Crispy Airy Youtiao

published Jan 30, 2022
Youtiao Recipe

This simple fried dough takes under an hour to make.

Makes5 youtiao

Prep35 minutes

Cook10 minutes to 15 minutes

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Youtiao on a plate (long golden-brown deep-fried strip of dough commonly eaten in China and in other East and Southeast Asian cuisines; a type of Chinese doughnut).
Credit: Zoe Yang

It’s my firm belief that every great food culture has evolved to have the same classics: morsels of meat wrapped in a carbohydrate shell (dumplings, empanadas, pierogi), things on skewers cooked over fire (yakitori, kebab, chuan’r), some sort of griddled flatbread (pita, naan, tortillas), and, of course, a fried dough.

Youtiao is one such fried dough, and trying to get into its origins — perhaps even naming it as “youtiao” — is to invite controversy because it’s so ubiquitous across China and Southeast Asia. In Jiangnan, youtiao are dipped in steaming hot soy milk; in Guangdong they are often wrapped in cheung fun as a dim sum dish; in Hanoi they top pho. However, in all the youtiao-eating lands, form and flavor are fairly consistent — it is a long, airy, slightly savory doughnut, made of two pieces of dough stuck together and deep-fried. 

To my knowledge, youtiao, wherever it’s found, is a breakfast food, and I love the breakfast cultures that make its existence possible: the roadside braziers and corner stools, the trading of loose change for little baggies to toss in bicycle baskets. One kuai for a youtiao fried to order, another for soy milk, another for a tea egg, and you’re on your way. I’m not a breakfast person in America, but in China I make sure to wake up before the youtiao man stops frying for the day. You don’t want the leftovers in his basket — a youtiao even one hour out of the oil becomes stale. In America, youtiao languishes. I’ve had my heart broken by the frozen packaged ones too many times to count, and even if you’re lucky enough to find them in a restaurant, it’s hit or miss. 

To become the youtiao man, one must commit to waking early, which is why this recipe is best as a weekend brunch project. The good news, besides it being justifiably impressive, is that as with many classic dishes beloved by over a billion people, youtiao are very accessible. You likely have all the ingredients already, no special equipment is needed, and active cooking time is minimal. Once you have the technique down, it’s downright easy.

Chasing Perfection

The success of youtiao is judged by a few measures.

  • Puff: Each stick should quadruple in size during frying, trapping big air bubbles within its internal structure.
  • Texture: Youtiao should be crisp on the outside and pleasantly chewy inside.
  • Structural integrity: One youtiao is made of two distinct sticks of dough that hold together when frying but pull apart easily once cooked. They should make excellent croutons in soy milk or hot pot, absorbing liquid easily but not going soggy. 
  • Flavor: Youtiao should have just enough salt to be haunting, and it should never ever get greasy.
Credit: Zoe Yang

A Note on Leaveners

If there are over a billion people eating youtiao, there are probably a million recipes. To create the all-important puff, some call for yeast, some for baking powder, and others for even specific youtiao leavening products. To add flavor, there are recipes that call for milk and butter.

My version calls for baking powder and baking soda, which are the leaveners most commonly used by street vendors in China. I’ve skipped milk and butter, which are not standard ingredients in a Chinese kitchen, but added an egg, which contributes richness, aroma, and a denser chew. Vegans may feel free to omit the egg and simply add more water. (I found that eggless youtiao are actually more crisp and overall still excellent.)

It’s All About the Dough

With so few ingredients, technique must be on point. With keen observation and perhaps a little practice, you’ll find your way to a balanced dough: soft but not sticky, stretchy but not springy.

Pay attention to the tips in the instructions, as ingredient quantities may vary with the type of flour you’re using, the way you measure, the hardness and temperature of your water, and the size of your egg. Err on the side of less water, adding tiny spoonfuls as needed, as dough that’s too wet cannot expand to its fullest potential. 

Moisture content is also critical to successful shaping, and the youtiao’s signature butterfly shape is no accident. Somewhere along the way, an ancestor figured out that two dough pieces stuck together by a thin central seam will puff up better than an individual piece. When youtiao dough meets hot oil, the baking powder is activated, releasing carbon dioxide bubbles that cause expansion. When two dough sticks are joined, they pass the bubbling energy to each other rather than letting it escape into the air. (If you don’t believe me, try frying a single piece by itself!) Essentially you want your dough sticks to cling together like the Lovers of Valdaro, but not so tightly that they inhibit each other’s growth — again, it’s all about a balanced relationship! 

Youtiao Recipe

This simple fried dough takes under an hour to make.

Prep time 35 minutes

Cook time 10 minutes to 15 minutes

Makes 5 youtiao

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 2 cups

    all-purpose flour

  • 2 teaspoons

    kosher salt

  • 1 teaspoon

    granulated sugar

  • 1 teaspoon

    baking powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    baking soda

  • 1

    large egg

  • 2 quarts

    plus 1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil, divided, plus more for brushing

  • 1/2 cup

    lukewarm water, plus more as needed

Instructions

  1. Place 2 cups all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder, and 1/2 teaspoon baking soda in a large bowl and stir to combine with a fork or chopsticks. Add 1 large egg and 1 tablespoon of the vegetable or canola oil. While stirring with chopsticks, slowly drizzle in 1/2 cup lukewarm water and stir until the flour is incorporated into small clumps, periodically brushing the chopsticks against each other to clean them of any sticky clumps.

  2. Bring the clumps together in the bowl with a rubber spatula or your hands and knead in the bowl until a smooth dough forms, about 2 minutes. (It should come together easily.) If you find that there are loose clumps that don’t want to be incorporated, or that you are exerting yourself while kneading, gradually add more water 1 teaspoon at a time. The dough should be soft, but not stick hopelessly to the sides of the bowl or your hands. (A little Flubber-like sticky-stretchiness is OK, as the dough will become more workable after resting.) Brush the dough lightly with vegetable oil. Press a sheet of plastic wrap directly onto the dough in the bowl. Let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.

  3. Uncover the dough and knead again in the bowl for 2 minutes. It should look and feel smoother, softer, and more voluptuous. If it sticks to your hands during kneading, lightly oil your hands. Coat a baking sheet or cutting board with oil. Place the dough on it and use your hands to shape into a long oblong shape about 8 to 10 inches long and 1/2-inch thick. Brush lightly with more oil, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for at least 2 hours at room temperature or up to 2 days in the refrigerator. The idea is to get it close to its final shape, as you want to handle it as little as possible after this rest. If the dough is refrigerated, let it fully come back to room temperature (1 to 3 hours) before proceeding to the next step.

  4. Check on the dough: It should be soft as an earlobe and not spring back when poked. If there’s any sign of springiness, continue resting. Coat a rimmed baking sheet with vegetable oil, then place the dough on it, positioning it next to one long side. Gently pat it into a rectangle that's the length of the baking sheet and about 2 1/4-inch wide and 1/4-inch thick. Brush the rectangle with a thin layer of oil once more.

  5. Heat 2 quarts vegetable or canola oil in a wok or wide Dutch oven over high heat to 350°F. (The diameter of the pot will determine how long your youtiao can be. For traditionally long youtiao, use a 12- to 14-inch wok or Dutch oven). When the oil is ready, it should be shimmering, not smoking. Meanwhile, use a knife or bench scraper to trim the ends of the dough rectangle, then cut the strip crosswise into 10 pieces, each about 1 1/4-inch wide.

  6. Test the oil by dropping a scrap piece of dough into it — it should bubble and rise immediately. (Alternatively, test with a wooden chopstick, which should also bubble immediately.) Reduce the heat to medium to maintain a temperature of 375 to 385°F. Stack 1 small strip of dough directly on top of another. Repeat with remaining pieces of dough.

  7. Press a chopstick lengthwise down the middle of a stack to create a deep groove and seal the pieces together. (Do this right before frying each youtiao, as the edges of the 2 dough pieces can seal together and prevent them from puffing up if pressed too early.) Gently stretch the strip over the pot until it’s at least the diameter of the oil. When stretching, try not to pinch or squeeze the dough — simply cradle the strip between 2 hands and use the fingers in the back to lightly stretch from the middle. Let gravity help. Gently lower the elongated strip into the oil. It will shrink and straighten instantly. As soon as the youtiao floats, use a pair of chopsticks or tongs to begin turning it constantly. The first 15 seconds are crucial — you should be able to turn the youtiao 3 to 4 times as it’s still soft and growing rapidly. If it hardens or takes on color before it can fully expand, your oil temperature may be too high.

  8. Once the youtiao has stopped growing, finish frying each side to a deep golden-brown, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Place cooked youtiao on a wire rack or paper towel-lined plate and repeat with frying the strips. If you have a problem with your youtiao pieces separating during frying, wipe away some of the oil between the pieces and use a tiny bit of water to glue them together before pressing again. If you have a problem with your strips sticking together at the edges, rub a little oil along the edges to keep them separated. Youtiao are the crispiest and most aromatic after cooling for several minutes. Serve immediately with hot soy milk, or wrapped in cheung fun, fantuan, or shaobing.

Recipe Notes

Equipment: Instead of forming the dough by hand, you can use a stand mixer with a dough hook at low speed.

Vegan variation: To make vegan youtiao, omit the egg and substitute with up to an additional 1/4 cup water.

Storage: Youtiao are best eaten immediately, but can be stored, tightly wrapped, in the freezer and reheated in a toaster or air fryer. Alternatively, let them go stale and use them as a hot pot, congee, pho, or soup topping.