Why It Works
- A healthy amount of baking powder provides ample lift and puff to the pastry.
- Fully developing gluten encourages maximum extensibility.
- Butter and eggs add richness, flavor, and tenderness without compromising dough structure or handling.
- Prolonged resting relaxes gluten so that it can be stretched easily and evenly.
- Frying quickly and evenly in hot oil encourages vigorous expansion and yields a crisp exterior.
Step into any dim sum restaurant, and you’ll likely run into some version of youtiao. Roughly translated as “oil strips” in Mandarin, these airy, golden fried sticks of dough are the equivalent of savory donuts or churros. While they’re commonly eaten in China for breakfast with congee, youtiao are also found in other East and Southeast Asian cuisines, from Cambodia to Laos, and even in the Philippines and Thailand, although the pastry is known by different names.
In Cantonese, youtiao is more commonly called yàuhjagwái, which translates to “oil-fried devil.” Why the morbid name? According to folklore, it was an act of protest against Qin Kuai, a corrupt official in the Song Dynasty who, in a fit of jealousy, colluded with the enemy Jin Dynasty and framed the respected general and war hero Yue Fei for treason. The charges resulted in Yue Fei’s execution. Frustrated by their inability to defend Yue Fei from the fraudulent charges, the general public resorted to alternative forms of protest. Two street vendors created a pastry: One vendor sculpted two miniature figures out of dough—one for Qin Kuai, the other for his wife, Madam Wang—and slashed at them with a blade; the other vendor sandwiched the figures together, back to back, then threw them into a wok of hot oil. As the dough cooked, the vendors shouted, “Fried Kuai!”
The best youtiao feature a golden brown, well-puffed exterior and a light, airy interior. The outside should be crisp, while the inside should be tender and fluffy. Traditionally, Chinese cooks employ a number of specialty ingredients to produce these qualities. For instance, according to Chinese Cooking Demystified, dried cuttlefish bones are used as a source of calcium carbonate, which is thought to promote puffing and delay browning, allowing for a crispier product. Other ingredients include Chinese ammonium powder, a combination of baking soda and ammonium carbonate, an old-school leavener known for producing a crisp texture in crackers and other baked goods.
I gave both of these methods a shot. And while they produced decent youtiao, I found that the payoff wasn’t worth the expense, or hassle, of tracking down the ingredients. For one, dried cuttlefish bones are pretty hard to source if you don’t live in China; they also don’t fully dissolve into water, so the process of incorporation isn’t seamless. Second, ammonium carbonate’s irritating, pungent smell persists if you don’t cook it out fully; that smell can be distracting (or make the pastry downright inedible) if used in excess.
In the interest of accessibility and simplicity, I found that a healthy proportion of baking powder worked just as well to provide that airy texture. To provide structure, I made sure to fully develop gluten through extensive kneading up front, since maximizing gluten development ensured maximum capacity for dough expansion as it fried. To bring richness and a little more structure, I also incorporated an egg.
Many recipes recommend adding oil, which is thought to tenderize the interior and make the dough easier to handle. On the other hand, I found it made my dough too slack, and didn’t contribute much flavor or richness. Instead, I opted for butter, which provided more flavor but also produced a dough that wasn’t as slack or difficult to handle.
Another key to successful youtiao comes in shaping: Strips of the dough are sandwiched together, pressed in the middle lengthwise with a chopstick, and stretched until doubled or tripled in length before frying. When executed correctly, the pastry should resemble a butterfly when cut in half, with an open, airy crumb structure with sometimes cavernous holes. To maximize extensibility, I made sure to rest the mixed dough overnight—or at least a few hours—in order to relax the gluten enough to be stretched easily.
Finally, oil temperature and rapid movement proved essential to maximizing puffiness.The sweet spot for my recipe sat between 390°F and 400°F; any lower, and the dough wouldn’t puff as vigorously; any higher, and the exterior would cook too quickly, preventing the pastry from reaching its peak volume. To hedge against the dough exterior “setting” too fast, I found that frequent turns of the dough promoted even cooking, and allowed the dough to expand evenly.
Youtiao are commonly served with congee at breakfast or lunch. If you’re in the mood for something lighter, it’s traditional to dip them in sweetened soy milk. Beyond that, you can even wrap youtiao in steamed rice noodles (a popular dim sum offering), or chop them up and stir fry them.