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.
- 1/2 cup (120ml) filtered water
- 1 large egg
- 2 1/4 cups, spooned (10 ounces/285g) all-purpose flour, such as Gold Medal Unbleached
- 1 tablespoon (12g) baking powder
- 1 teaspoon (3g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons (1 ounce/ 28g) cold, unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
- 8 cups vegetable oil, for frying
In a medium bowl, whisk water and egg until smooth and well combined; set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk flour, baking powder, and salt until thoroughly combined, about 30 seconds. Add butter and egg mixture. Set bowl onto stand mixer and, using a dough hook, mix on low speed until liquids are absorbed and no dry flour remains, about 3 minutes.
Increase speed to medium-low and mix until butter is fully incorporated and dough starts to clear sides of bowl, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer dough to a bare work surface, knead for 30 seconds, and shape into a 9-inch log. Press log flat to 3/4-inch thickness. Wrap log in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 12 hours or up to 24 hours.
To shape the dough and prepare for frying: Remove dough from refrigerator and bring to room temperature, somewhere between 68° (20°C) and 72°F (22°C), around 2 to 3 hours. Unwrap dough and transfer to a well-floured work surface. Roll dough into a 10-inch by 6-inch rectangle. Using a pizza cutter or bench knife, divide dough into ten 1-inch by 6-inch strips. Cover dough loosely with a damp paper towel. Meanwhile, heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat until it registers 400°F (204°C) on an instant-read thermometer; adjust heat as necessary to maintain this frying temperature. Set a wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet, and have a spider or chopsticks and salt (and/or other seasonings) nearby.
Working with one strip at a time, cut in half crosswise to form two 3-inch strips. Brush the unfloured top side of one 3-inch strip lightly with water, then layer the second 3-inch strip, unfloured side down, directly on top. Lay a chopstick lengthwise along the middle of the layered dough strip and press firmly to seal the strips together and form a groove. Repeat with remaining strips of dough and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let dough strips rest for 10 minutes.
To fry the youtiao: Working with one dough strip at a time, hold both ends of dough and stretch to 8 to 10 inches in length. Carefully lower dough into heated oil, gently laying the strip away from you, then immediately stretch a second strip of dough and add it carefully to the oil. Cook until dough sticks begin to float, about 10 seconds. Using chopsticks or a slotted spoon, flip dough sticks and cook for 10 to 15 seconds longer, then continue flipping dough sticks in 10- to 15-second intervals until dough is puffed and golden brown, about 90 seconds total. Using a spider, transfer fried dough to the wire rack set in the rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with kosher salt. Return oil to 400°F and repeat with remaining dough. Serve immediately.
Stand mixer, Dutch oven or wok, digital thermometer.
Bottled or filtered water works best, since extreme changes in pH can affect the extensibility of the dough.
In place of salt, the youtiao can also be sprinkled with sugar, or cinnamon sugar, to taste.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Youtiao are best served straight from the fryer.