Years ago, I developed a popular recipe for light, fluffy dinner rolls. The key to the recipe’s success? A baking technique that likely originated in Japan but commonly called by its Chinese name, tangzhong, thanks to being widely popularized by Taiwanese cook Yvonne Chen in her recipe for fluffy Hokkaido milk bread. The term, which loosely translates as “hot-water roux,” refers to a pudding‑like mixture made by cooking a small amount of flour in water until the two form a gel. Mixing that gel into my dough enabled me to add a high proportion of water without making the dough unworkably soft and sticky, because some of the water was effectively “locked away” in the gel. When the rolls hit the oven, that abundance of water turned to steam and inflated the rolls, making them light and soft. The gel also extended the shelf life of the rolls, so they remained moist even on the next day.
I’ve made those rolls at home more times than I can count, and the Cook’s Illustrated team has gone on to apply the tangzhong technique to other classic white breads such as sticky buns and challah. But recently I started wondering: Why stop at white bread? Wouldn’t it be great to use tangzhong (or its very similar Japanese counterpart, yudane) to add moisture and softness to breads that often lack those qualities, specifically breads with added whole grains? And then I realized I already had.