Perfectly fluffy, tender bread with a subtle sweetness and richness. Skip the stand mixer and make this wonderful loaf completely by hand.
One of my favorite parts about visiting Asia is eating the magically soft and fluffy bread. The glossy, golden brown crust breaks open to reveal soft cream-colored layers that you can peel apart like cotton candy. The texture is unlike anything you find at a regular grocery store in the States. It is truly heavenly.
It turns out that this milk bread is actually quite easy to replicate at home. The dough is very soft and sticky, so this bread is usually made in a stand mixer, but I know that not everyone has the luxury of owning one. I’ve designed this recipe so you can handle the sticky dough completely by hand. In fact, I’ve made the same milk bread both using a stand mixer and by hand, and found the handmade version to be fluffier, taller, and more delicious!
Milk bread 101
The key to perfectly soft, fluffy milk bread is the tangzhong method. You essentially cook flour, milk, and water on the stove to create a thick, pudding-like mixture that you add to your dough. This is what makes it so incredibly light and soft.
Milk bread is also an enriched dough, meaning we’ll be adding eggs, butter, and of course, milk. This will give that delicious, buttery flavor in every bite.
If this is one of your first times making yeasted bread, I suggest you read my Tips and tricks for perfect enriched bread. It’ll walk you through the basic steps of bread-making and give you tips and tricks to troubleshoot along the way.
Tricks to make milk bread without a stand mixer
- First, we’re going to proof our yeast and milk together rather than adding the yeast dry to the dough
- Then, we’re going to add the flour, eggs, tangzhong mixture, and yeast and milk without adding sugar or salt. We’ll then let it rest for 20-30 minutes. This step (called autolysing if you’re feeling technical) is so we can let the liquid soak into the flour, which will strengthen the gluten. Adding sugar and salt will inhibit this process, so we’ll do that later. Autolysing will magically make your dough easier to handle before we head into kneading. 20-30 minutes may seem like a while to wait, but I promise it will make your life easier later on.
- We’ll then add the sugar and salt. To do this, we’ll dump the dough out on the countertop and sprinkle the sugar and salt on top. We’ll push the dough, salt, and sugar out in small increments, so it’s smeared thinly over the countertop. Then we’ll gather it back to the center to form a pile. We’ll repeat this again and again until you don’t feel the sugar and salt grains anymore. This is called fraisage. Minute 2:50 of this video is a good example of fraisage with dough.
- Using fraisage again, we’ll then incorporate our butter. For this step, you need to make sure your butter is very soft (not melted) and cut into small pieces.
- Last trick is to use the “slap and fold” technique instead of regular kneading. Because the dough is soft and sticky, it’s hard to knead by pushing and pulling. Resist the temptation to add flour and use the slap and fold technique instead. You’ll lift up the dough in one hand and then slap it down on the countertop. Then fold over the piece in your hand to the top of the dough on the countertop. Then raise, slap, fold, and repeat again. Soon you’ll find the dough likes sticking to itself more than it likes sticking to your hands and countertop. Minute 2:10 of this video is a good example of slap and fold.
So in summary: milk bread is hard to make by hand because the dough is so sticky and soft. To fix that, we’re going to 1) let the flour and wet ingredients rest for 20 minutes to strengthen the gluten 2) incorporate salt, sugar, and butter by smearing and mixing on the countertop and 3) slap and fold the dough instead of kneading.
Some tips to make your milk bread look beautiful
- When shaping, make sure your dough is rolled out evenly, otherwise your final loaf will be lumpy
- Use an egg wash to give it that beautiful golden brown color
The best part is, rise time for milk bread is relatively short. So it is as close to instant gratification as bread can get!
Other enriched bread recipes:
If you make this recipe, please let me know! I always love to see what my readers are baking. You can comment below or tag me on Instagram @halicopteraway.
Ingredient proportions adapted from the NY Times.
Japanese milk bread by hand
- 1 medium mixing bowl
- 1 small skillet or pot
- 1 9'' by 5'' loaf pan
- Rolling Pin
- dough scraper (optional but helpful)
For tangzhong (makes 1 cup, you will need 1/2 cup)
- 1/3 cup (45g) bread flour
- 1/2 cup (120g) water
- 1/2 cup (120g) whole milk
- 1/2 cup tangzhong (see above)
- 2 1/2 cups (325g) bread flour
- 1/4 cup (50g) granulated sugar
- 2 tsp (7g) active dry or instant yeast
- 1 tsp (4g) salt
- 1/2 cup warm milk
- 4 tbsp (60g) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces
- 1 egg
- olive oil for greasing
For egg wash
- 1 egg
- 1 tbsp milk or water
- In small skillet or pot, whisk together flour, milk, and water until smooth. Bring to simmer over medium-low heat, whisking frequently, until mixture has thickened but is still pourable. It should take 5 – 10 minutes. Your whisk should leave a mark when dragged along the bottom of the pan.
- Pour into a bowl and cover surface with plastic wrap to prevent a film from forming, and allow to cool to room temperature.
- Mix together yeast and warm milk and set aside for 5 minutes. The milk should feel comfortably warm to the touch, but not hot, otherwise it will kill your yeast.
- Combine flour, egg, milk, 1/2 cup of starter in a medium mixing bowl. Mix together with your hands until combined. Cover with a damp kitchen or paper towel and let sit for 20 – 30 minutes.
- Pour dough out onto clean countertop or nonstick surface. Don't worry if it is quite sticky. Gently smooth out the dough and sprinkle surface with sugar and salt. Gently fold the dough over the sugar and salt a few times. Then, mix using the fraisage method – slowly push the dough out until it is thinly smeared on the countertop, then gather back in to one lump. Repeat the smearing and gathering until you no longer feel the salt and sugar grains.
- Gently smooth out the dough and place softened pieces of butter in the center. Gently fold the dough over the butter a few times. Again, mix using the fraisage method – slowly push the dough out until it is thinly smeared on the countertop, then gather back in to one lump. Repeat the smearing and gathering until you no longer see streaks of butter.
- Knead using the slap and fold method. Do not add flour. Lift the dough up and "slap" it onto the countertop. Fold up, raise, and repeat until the dough is smooth and passes the window pane test. You'll notice the dough sticking more to itself than to your hands or the countertop.
- Shape into a ball and place into a lightly greased mixing bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 40 – 60 minutes until roughly doubled in size.
- Remove the dough from the bowl and cut into 4 even pieces. Shape roughly until 4 balls and let rise for another 15 minutes. Lightly grease your baking tin.
- Using a rolling pin, roll each ball into a rectangle about 12 inches long and 4 inches wide. Lightly flour the rolling pin to prevent sticking. With the short end facing you, roll the dough away from you to form a 4 inch wide coil. Place into the greased baking tin. Repeat with the remaining 3 balls of dough and place them side by side in the tin.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Allow the loaf to proof for 45 – 60 minutes. When you press your finger into the loaf, it should slowly come back about halfway. Whisk together egg and milk or water, then brush the top of the loaf with egg wash.
- Place in the lower third of the oven and bake for 35 minutes until golden brown and makes a hollow sound when tapped.