milk in your fridge to spare some, I’d recommend using it. But if you’ve only got enough for two cups of morning coffee, skip it—your choux won’t suffer.
The second thing to consider when scaling out your pâte à choux recipe is the type of flour. Some recipes (including mine) call for bread flour. I use it for a few reasons. For one thing, the higher protein levels make stronger gluten strands. Unlike so many doughs and batters, which you aim to mix effectively yet minimally in order to create a tender end product, pâte à choux needs a significant amount of structure to maintain the proper rise and resulting crispness.
Additionally, the higher the protein levels in the flour, the more moisture it can absorb. This is the basis of the whole cooking process. In pastry school, we used a mix of bread flour and pastry or cake flour— the combination of which is closest to the protein levels to all-purpose flour. For all the precision in baking, I’m amazed at how many pâte à choux recipes (even from very reliable sources) simply call for “flour” without specifying which kind. In the end, I believe you can effectively use all-purpose, but I would suggest bread flour if you have it.
Finally, the eggs. No matter how precisely you follow a recipe for pâte à choux, the eggs are a finicky part of the equation. How many you need can—and will—vary depending on how much moisture loss occurs during the cooking process, as well as the size of the eggs themselves. The best way to know for sure is to master your favorite recipe and note the amount of eggs you used by weight. Until then, plan on having an extra egg or two on hand when you’re mixing (more on this later).
The first step of pâte à choux involves your stovetop and the making of the panade, which is the also-fancy French word used to describe the roux (of sorts) that’s the base of pâte à choux (it’s called choux once you add the eggs in the next step).
In a medium pot (leave room to allow yourself some vigorous stirring space), bring the milk and/or water, butter, and salt to a boil. I opt to use a pretty gentle heat here—it’s important to avoid scalding and there’s no sugar to help minimize that process. Stick to medium or medium-low and just know it may take a little longer.
Once you’ve brought your liquid and fat mixture to a boil, add your flour all at once (side note: I find the action of dumping the flour into a pot of boiling liquid, stamping it down, and watching it turn into a paste incredibly satisfying). This process sets the stage for everything that is to follow.
In addition to the formation of the dough ball, look for a film to form at the bottom of the pan—this is the sign that the starches in the flour have absorbed the water effectively and have gelatinized. This is part of what plays into the proper rise of the dough later on and creates a hollow center.
Pâte à choux contains a proportionately high level of moisture, much like popover or pancake batter. But unlike those products, pâte à choux has a crisp exterior and a firm structure because the flour absorbs so much moisture. The flour sucks up all the moisture and gelatinizes; then, during the second cooking (baking for éclairs or cream puffs, frying for crullers), the moisture is released in the form of steam, which creates one large air bubble. That bubble expands and expands until the structure sets, leaving the interior hollow. Once the ball has formed around your spoon and there's a film at the base of the pot, you’re golden.
After the time at the stove, transfer your paste to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. (Note: You can mix pâte à choux by hand, but it’s better in a mixer for many reasons—most of which lead to one thing: consistency. If you must mix by hand, transfer the paste to a large, heat-safe bowl and use a wooden spoon. Also, be prepared for an arm workout.)
Some recipes will tell you to let the paste cool for 5 minutes (or more) so that you don’t scramble the eggs when you add them. I’ve never followed this rule, and research shows I’m not alone! I turn the mixer on low speed and mix it for 30 seconds to 1 minute to help cool the dough down a little, but then I just add the eggs; I start by adding them in a thin stream to help bring things to a more regulated temperature. But if you’re die-hard against this (or just scared), let the pâte à choux chill out in the bowl for 5 minutes or so before you begin the next step.
Whisk the eggs required by the recipe together in a container with a spout (like a liquid measuring cup), but keep your spare eggs nearby. With the mixer running, add the eggs in a stream, and then mix on medium speed until fully combined. You want to add as many eggs as the batter can feasibly hold while maintaining the correct texture. Why? You’re making an emulsion! The egg yolk helps emulsify the fat (butter) with the gelatinized flour to form one smooth dough. The protein in the eggs also promotes stability, and the albumen in the whites promotes drying out—it’s a negative for most baked goods, but not for choux, which we want to be super crisp!
Once the eggs have been fully incorporated, stop the mixer and take the bowl and paddle off. Dip the paddle into the choux and lift it up—it should form a V shape, eventually breaking off from the batter in the bowl, hanging off the paddle and holding the V.
If it breaks off too quickly or is just generally stiff, you need to add more eggs. Start with one, whisking it and adding it in the same fashion, then test for the V again. This will probably be enough, but if not, use part of or the whole second egg. Hopefully this trick will ensure you don’t end up with a too-dry choux (which is hard to pipe and also won’t brown or crisp as nicely).
As I said earlier, once you find a recipe you love, you won’t have to experiment like this. Up to this point, a lot of factors have played into the texture of the batter: You may have experienced a little evaporation of the liquid before you added the flour, or you may be using a flour that absorbs less moisture than the bread flour I use. But once you find your perfect balance, there’ll be no guessing game.
This is one of the trickier parts of working with pâte à choux. Proper piping will lead to the correct shape, and it can also contribute to the evenness of finished results (especially when baking). Whatever you’re making, be it crullers, cream puffs, or éclairs, aim for evenness in shape, size, and placement on the sheet tray. It also helps if the parchment paper is adhered to the baking sheet; do this by putting a small amount of choux at the corners of the parchment to weigh it down.
To pipe crullers, you’ll want to use a star tip inside a pastry bag to make the signature ridges. Cut 3-inch squares of parchment paper and pipe the dough onto each square in a round (you can trace circles onto the bottom of the parchment as a guide if you want). You want a pretty wide round with a hole in the center.
Stop squeezing just before you reach the beginning of the circle and let the batter remaining in the tip fall to the circle. If there’s a noticeable ridge or extra batter, dip your finger into water and press it gently to help it meld into the other dough.
This step is worth noting, though not strictly required. The batter, even properly made, still has a pretty flowy texture. This means that as soon as it hits the frying oil, the ridges may disappear. To prevent this, freeze the piped crullers on a baking sheet for 30 minutes to 1 hour before frying.
While this is specifically for crullers, resting applies to baked pâte à choux too. Letting piped pâte à choux rest before baking helps it form a skin on the surface. In my experience, this leads to more even browning during baking, and a better, more even rise.
6. Frying (or baking).
Fry crullers in 350 to 360° F oil. If you’ve frozen them first, you can remove them from the parchment. If you haven’t, leave the parchment on—the crullers will release from it as soon as the structure sets and then you can just pull the paper out.
Fry until very golden brown—if you under-fry, they’ll be doughy instead of crisp. When fried properly, they’ll have a lightly crisp exterior and a soft, slightly hollow interior. Transfer to a wire rack set on a sheet tray lined with absorbent paper towels and allow to cool completely.
If you’re baking pâte à choux in the form of éclairs or cream puffs, bake at 375° F. My favorite instructor in pastry school taught me a trick for pâte à choux that works gloriously, but I have to confess I have no idea why (food scientists out there, lend me your ears!): Bake the pâte à choux until it just begins to turn golden and the structure is set. Remove the sheet trays from the oven and cool completely to room temperature. Then return the cooled pâte à choux to the oven and bake until fully golden and very crisp. For some reason, this process makes the pâte à choux brown very evenly. Like, crazily perfectly evenly. I don’t know why or how (but oh, how I want to!).
For the record, pâte à choux will still be delicious and look pretty good if you skip this step. But the rewards if you don’t are worth the minimal extra effort.
One other thing to keep in mind when baking pâte à choux instead of frying: When baking is finished, cut a vent in the side or base of the éclair or cream puff and return them to the oven. Turn the oven off, and let the pâte à choux dry out in there for 5 minutes or so. This just helps to ensure extra crispness as the last of the steam will escape through the vent.
Crullers are traditionally finished in a thin, sweet glaze. The finishing options for éclairs and cream puffs are too numerous to detail: Seriously, have you seen some of the amazing éclairs bakeries are producing nowadays? But bonus points for chocolate and caramel in any form—it’s just crazy good with the extra crispy pâte à choux, especially when it’s custard-filled.
Crullers are best served the same day they are made. I haven’t tried holding the frozen crullers (pre-frying) for longer than a day or two in the freezer, but I imagine it should work okay. Baked pâte à choux can be frozen after baking and cooling. Store in airtight bags for up to 3 months. Re-crisp in a 350° F oven for 5 to 10 minutes and cool completely before filling and finishing.
Photos by James Ransom, Bobbi Lin, Camille Becerra, and Yossy Arefi