Whenever I make pâte à choux, I end up with flat little disks and not nice fluffy cream puffs or gougères. What’s the secret to making sure they don’t flop?
— Jeanne A., Nashville, Tennessee
Great timing, Jeanne, because I was just reading Michael Ruhlman's new book, Ratio, in which he calls pâte à choux “one of the coolest flour-and-water preparations in the kitchen,” but laments that “it’s not typically part of the home cook’s repertoire.”
I was thinking to myself, “That’s great, Michael, but what can I do to further the cause of pâte à choux in our cooking culture?”
All I had to do was open my email, and you were there for me.
Pâte à choux (it rhymes approximately with “gotta shoe”) literally means “cabbage dough,” according to my Scotch-taped Putnam French-English dictionary. (It’s a 1969 edition and unfortunately lacks entries for “groovy” or “far out.” Like, bummer.)
When baked, balls of PAC puff up like reverse 3-D Shrinky Dinks into shapes that I guess sort of look like heads of cabbage.
Once mastered, PAC is the basis for tons of tasty baked treats, including cream puffs, profiteroles (ice-cream-filled puffs), éclairs (“lightning,” according to Putnam), French crullers, gougères (cheese puffs), chouquettes, and more. They can also be fried to make beignets or pets de nonnes, which means — and I am not making this up — “nuns’ farts.”
PAC is easy to make, and it makes you look like a fancy-pants pastry chef. And you can drop F (French, that is) bombs at dinner if you want. What’s not to like?
PAC is made by mixing flour into boiling water and butter and cooking it briefly to stiffen it, then mixing in eggs one by one. Ruhlman reports the standard ratio as 2 parts water, 1 part butter, 1 part flour, and 2 parts egg (by weight). The only arguably hard part is mixing in the eggs, and that’s only if you’re doing it by hand (as an homage to the post-Revolution French housewife, perhaps).
Then, depending on the recipe, it’s usually spooned or piped onto a baking sheet and baked. I suspect a lot of cooks are intimidated by the whole piping deal (I don’t own a pastry bag), but a zip-top plastic bag with one corner cut off does the job just fine.
To me, the magic of pâte à choux is in the rising. There’s no added leavening — no yeast or baking powder — in the recipe. So what’s going on?
When subjected to high heat, the liquid in the dough (or maybe it’s technically a batter, but that’s another column) turns to steam, which is trapped by proteins to hold the new (inflated) shape. It’s technically called “mechanical leavening,” and it’s the same trick that puffs popovers, Dutch babies, and Yorkshire pudding.
According to Corriher, eggs are like PAC Viagra (paraphrasing), so you want to get as many eggs (and their gas-trapping proteins) into the dough as possible while still keeping it firm enough to hold its shape on the tray.
To achieve this, she recommends using high-protein flour (bread flour), which absorbs more water, and thus allows you to add more eggs without over-hydrating the dough. You can also substitute egg whites for some of the whole eggs for an even airier result.
The next trick is to focus the oven heat so that most of it comes from the bottom during the early part of the cooking process. Preheat your oven to a medium heat, such as 300 degrees Fahrenheit. When you add the tray of puffs, kick it up to the target temperature (probably 450 or so). With the heating element at the bottom of most ovens, this will light a fire (so to speak) under the puffs and give them a big steam boost, while at the same time keeping the tops relatively moist and flexible so they can expand.
As the oven heats, the tops will firm and turn golden brown, at which point you should lower the heat to a more moderate 300 or so to finish cooking the insides without burning the outsides. The insides need to be sufficiently set or else your puffs might collapse when you take them out of the oven, and that’s not a fun date for anyone.
Once your puffs have cooled, you can serve them and collect accolades on the spot, or freeze them for later.
Based in Portland, Oregon, Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees. Email questions for the Ask Hank column to AskHank@culinate.com.
Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees, and an intense curiosity about food and cooking. Follow Hank’s blog, Sous Vide Jones.
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