Scallion pancakes were one of the first things I ever taught myself how to cook. Or, I should say, I thought I taught myself how to cook them. I mean, fried dough and scallions, right? How hard could it be?
Of course, at the time I knew nothing of gluten development or laminate pastries and the dense, doughy blobs I was coming up with were certainly nowhere near the flaky, crisp, light, multilayered affairs that the best Chinese restaurants serve. But due to an acute case of a horrible syndrome known in medical circles as Imadethismyselfsoitmusttasteawesomosis, I was totally oblivious to my obvious failure.
Here's what I did in six easy steps:
1. Combine flour and water until workable dough is formed.
2. Knead a lot (I heard that kneading is good).
3. Add scallions.
4. Knead some more.
5. Roll out with a rolling pin, and fry.
6. Serve with tons of salt, vinegar, and soy sauce to distract from leaden texture.
It took me several years to realize that conceptually, the method used to make scallion pancakes is almost identical to that of making puff pastry, croissants, or any laminated pastries.
Fast forward five or six years to me sitting in the living room watching an episode of Yan Can Cook and my mind being blown. This episode? Scallion pancakes, the way they're supposed to be made.
The process is quite simple, and ingenious. It combines two unique features: hot water dough and lamination.
The Best Scallion Pancakes Start with Hot Water Dough
With most Western breads and pastries, cold or room temperature liquid is added to flour before kneading. There are two major proteins in flour, glutenin and gliadin. Here's the thing: they're kinda kinky (no, not in that way), and when they get wet and are rubbed around (like kneading), they stretch out and bind with other glutenin and gliadin molecules, forming the stretchy protein matrix known as gluten.
Gluten is what gives dough structure, and the more it's kneaded and worked, the tighter it becomes. A ball of well-kneaded cold water dough will spring back if you press it and contract if you stretch it. This is why pizza dough is extremely hard to roll out until it's had at least a few hours to rest and allow the gluten to relax. The level of chewiness and stretch you get from a cold water dough is directly related to how vigorously its kneaded and how long it rests.
Hot water doughs—the type used to make scallion pancakes, dumpling wrappers, and several other Chinese pastries—work a little differently. By adding boiling water directly to flour, you end up not only denaturing the proteins, but smashing them into small pieces. Some gluten can still form, but because cooked proteins aren't nearly as stretchy or clingy as raw ones, you won't get anywhere near the stretch of a cold-water dough.
If airy, hole-filled bread is your goal, destroying the proteins is a bad thing. If you're looking for tender dumpling wrappers or scallion pancakes with just a bit of tug and chew, that's precisely what you want.
The beauty of a hot water dough is that it doesn't bounce back as much as cold water dough. This makes it extremely easy to work with and roll out. That's a positive boon when you've got 50 dumpling wrapper skins to form, or when you're making scallion pancakes. Even better, because it's got so little gluten development, you can work with it cool, making it easy to prepare your dough in the morning, throw it in the fridge, come back just before dinner and roll out what you need for your meal.
The next interesting part of making scallion pancakes is the rolling method.
What exactly is a laminated pastry? Unlike bread leavened biologically with yeast or quick breads leavened chemically with baking soda or baking powder, a laminated dough is leavened via fat and vapor. It consists of two basic elements: layers of lean dough separated by layers of fat.
The lean dough can be completely unleavened (like puff pastry, scallion pancakes, or phyllo), or leavened with yeast (like croissants and Danish), or leavened with baking powder (some types of biscuits). Each method gives a slightly different end result. Likewise, the fat layers can be any number of fats, such as olive oil (for some phyllo recipes), butter (for puff pastry), or in the case of scallion pancakes, sesame seed oil.
The idea is that by building up layer upon layer of paper-thin sheets of pastry and separating them with equally thin layers of fat, water vapor from the pastry expands as it heats, causing the layers to separate slightly. It's this separating that creates the flaky, tender structure of perfect laminate pastry.
With some laminate pastries such as baklava or spanakopita, these layers are created manually. Phyllo is built up one layer at a time, the cook manually brushing butter or oil onto each sheet before laying on the next. It's a relatively easy, but time-consuming process. Puff pastry, on the other hand, uses the power of mathematics to very quickly build up hundreds, or even thousands of layers. Here's how it works:
A thin, even slab of butter is placed on top of a layer of dough, which is then folded over the butter like an envelope to completely enclose it. Next, the entire thing gets folded into thirds and then rolled out again to the same size and shape—where you once had one layer, now you've got three. Repeat this process again, and you're up to nine layers. Most puff pastry recipes recommend a minimum of four folding iterations, giving you a total of 81 layers.
"you can fold up to eight times, which gets you a whopping 6,561 layers"
As the graph shows, the number of layers goes up exponentially as you repeat the process, though for practical purposes, eventually the flour layers break or get penetrated by the butter, which limits the number of iterations. With extremely careful handling and a cold marble surface, you can fold up to eight times, which gets you a whopping 6,561 layers. Imagine that!
Scallion pancakes are made by an entirely different method. Rather than folding over and over, the flat disks of dough are first brushed with sesame oil and sprinkled with scallions, then rolled up, jelly-roll style.
I counted the number of complete turns this process makes, and it ends up being around five or so, depending on how tightly you roll it (the photo of a torn scallion pancake shows these five layers). After rolling, the log gets spiraled up like a snake.
Finally, it gets flattened out one last time, this time with the scallions tucked neatly inside. A quick fry in hot oil later, and you're done. Crispy, slightly chewy, flaky, filled with scallions, and delicious.
Of course, my immediate thought was: how could I make this crispier and flakier? The obvious answer is: treat it like a puff pastry by repeating the process several times.
By repeating the process even once, you multiply the layers by a factor of five, bringing you up to a full 25 layers of scallion-packed, pastry delight. The only problem is, it's very difficult to roll, twist, and flatten the dough once it's had the scallions spread inside it—even going through the process once is difficult. As you can see from the photo below, the scallions have a tendency to break out, destroying the thin, delicate layers of dough.
Luckily, the solution is pretty simple: just form the layers without the scallions, then add the scallions right before the last iteration of rolling and twisting. I tried taking the process to the extreme, repeating the rolling steps four times (to deliver a full 625 layers!), but it proved too much for the delicate hot-water dough to handle. Instead of maintaining discrete layers, it ended up turning into a solid, doughy mass. Two iterations is about as much as it can handle.
Frying Scallion Pancakes
The only thing left to mention is frying temperature. I tried frying scallion pancakes over multiple temperature ranges to figure out the ideal method to achieve a crisp crust and optimal layer expansion. I also tried using very little oil (1 tablespoon), and a whole lot of oil (up to 1/2 a cup—enough that the oil came over the top of the pancake). In the end, I discovered that very high heat produces unevenly cooked pancakes. They blister and bubble rapidly, the thin bubbles cooking and burning long before other areas of the pancake even begin to take color or the interior begins to set.
On the other hand, keep the heat too low, and the pancake sits there slowly soaking up oil until it's totally saturated, turning heavy and greasy instead of light and crisp.
Moderate heat with a good amount of oil and constant swirling is the best way to get even browning and discrete, flaky layers.
If you love the idea of these scallion pancakes, here's a full collection of Chinese-American appetizer recipes.
For the Pancakes:
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting work surface
1 cup boiling water
Up to 1/4 cup toasted sesame seed oil
2 cups thinly sliced scallions
For the Dipping Sauce:
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon finely sliced scallion greens
1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 tsp Kosher salt
Place flour in bowl of food processor. With processor running, slowly drizzle in about 3/4 of the boiling water. Process for 15 seconds. If dough does not come together and ride around the blade, drizzle in more water a tablespoon at a time until it just comes together. (Alternatively, in a large bowl add flour and 3/4 of the boiling water. Stir with a wooden spoon or chopsticks until dough comes together, adding water a tablespoon at a time as needed.) Transfer to a floured work surface and knead a few times to form a smooth ball. Transfer to a bowl, cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap, and allow to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature, or up to overnight in the fridge.
Divide dough into four even pieces and shape each into a smooth ball. Working one ball at a time, roll out into a disk roughly 8-inches in diameter on a lightly floured surface. Using a pastry brush, paint a very thin layer of sesame oil over the top of the disk. Roll disk up like a jelly roll, then twist roll into a tight spiral, tucking the end underneath. Flatten gently with your hand, then re-roll into an 8-inch disk.
Paint with another layer of sesame oil, sprinkle with 1/2 cup scallions, and roll up like a jelly roll again. Twist into a spiral, flatten gently, and re-roll into a 7-inch disk. Repeat steps two and three with remaining dough balls.
In a small bowl, whisk together sauce ingredients and set aside at room temperature.
Heat oil in an 8-inch nonstick, carbon steel, or cast-iron pan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Carefully slip pancake into hot oil. Cook, shaking pan gently, until first side is an even golden brown (about 2 minutes). Carefully flip with tongs (be careful not to splash the oil), and continue to cook, shaking pan gently, until second side is an even golden brown (about 2 minutes longer). Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Season with salt and cut into 6 wedges. Repeat with remaining 3 pancakes. Serve immediately with dipping sauce.