I’ve always quietly assumed I didn’t like churros. Quietly, because to deny the attraction of these hot, crisp, sugar-dusted sticks of deep-fried dough is surely to reveal oneself as the worst kind of joyless grinch. To my relief, however, it turns out it’s the Spanish habit of eating them for breakfast that was the problem to my Marmite-loving palate – after 11am, I’m a fully paid-up member of the cinnamon-scented, greasy-fingered churros appreciation society.
Popular throughout the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world in a variety of forms, from huge spirals to delicate twists, churros are often said to have been brought to the Iberian peninsula from China, though fried dough has been eaten in the region since classical times – the contentious pairing with chocolate is a legacy of the brutal Spanish conquest of the Americas. With a Madrid chocolatería almost as far away right now as a stand in a Manila mall or a Colombian street stall, I bring you the good news that the best churros are the freshest churros – and they’re almost as easy to make as they are to eat.
At their simplest, churros are nothing more than flour and water – but what sort of flour? Most recipes suggest plain, but Omar Allibhoy uses strong bread flour in his book Tapas Revolution. Either will work just fine, but the higher gluten levels in strong flour gives the churros a more characteristically chewy texture, so if you have the choice, I’d go with that. Allibhoy also recommends toasting the flour before use, “so it dries out and becomes very fluffy”. Rolando Celi, of Madrid’s Chocolatería San Ginés agrees, telling Mike Randolph of the BBC that, while flour may feel dry, there can be a lot of moisture in it, particularly in humid climates,which means it will absorb more oil.
Traditionally, no raising agents are involved – though porras, a plumper, puffier version more like the Chinese youtiao, often include baking powder, yeast or bicarbonate of soda – but Barcelona-born Frank Camorra of Melbourne’s MoVida group employs self-raising flour and José Pizarro’s book Andalusia baking powder. It’s up to you; personally, I enjoy the lighter texture a raising agent creates, but if you’d like to keep things more traditional, feel free to leave it out while tutting disapprovingly.
Niki Segnit includes a very plain, traditional take in her extraordinarily comprehensive Lateral Cooking, and it yields satisfyingly crunchy results, but a dash of oil, as used by both Allibhoy and Elisabeth Luard, makes the dough more pliable, and, if olive is used, gives the churros a slightly more interesting flavour.
Pizarro adds melted butter instead, as do Sam and Eddie Hart and Nieves Barragán Mohacho in the Barrafina cookbook and Enrique Olvera of Mexico City’s Pujol – indeed, Latin American churros tend to contain eggs, too, and Olvera also adds whipping cream, making his version so gooey and rich, it almost seems a shame to dip it in anything at all. (Actor Eva Longoria adds lard instead of butter, which I imagine would make them nice and crisp.) I’m going to keep my churros simple, though, because I like the contrast between the plainer dough and the crunchy sugar and/or the bittersweet chocolate, but I would recommend making life easier with a little oil.
Everyone uses boiling water in their dough – as with richer choux pastries, it’s necessary to heat the flour and water together, so the starch molecules gelatinise, thereby thickening the batter so it sets solid enough to keep its shape while still containing enough moisture to expand in the heat of the fryer. (It’s important to note that churros dough is very thick – there’s a reason it’s usually referred to as dough rather than batter. You’ll need a sturdy piping bag, as well as a star-shaped nozzle to create the distinctive crunchy ridges.)
Chef Victor Garvey of Sola in London tells me he was taught to make churros dough with milk rather than water. I give it a try, and it works a treat, but, good as it tastes, the results are marginally less crisp than the rest.
A pinch of salt is a must, creating a savoury counterpoint to the sweetness to come – you can also, like Olvera, add sugar, but I’d prefer to save that for the topping. (Disney adds cinnamon to the dough in the recipe it serves in its parks, but again, why complicate the issue.)
A neutral or olive oil is the best bet here – the latter will give the churros more flavour, but the former tends to be an awful lot cheaper. You won’t be heating it past 180C, so olive oil’s lower smoke point isn’t relevant here. And Allibhoy fries his much hotter, at 230-40C, but as an amateur, I find it hard to cook them through at that temperature before the outside burns, so I wouldn’t recommend it.
Professional churros makers pipe the dough straight into the hot oil, but, because it’s so thick, it’s easier to do as Allibhoy suggests and pipe them on to greaseproof paper first, so they’re ready to drop in as soon as the fat comes to temperature.
I’ll leave this one up to you – crunchy cinnamon sugar, as favoured by Pizarro and Olvera, is the quickest topping imaginable, but the charms of some thick Spanish hot chocolate cannot reasonably be denied. You could substitute a rich chocolate ganache, as the Harts suggest in their book Modern Spanish Cooking, or the thinner sauce favoured by Luard in her The Flavours of Andalusia, but neither, to me, have quite the appeal of the Spanish chocolate powder in Allibhoy’s recipe. You can buy it online, but it’s easy to make your own with cocoa powder, cornflour, sugar and sweet spices – I don’t even think you need Allibhoy’s extra chocolate, though I’ll leave that up to your discretion.
Prep 5 min
Cook 25 minutes + resting
Makes About 10
125g strong white bread flour
½ tsp baking powder (optional)
1 pinch fine salt
125ml boiling water
1 tsp olive oil
1 litre olive or neutral oil, for frying
For the cinnamon sugar (optional)
25g caster sugar
½ tsp ground cinnamon
For the hot chocolate (optional)
3 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tbsp cornflour
2 tbsp sugar
1 dash vanilla extract
1 pinch ground cinnamon
Heat the flour in a wide, dry pan over a low heat for about five minutes, stirring regularly, and boil the kettle.
Put the flour in a large bowl with the baking powder and salt, then pour in 125ml boiling water (I find it easier to do this by weight). Stir to make a dough, then add the oil and knead briefly until you have a smooth dough, bearing in mind it will be hot.
Leave the dough to cool for at least 10 minutes, then transfer it into a sturdy piping bag fitted with a star nozzle about 1½cm in diameter.
Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, then pipe out churros about 12cm long on to it, snipping them off with scissors as you go. (At this point, if you like, you can cover and refrigerate the dough until you’re ready to cook.)
Mix the cinnamon and sugar and spread out on a plate, and/or mix the cocoa, cornflour and sugar in a heatproof jug and heat the milk in a small saucepan until it begins to steam.
Pour enough of the hot milk on to the cocoa mix to make a loose paste, whisking all the time, then whisk it all into the milk pan. Heat until it thickens, then stir in the vanilla and cinnamon, taste, add more sugar if you think it needs it, and keep warm.
Pour enough oil into a fairly wide pan to fill it by no more than a third, then slowly heat it to about 180C (or until a cube of bread browns in about 20 seconds). Put a tray lined with kitchen paper or a cooling rack next to the hob.
Use tongs to pick up a churro and drop it gently into the hot oil. Add two or three more without overcrowding the pan and fry for three to four minutes, or until golden and crisp.
Drain on the kitchen paper or the rack, toss in the cinnamon sugar and serve immediately, with the hot chocolate if you’ve made it, while you get on with the next batch.
Churros, tallos, calentitos, tejeringos, porras, jeringos … what’s your favourite, what do you like to dip them in, and where makes the best? Do you prefer the richer, Latin American versions or the plainer European sort … or will you eat anything as long as it’s deep-fried?