Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Flour, eggs, butter: The ratio makes the recipe

Crisp buttery puffs, with a dusting of sugar
I was so excited when I found out about the Gluten-Free Ratio Rally. As a chemistry major, applying ratios comes naturally; also, I'm always eager to bring science into the kitchen (because I'm a geek like that). Wait, don't leave! This science isn't complicated. In fact, using ratios actually makes baking easier.

You see, when you have a solid ratio for a gluten-free recipe, you don't have to guess when the recipe calls for a flour you don't have/can't find/can't eat - simply substitute an equal weight of a comparable flour, and it will almost always work. (You must do this by weight; that is the only way to ensure you are keeping the same ratio.) There will of course be some differences when you are converting a "normal" recipe to gluten-free - after all, you then have a dough that depends on carbohydrates, rather than gluten proteins, for its properties. In most recipes, the structure is bound by an added carbohydrate, such as xanthan gum, flax meal, or psyllium. Sometimes, though, the flour itself already contains what you need. 

That's when your choice of flour can be vital for some recipes, because not all starch is the same. Pâte à choux is one of those recipes. Starch actually is made of two types of molecules: amylose, which is linear, and amylopectin, which is branched. Amylopectin is what you need for good pâte à choux. The starch in sweet rice (also called sticky rice) is all amylopectin. That's why it's sticky.

Can you see why the one on the right gives 
choux paste more structure? (via

Pâte à choux can be converted to gluten-free especially well because even when it's made with wheat flour it is dependent on starch, not gluten, for its structure. The process is unusual - you actually cook the flour in water and fat before forming the dough, which lets the starch strands, which are normally packed together, to swell and form a network. 

OK, you're probably wondering why I'm telling you all this about the science of choux paste and how great it is to bake using ratios, rather than just telling you how to make cream puffs.

Well, I wanted to make it clear that it doesn't have to be difficult before I told you these little cream puffs very nearly kicked my butt. Seriously, I almost gave up. I went through over a dozen eggs and nearly a pound of butter before I finally got the puffs you see in the picture (and those still aren't perfect). That was the fifth batch. But I'm not trying to scare you away. Honest.

See, the other great thing about ratios is that more than one ratio can get you to the same basic result - take a look at last month's rally to see how many different ratios can turn into scones! So, below I've included the link to everyone else's choux posts - that's 18 others to choose from. And there are all sorts of things you can make with choux paste besides cream puffs and éclairs; you can use the same base recipe (er, I mean ratio) to make crisp cheese breads called gougères, or even to make a certain kind of gnocchi. So find something that looks good to you. 
Larger balls of dough make soft, fluffy puffs.

In the spirit of purely exploring the ratio, I chose to make the most basic form of choux pastry, called chouquettes. They are small, simple unfilled pastries, often eaten as a mid-afternoon treat. My ratio of eggs:flour:water:fat was 4:3:3:2, which is rather different from any reference ratios, but it's what ended up working best to get something that would "puff" properly. 

OK, here's what to do. It involves math, but it's not hard, I promise: start by weighing your eggs - this is the variable which determines how much of the other ingredients to use. I used three eggs,  which weighed a total of 160g. Since my ratio is 4:3:3:2, dividing that by 4 gave me an amount of 1 part=40g. So, since 40 x 3 = 120, I needed 120g of flour and 120mL of water (1mL of water equals 1g) and since 40 x 2 = 80, I needed 80g of butter.

160:120:120:80 is the same as 4:3:3:2. See? I told you it wasn't hard. If your eggs are a different weight, simply go through the same process with your number.

For flour, I used 60% sweet rice flour (amylopectin, remember?), 20% tapioca flour, and 20% millet flour. (For 120g, that means 72g sweet rice, 24g tapioca, and 24 g millet.) I also added 1/4 tsp of Pomona's citrus pectin to the flour, for good measure.

Method {Note: have a look at the step-by-step photos at Simply Gluten-Free to see what each stage should look like.}
1) Your eggs need to be at room temperature - take them out of the refrigerator at least 1hr before you start baking. 
2) Preheat oven to 220ºC/425ºF and set aside a large baking sheet lined with parchment. Then crack the eggs into a small bowl and weigh them, and go through the procedure above to figure out how much flour, water, and butter you'll need. Weigh the flour into a large bowl. Weigh the butter and water in a medium-sized saucepan, and add 1 T(15g) of sugar and 1/2 tsp sea salt to the water. 
3) Heat the butter-water mixture until it is boiling steadily. Now dump in the flour all at once, turn down the heat to medium-low (so it doesn't burn to the pan) and stir forcefully and continuously with a stiff spatula for a minimum of two minutes. This is what will provide the dough's structure; you will see the dough getting stringy and it will become very thick. 
4) When it has come together in a smooth, firm ball, dump it back into your large bowl (or the bowl of a mixer, if you have one). If you are lucky enough to have a mixer, just start stirring with the paddle attachment; for the rest of us, continue firmly stirring with the spatula - really stretch out those starch strands, and try to re-incorporate any butter that may have separated - but don't let it cool down. It should still be hot, but make sure you can touch it before going any further.

5) When you can touch it - but it is still quite hot - add one egg and immediately stir to incorporate it completely. You can use an electric beater for this, or do it by hand if you have that kind of endurance. Now, if you've used an electric beater, you'll notice that the dough looks kind of lumpy or curdled. You need to stir it with the spatula to smooth out those lumps - otherwise you will have globs of starch suspended in egg, and that's great if you're making tapioca pudding, but not if you want choux paste. Stir firmly - really churn it - until the dough is smooth. Repeat this process with the other two eggs.
6) Now churn firmly by hand for a few more minutes, stirring it in large circles to keep stretching the dough. When it's a smooth paste, it's ready! It works best if you form the puffs from a piping bag, rather than just putting spoonfuls on the baking sheet. Don't be intimidated by piping - you're not decorating a fancy cake here; if you can squeeze a tube of toothpaste, you can pipe choux paste. If you want crisp, dry puffs, make them slightly bigger than a large egg yolk; for softer, fluffier puffs, make them almost twice that size. Sprinkle sugar or icing sugar on them if desired. Bake at 220ºC/425ºF for the first 10mins, then turn it down to 190ºC/375ºF and bake for another 12-15mins. (For crisper puffs, use the tip of a knife to poke a small hole in the bottom of each one after taking them out of the oven - this allows trapped steam to escape.)

As an aside - if you go through all of this and they don't look like cream puffs, it's OK. They're still yummy. And if your batter is too runny and won't hold its shape, you can bake them in muffin papers or even use the batter for pancakes!

I still have a lot to learn about choux paste, but five batches was more than enough for now - I still have to make a birthday cake. Although maybe with all these puffs, I should have planned for a croquembouche!  ;)

This month's Rally was hosted by Erin of The Sensitive Epicure. Here are the links to everyone's creations - go have a look!
Amie of The Healthy Apple | Pate Choux with Creamy Macadamia Icing
Britt of GF in the City |    Pâte à Choux
Caleigh of Gluten Free[k] | Savoury Paris-Brest
Caneel of Mama Me Gluten Free | Key Lime Cream Puffs
Charissa of Zest Bakery | Choux Shine: Koshi-an Filled Cream Puffs
Claire of Gluten Freedom |  Chocolate Eclairs
Erin of the Sensitive Epicure | Gougères filled with Herbed Goat Cheese Mousse
Gretchen of kumquat | Cheddar Gougères with Dates and Pine Nuts | A Danish Puff
Irvin of Eat The Love |  White Cheddar Fennel Gougères stuffed with Porcini & Shallot Goat Cheese
Jenn of Jenn Cuisine | Gruyère & Herbed Gougères
Lisa of Gluten Free Canteen | Cracked Pepper & Cheese Gougères
Meredith of Gluten Free Betty | Gluten Free Churros
Mary Fran of Frannycakes | Marillenknodel with ginger and cardamom sugar & chai cream puffs
Meaghan of The Wicked Good Vegan | Cardamom and Rose Water Cream Puffs (with Rad Whip!)   
Pete & Kelli of No Gluten, No Problem | Almond Choux Florentines
Rachel of The Crispy Cook | Cream Puffs Filled with Coffee Cream
Robyn of Chocswirl | Gruyere & Parmesan Gougeres with Sage & Thyme   
Sea of Book of Yum | Rose Vanilla Cream Puffs and Vanilla Eclairs
Silvana of Silvana's Kitchen | Gluten-Free Spinach Gnocchi Parm
T.R.of No One Likes Crumbley Cookies | Beignets
Tara of A Baking Life | Parmesan & Black Pepper Gougères | Frangipane Puffs


  1. woohoo yay for more chemistry!!!! I agree, the concept of ratios do come naturally to chemists :) I think this challenge actually did kick my butt haha - I think I'm really lacking in my non-starch flour choices and in the end that was my downfall... Congrats on successful GF choux pastry, wonderful puff and beautiful air pockets!

  2. Oh, I'm so sorry this was such a frustrating project for you, but I'd say it was worth it - your chouquettes look fabulous! And I love all the scientific explanations about the starches. I'm not a chemist, but I'm finding more and more that I want to understand what's going on in gf baking, right down to the molecular level! Thank you!

  3. It is nice to have another chemist on board! Yes, I believe as a seasoned chemist myself (much older than you ;p) and a chef, I view baking very different. I picked pate a choux as the challenge I hosted to really push everyone that it is more about the ingredients, but what you do with them: the order of addition, processing, mixing, kinetics, etc.

    Nice work. Thank you for participating in this month's challenge. It was a doozy!

  4. Jenn - Thanks! And I'm pretty sure that as long as you have some sweet rice flour, it can work - in my trials, at least, technique had a bigger impact than the flour blend itself. Constant stirring, and getting the eggs incorporated whilst the dough is still warm and stretchy, seem to be the key!

    Tara - Thank you! If you're interested in more great food chemistry explanations and illustrations, you might want to check out Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking":

    Erin - Despite all the frustration, it was a lot of fun! This was very different to anything I'd baked before - it's always so interesting to learn a new technique.

  5. Ah-ha! A GF friend and I were discussing the possibility of GF profiteroles a while back, and going with my fuzzy understanding of food chemistry, my guess was that it should be doable. Glad to have it confirmed and explained - and now I can pass the link on! :)

  6. I've been following the ratio rally posts with interest since I'm always trying to broaden my GF baking horizons. The ratio concept has been promoted in the GF world as making GF baking easier and more flexible. But after reading your post (and others in the series) I'm not sold.

    I thought the point was that one could take a specific ratio for a certain type of baked good--cookie, scone, pancake--and by sticking to that ratio one could substitute other GF flours and get flawless results.

    However, what I have seen in the ratio rally posts up to now is that many if not most bakers had to change the ratio to get their product to turn out. In this post, you say: "See, the other great thing about ratios is that more than one ratio can get you to the same basic result - take a look at last month's rally to see how many different ratios can turn into scones!" To me, that's not a great thing, but in fact makes the concept of ratios useless! If the idea is to have one ratio that will always turn out no matter what GF flours are substituted or what add-ins are used, but then it doesn't and you have to waste a lot of ingredients, I don't get the point.....

    I do appreciate the work that all of the bloggers who've developed these recipes put in, since it's given me some new flavor ideas for my own favorite recipes, but I think that the ratio concept as applied to GF baking needs rethinking. One of the main reasons is that the various GF flours have very different qualities, which is not taken into account in the simple sub-weight-for-weight-and-you'll-be-fine scenario.

    The only way I see the GF ratio thing working is to change the add-ins or flavor variations but not the flour combination. Then, yes, the ratio should work fine. But if you start subbing flours, beware!


  7. Hi Mariposa,

    Thanks for bringing this up. What I meant by saying that different ratios can get the same result is that one food can have more than one "definition" - scones were a good example of this, as some people are used to fluffy, light scones, while others prefer crumbly, drier scones; they are fairly different (and thus have different ratio formulas), yet both qualify as "scones."

    The same goes for choux paste - my chouquettes are fairly dry and egg-y and are not as rich and buttery as some recipes for, say, eclairs. It is still choux paste, but most of the recipes I found for chouquettes used a ratio close to mine, whereas richer, filled puffs tended to have a bit less flour and more butter.

    In regards to the flour - yes, there will be some differences in flavour & texture, & possibly water absorption, with flour substitutions, but generally speaking, in a recipe using a blend of flours, one starch can be subbed for another starch, and a whole-grain flour can be used in place of a different whole-grain flour and the end result will be successful.