Introduction to tangzhong: an intriguing technique for softer yeast bread and rolls

How can you elevate your favorite dinner rolls to new levels of pillow-y softness — in one simple step? Ditto your old-fashioned sandwich bread, tender cinnamon rolls, and gooey sticky buns. The answer: tangzhong, the Asian yeast bread technique that’s gradually making its way into American kitchens.

These days, with “artisan” the byword for many yeast bakers, we aspire to breads that are ever more crusty/chewy: pizza crust, baguettes, bagels.

Introduction to tangzhong via @kingarthurflour

But let’s not lose sight of a whole world of classic soft yeast breads: the sliced white bread of our youthful sandwiches, the Sunday morning platter of tender sticky buns.

Sadly, all too often our quest for super-soft rolls falls far short of our dreams. The brioche buns are oddly dry and chewy; the cinnamon rolls, downright tough. What’s a frustrated baker to do?

Tangzhong: the quick and easy path to softer, more tender dinner rolls, sandwich loaves, and cinnamon buns. Click To Tweet

Try tangzhong

This Japanese technique cooks a small percentage of the flour and liquid (water or milk) in a yeast recipe very briefly before combining the resulting thick slurry with the remaining ingredients.

How does this technique affect yeast dough? It pre-gelatinizes the starches in the flour, meaning they can absorb more water. In fact, flour will absorb twice as much hot water or milk as it does the cool/lukewarm water or milk you’d usually use in yeast dough.

Not only does the starch in the flour absorb more liquid; since heating the starch with water creates structure, it’s able to hold onto that extra liquid throughout the kneading, baking, and cooling processes. Which in turn means:

• Since there’s less free (unabsorbed) water in the dough, it’s less sticky and easier to knead;

• The bread or rolls may rise higher, due to more water creating more internal steam (which makes bread rise in the oven — along with the carbon dioxide given off by the yeast);

• Having retained more water during baking, bread and rolls will be moister, and will stay soft and fresh longer. 

We currently have just a few recipes using tangzhong on our website; as we become more familiar with the method, we hope to add more.

Introduction to tangzhong via @kingarthurflour

One of our current recipes using tangzhong is Soft Cinnamon Rolls. An enthusiastic reader review recently caught our eye:

“This is the best cinnamon roll recipe ever! I have been making cinnamon rolls for 55 years and have never found a recipe quite like this. These rolls stay soft a long time — up to a week… I mail cinnamon rolls to childhood friends who live a great distance from me. Even if it takes the postal service a week to deliver the rolls, they are still soft!” — Retired editor from Upper Sandusky, OH

That’s tangzhong in a nutshell: soft rolls (or bread) that stay soft for an extended period, making them perfect for shipping, or simply for making one day, then enjoying the next. And the next, and the next…

While nothing beats a freshly baked, oven-warm roll, tangzhong delivers results that are a very close second — without the pressure of having to bake right before serving.

Putting tangzhong to the test

Let’s see how this works with our recipe for Easy Hot Cross Buns.

As directed in a tip at the bottom of the recipe, I measure out the total amount of flour and milk I’ll be using in the recipe.

Introduction to tangzhong via @kingarthurflour

Now I take 3 tablespoons of the measured flour and 1/2 cup of the measured milk and put them in a saucepan set over medium-high heat (left, above). I cook the mixture, whisking constantly; it quickly starts to thicken (right, above).

Introduction to tangzhong via @kingarthurflour

Within a minute or so the mixture becomes a thick slurry.

I transfer the cooked mixture to a bowl, let it cool to lukewarm, then combine it with the remaining flour, milk, and other dough ingredients.

Introduction to tangzhong via @kingarthurflour

I proceed with the recipe as directed: kneading the dough (above); letting it rise; shaping the buns; letting them rise, and baking.

Introduction to tangzhong via @kingarthurflour

Icing atop the cooled buns is the final touch.Introduction to tangzhong via @kingarthurflour

Tangzhong yields soft, moist, tender buns

It’s impossible to photograph soft, tender texture and extended shelf life. But here’s a bun I broke open after a couple of days on the counter (well wrapped, of course). It’s moist, soft, and delicious.

Four days post-baking, the buns were just starting to dry out a bit. But contrast that to the typical sweet roll, which often seems to toughen up within hours of its emergence from the oven.

As a long-time devoted fan of soft bread and rolls, I’m sold on tangzhong. We’ve gradually been adding recipes to our site that use this technique, such as Japanese Milk Bread Rolls and Soft Cinnamon Rolls.

Introduction to tangzhong via @kingarthurflour

We’ve also retrofitted existing recipes to incorporate tangzhong: Easy Hot Cross Buns, Classic Sandwich Bread, and Golden Pull-Apart Butter Buns (above) include tangzhong directions via a tip at the end of each.

Give any of these a try; if you’re a soft bread aficionado, I think you’ll enjoy the results.

I’ve also started experimenting with converting existing recipes to the tangzhong technique. Does it work with every soft yeast bread recipe? The answer is a qualified “yes,” but not without some tweaks based on dough hydration — plus a bit of math. Stay tuned for a future tangzhong post detailing my results!

Do you have your own special trick for keeping soft rolls and yeast loaves fresher longer? Please share in “comments,” below. 

For more on tangzhong:
How to convert a bread recipe to tangzhong: a surefire path to softer bread and rolls

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hello! If you make your tangzhong separately, it should keep until the next day in your fridge. Just be sure to keep it covered so it doesn’t dry out, and you’ll want to let it come to room temperature before adding it to your dough. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

  1. Sue R

    What about sourdough bread? Mine tends to be too dense & heavy. Has anyone tried this technique when making sourdough bread?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      You’re welcome to try using the basic approach outlined in this article here, Sue. You’d want to start by figuring out the hydration of your recipe, considering the hydration of your starter. If it’s less than 75%, figure out how much additional water you’ll need to add to dough to bring it to that level. Then make your slurry with about 6% of the flour weight (anywhere between 5% and 10% will work) and add 5 parts water. Add this slurry to the other dough ingredients in the recipe, including the sourdough starter. We think you’ll see many of the same effects outlined here, namely increased tenderness and extended shelf life. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  2. Roxanne

    I am trying this technique for a soft bread, and I made a slurry of bread flour and water in a 1:5 ratio by weight, using 10% of the recipe flour weight. My slurry is more like a thick pudding rather than a paste, no matter how long I keep heating it. Will it work to use like this, or is it better to adjust the ratio to get more of a paste?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Roxanne, it sounds like either the hydration of the bread recipe you’re using is already very high, and/or the flour is quite low in protein content. We’ve determined that the hydration should be around 75% for best results, so take a minute to do the math for your recipe and see if you’re close to that level. If not, tweak it slightly until that’s the ratio of flour to water you’re working with. As for the flour, try using King Arthur All-Purpose Flour if you’re not already doing so. It’s a relatively strong flour with an 11.7% protein content. It absorbs the right amount of liquid to make beautiful tangzhong dough. Feel free to give our Baker’s Hotline a call if you have more questions: 855-371-BAKE(2253). Kye@KAF

  3. Karina

    Hello, thank you so much for sharing. Appreciate it very much. I came across a recipe which mentioned using powdered milk.May i know if there is a substitute for milk powder please?

    Thank you.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Karina! There isn’t really another dry substitute for dried milk, however, you can instead replace some or all of the water in your recipe with regular milk to still get the tenderizing effects. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

    2. Karina

      Thank you so much for your prompt reply. Its so heartwarming to know that you take time to answer our questions amidst your busy busy schedule.

      GOD BLESS!

  4. Jennifer

    Does this work the same with different type of flour used (white vs wheat)? Thank you for this blog. Love learning new things about baking!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We haven’t tried using whole wheat, Jennifer, but we don’t see why it wouldn’t help shelf life and softness. Give it a go! Annabelle@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Frauke! Simply combine the flour and water in a microwave-safe bowl and heat it in 30-second increments, stirring in between, until it’s thick and paste-like. Annabelle@KAF

  5. Linda Brown

    OOH, a new and exciting way of making homemade goodies! Thanks for this wonderful new way of baking!

    Reply
  6. Tolu

    What do you think about applying this technique to high-hydration rustic breads (those notoriously difficult to maneuver). Would it work?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Great question, Tolu. Those rustic breads tend to lay under the chewy/crusty category, and those recipes aren’t usually a good fit for a tangzhong. While you’re certainly welcome to experiment, the tangzhong mostly shines through in lower hydration recipes. Annabelle@KAF

  7. Lynn Kristy

    Love to see how this could be adapted for a bread making machine. I am going to try some experimenting.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Denna, the slurry needs to be cooked over medium-high heat, which is why we recommend using the stove. Bread machines do get hot, but you need the combination of medium-high heat and agitation (whisking) to make the mixture homogeneous and smooth. Once the tangzhong is made, you’re welcome to add it along with the rest of the dough ingredients to the bucket of your machine. Kye@KAF

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