The Secret to Smooth Doughs and Fluffy Bread Is Already at Hand

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If there’s a quintessential dish from the chef Nadiya Hussain — the “Great British Baking Show” winner who has since found huge success — it’s probably the samosa pie with the turmeric crust from the very first episode of her solo cooking show “Nadiya’s Family Favourites.”

Meant to be unmolded for maximum impact, the pie stands impossibly tall and doesn’t crumble, even when sliced. Ms. Hussain likes to wrap the whole golden thing in parchment paper and take it to picnics, passing out fat, perfect wedges to family and friends.

Luckily, the trick to it — an old-fashioned British pie crust Ms. Hussain makes with flour, shortening and water at a boil — is just as easy.

Ms. Hussain appreciates how simply you can roll out the still-warm dough. “I really love a hot water pastry crust,” she said. “It is one of my favorite doughs to work with.”

Hot water might not seem like the most exciting ingredient, but understanding how and when to use it can transform the way we cook and bake. Found in baked goods across the world — tortillas, milk bread, cornbread and cream puffs, to name but four — hot water can speed mixing time; make it easier to fill and form doughs; yield softer, fluffier breads; and create stunning pie crusts like Ms. Hussain’s. Best of all, it’s readily available.

Some of the science behind these benefits is straightforward: Heat increases the speed at which flour absorbs liquid, and results in a smoother dough with less resting or kneading time.

But something even more magical happens when water and flour combine at higher temperatures, said Dan Souza, the editor of Cook’s Illustrated and a host of the show “America’s Test Kitchen.”

When you heat a wet starch above 140 degrees Fahrenheit (say, as when mixing flour, which is mainly starch, with boiling water), the starch granules begin to swell quickly into a meshlike network that traps water in the dough even as it cooks, Mr. Souza said.

This process is called gelatinization. It makes a dough easier to mix and roll out with very little rest time or kneading — in fact, the dough is almost immediately smooth and supple. The gelling helps the dough stay soft but strong and sturdy after it is cooked, too.

Gelatinization is what happens when you use boiling water to make the silky, supple dumpling doughs used all over Europe and Asia. It’s a part of French pâte à choux, where water and flour are cooked together to form the foundational pastry for both cream puffs and gougères. It is also the process behind tangzhong, the Chinese method of making a soft, yeasted milk bread, which uses a similar flour-and-water roux. (You add the yeast after the heated flour mixture has cooled.)

Gelatinization can also be used to bind breads made with flour that doesn’t contain gluten, Mr. Souza said, like tapioca or cornmeal. It’s even an added benefit of nixtamalization, the process of simmering dried corn kernels in an alkaline solution to prepare them for grinding and mixing into masa.

Like many cooks, Ms. Young’s mother always added a little cold water at the end of the mixing process, for a whisper of that glutinous chew.

Over the years, Ms. Young has experimented with all hot water or all cold water, or different ratios of both. “The way my mom taught me is the way I like to do it,” she said. “After all the other testing, I just decided, this works.”



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