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. 

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. Melissa Gruzs

    In the tangzhong technique I saw a possibility of creating a soft and flavorful whole wheat cinnamon raisin bread; I started with the KA Flour no-knead 100% whole wheat bread and made adaptations. I’d like to share with you the recipe I’m working on:

    Mel’s Whole Wheat Cinnamon Raisin Bread With Tangzhong

    1½ cups lukewarm water, divided
    3 cups King Arthur Sprouted Wheat Flour, divided
    ¼ cup pure maple syrup
    ¼ cup vegetable oil
    2 tsp rapid-rise yeast
    ¼ cup nonfat dry milk
    1¼ tsp salt
    1½ tsp cinnamon
    1 cup raisins
    1. Heavily grease an 8½” x 4½” loaf pan.
    2. Prepare tangzhong: In a saucepan, combine 3 Tbs flour and ½ C water; set over medium-high heat. Cook the mixture, whisking constantly, until it thickens and forms a thick slurry; this will take about 1½ to 2½ minutes. Let the cooked mixture cool to lukewarm.
    3. Combine tangzhong and the remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Using an electric mixer set on high speed, beat the mixture vigorously for about 3 minutes. You should have a very sticky dough that won’t be pourable or kneadable. Scoop it into the prepared pan. Wet your fingers, and smooth out the top of the dough.
    4. Cover the pan with lightly greased plastic wrap. Let the loaf rise for 60 to 90 minutes, until it just about rises to the rim of the pan, perhaps just barely cresting over the rim. While the dough is rising, preheat the oven to 350°F.
    5. Uncover the bread, and bake it for 40 to 45 minutes. The bread is done when it’s golden brown on top, and a digital thermometer inserted into the center registers between 190°F and 195°F.
    6. Remove the bread from the oven, and after 5 minutes turn it out onto a rack. Cool the bread completely before cutting it.
    7. Store the bread, tightly wrapped in plastic.

    I’ve made this version of my idea once; time will tell if it turns out to be a good recipe. But I’m hopeful–it has turned out soft and flavorful. Thanks for inspiring me to get thinking and baking!

    Reply
  2. Vi

    It’s wonderful this technique is starting to catch on in Western Culture. Just an FYI, Tangzhong is a CHINESE method in bread making that the Japanese have also implemented. The name itself should have been a giveaway in it’s romanized form. There are no “Z’s” in the Japanese language.

    Reply
  3. Marie

    I’ve been hooked on the tangzhong method. I’ve been making cinnamon rolls with it, so soft and delicious! I can practically apply it to any bread recipe and it does wonderfully.

    Reply
  4. Kathy Eshnaur

    I tried your Japanese milk bread rolls in loaf form and it was fabulous. More tangzhong recipes!!!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We love this method too, Kathy, and we’re working on adding an optional tangzhong approach to some of our favorite bread recipes. There’s just something so tempting about the soft, tender crumb. Yum! Kye@KAF

  5. Judy

    I was wondering if you had tried using the tangzhong method for quick breads, especially corn bread. I love the flavour, but find it can be heavy and doesn’t stay fresh for long. Any suggestions would be appreciated!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We haven’t tried using the tangzhong method in quick breads, Judy, but think it would make for some really interesting experimentation! Cornbread does dry out notoriously quickly. Our Gluten-Free Cornbread recipe calls for an optional 2 tablespoons of Cake Enhancer. You could use this tip in any cornbread recipe, as Cake Enhancer does a beautiful job of keeping your baked goods nice and moist. Happy experimenting! Annabelle@KAF

  6. sandy

    I noticed in a recipe I am going to try tomorrow (the KAF Soft Wrap Bread) that it says to pour boiling water on a portion of the flour to be used in the wraps and then continue with the recipe. Sound like a variation of the tangzhong method. Cannot wait to see how it turns out.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Veronica, typically the total hydration of dough is calculated based on the way the formula is originally written and does not account for additional water that’s added. If you find that you need to add more liquid during mixing, you’re welcome to weight it out and add it to the original amount of water and re-calculate the total hydration. Or, if you find you consistently need to add more water to a given recipe, you might consider adjusting the original recipe so that it includes this additional water from the outset (to avoid doing your calculations twice). Kye@KAF

  7. Vickie H.

    I am can’t wait to try this method with bread and cinnamon rolls. I use this method to make a white icing for a white cake and everyone raves about the taste/texture of the icing. I never knew that what I was doing had a name. I love this blog and the KAF website. There is no end to the things I learn! Thank you!

    Reply
  8. Viv

    My favorite recipe is the KAF pani popo Samoan coconut buns. It has 3.5 cups flour and 3/4 cup water. Also 1/4 cup special dry milk. If I wanted to make a tangzhong so they last longer, what proportions should I use? From the other recipes, I’d guess either 3 Tbsp or 2.5 Tbsp flour, maybe half the water? And possibly, based on the Japanese milk bread recipe, a small part of the dry milk? My math skills stink, so I’m just guessing. Any helpful hints?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Viv, I’d leave the dry milk out of it, and work strictly with the flour and water. I’d try 3 tablespoons of the flour + 1/2 cup of the water for the tangzhong. Good luck! PJH@KAF

  9. Hilary

    I tried this with my lazy-person-sourdough bread, which is great for toast, but is a bit tough/dense for sandwiches. Because I tend to eyeball the ingredients (lazy) I am not sure if I miscalculated or the paste caused the dough to be extra wet but I ended up needing to add nearly an extra cup of flour! My usual is to add 2 1/2 cups of flour and a cup of water to the starter and I used a scant 1/2c for the paste, and another half to the dough. But the end result was just MORE BREAD! And it’s very tasty with a much softer texture. Definitely worth trying again. Thank you

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re glad to hear you’re eager to try this method again, Hilary. It certainly is a delicious undertaking. We think your bread baking will only improve if you take care to measure your ingredients (either by volume or even better, by weight). It takes the guesswork out of baking and ensures consistent results every time. We hope you give the tangzhong another whirl soon! Kye@KAF

    2. Solveig

      It does change the texture of the dough a bit, I also find that I need more bread when I use tangzhong, but overall the end result is worth it.

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