Soft and springy, with a buttery taste and glorious texture, milk bread is often known as either Hokkaido milk bread, or shokupan in Japan.
Unlike normal white Western-style breads, milk bread contains relatively high fat and sugar, content, which accounts much of the texture and the flavour brought on by the milk, which works to elevate this bread. The recipe also uses a tangzhong method, which helps retain moisture.
A roux made with water and flour, plus the occasional addition of milk, tangzhong is cooked over a very low heat to make a thick paste, then cooled down to room temperature and added to the flour mix when kneading the dough.
A particularly popular technique for baking Asian breads, tangzhong’s exact roots are unclear, yet the method is believed to have been developed in Japan during 1875, when Yasube Kimura, a former samurai, invented the anpan – a soft bun stuffed with bean paste. He found the bread introduced to Japan at the time was either salty or sour, out of step with the typically Japanese palate. Tangzhong is said to have been named in China, however, now used in many regional milk breads renowned for their softness.
Using the tangzhong method activates the gluten in the flour before its mixed with the recipe’s other ingredients, which in turn helps to create the soft texture. With the starch molecules in tangzhong absorbing far more liquid than at room temperature, the method ultimately adds more water to the dough, forming a cushioned, spongy texture in the final product.
A lighter, more flavoursome version of typical white sandwich bread, milk bread is extremely versatile, particularly well suited to being lightly toasted and used for katsu sandos, and stays pillowy for several days, if it lasts that long without being eaten.
Milk bread baking tips
Milk bread dough is typically far softer than other bread doughs. The dough will eventually firm up while kneading, and after proofing, so avoid the temptation to add more flour while kneading.
Once baked, it’s best to allow the milk bread to cool before eating, otherwise it’ll be very difficult to slice due to its softness.
Cover the tangzhong with cling film while cooling, making sure the plastic touches the surface of the tangzhong, to prevent a skin from forming on top.
This bread can be plaited, rolled, or even formed into dinner rolls. If you do plan on shaping the bread, I’d suggest proofing the bread for an additional 2-3 hours in the fridge following the first proof. This will allow the dough to firm up, making it far easier to handle.
Milk bread recipe
- Stand mixer with a dough hook attachment (preferred, but not essential)
- Cling film
- Loaf tin (approx. 9 x 5 inches, or slightly smaller)
For the tangzhong
- 25 g bread flour
- 100 ml water
For rest of loaf
- 350 g bread flour plus 2 tbsp
- 7 g fast acting yeast
- 120 ml whole milk lukewarm
- 60 g unsalted butter softened
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 50 g white sugar
- 1 egg
- Neutral oil to oil mixing bowl
- unsalted butter for greasing loaf pan
- 1 egg
- To make the tangzhong, add the water and flour to a small, cold saucepan and mix until completely smooth before turning on the heat.
- Once smooth, gently warm the flour/water mixture over a medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until it thickens. The mixture should leave a thick trail when stirred.
- When thick, scrape the mixture into a bowl and cover with cling film, making sure the plastic touches the surface of the tangzhong to prevent a skin from forming on top.
- Allow the tangzhong to cool to room temperature.
- While the tangzhong is cooling, add the lukewarm milk to a large mixing bowl and dissolve 1 tsp of the sugar in the milk. Sprinkle the yeast over the milk and stir gently to mix. Allow the milk/yeast mixture to stand for 10-20 minutes until the yeast is activated (the surface will become frothy).
- Once the yeast is activated, add the rest of the sugar to the bowl, plus the cooled tangzhong, egg, flour, and the salt. Mix all of the ingredients well then knead either by hand on a floured surface or in a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment.
- If using a mixer, knead the dough for around five minutes on low speed, or for a little longer if kneading by hand. The dough will be very sticky at first, but will eventually come together.
- After five minutes of kneading, add the butter in four separate batches, mixing each for around 20 seconds. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl to make sure the dough mixes well.
- Once the butter is incorporated, increase the kneading speed to medium and continue to knead for 5-7 minutes, continuing to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl while kneading. Once the dough is smooth and cleanly pulls from the side of the bowl, it’s ready for the next step.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a ball. Return to a lightly oiled bowl, cover and leave to rise in a relatively warm place for around an hour, until doubled in size.
- When the dough has proofed, turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knock back the dough. Grease a loaf tin (approx. 9 x 5 inches) and dust with flour.
- Shape the loaf and add to the tin, then cover and leave to rise again until the loaf is just reaching the top of the tin.
- Pre-heat the oven to 180C/Gas 4.
- Lightly beat the egg and use it to egg wash the top of the loaf, then bake for approximately 30 minutes, or until golden brown. If the loaf browns too quickly, loosely cover with tin foil for the last part of cooking.
- Turn the bread out onto a rack and cool before slicing.