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. Ji An

    How long can I keep Tangzhong after it’s freshly made? Can I make it a few days ahead of the actual baking day?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi there, Ji! We wouldn’t suggest making the roux a few days in advance. You’ll want to use it right after it has cooled — we think that it will become very gummy in texture if held for later use. We hope this helps clarify and happy baking! Morgan@KAF

  2. Verne Rae

    I bake most of the breads and rolls we eat. I never measure my flour, only the water. My batches consists of 4 or 5 loaves of bread, and 4 dozen rolls. Sometime I make burger buns or cinnamon rolls. I think you have guessed that I really like to bake. My question is how much of the tangzhong should I use In
    my large batches of the breads and rolls I make?

    Reply
  3. Ruth B

    This method is awesome – my only problem with the Milk Rolls is that they STILL disappear too fast – and I found dividing the dough into 8 made “too large” rolls – dividing into 12 seems about right. I am anxious to try the hot cross buns recipe shown here. Would also love to see whole wheat or higher fiber versions of the method. KAF continues to be my go to site for lots of GREAT recipes.

    Reply
  4. Jacquie Scuitto

    I make bread by mixing and doing the first rise in my bread machine. Can I use this technique in the same way by letting the flour and water to cool in the machine before adding the other ingredients? Also will it work with while grain flours?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Jacquie. You’ll need to make the tangzhong itself on the stove but once it’s cooled you can mix up your dough per usual in the bread machine. We have a blog specifically about tangzhong in whole wheat bread. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

  5. Giselle

    I bake 99% using white whole-wheat, will it work the same? It’s difficult to find recipes that provide soft goods.

    Reply
  6. Hannah

    Hi there! I’m a big King Arthur fan and visit the site often. However this is my first time to comment! I’m and American who has been living in China for 15+ years and really find the tangzhong technique interesting. I actually taught a Chinese nanny that we had to make white bread but she quickly adapted the recipe by using boiling water and adding it to the flour mixture. Since this, I’ve always done this and it works much better than our traditional ways! I’ll have to try the slurry technique.

    Reply
  7. Morgan

    This is similar to the science behind choux pastry, which initially scared the pants off me but I nailed it on the first go and now love making it. I’m going to try the tangzhong method on the pull-apart buns for a party this weekend!

    Reply

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