By Claire Saffitz, The New York Times
How many doughs can serve as a base for pillowy cinnamon buns in one moment, and not-too-sweet hamburger buns the next?
A relative of Hokkaido milk bread and French brioche, this enriched bread has unparalleled versatility. It also defies categorization: Its silky, delicate, lightly sweet crumb has as much in common with pastry as it does with bread, allowing it to move fluidly from sweet to savory.
As with most yeasted doughs, nailing this one requires special attention to time and temperature, as well as an understanding of gluten development. But once you learn how to conjure up this shape-shifting bread, you might very well find yourself eating it, in some form or another, all day long.
Start With a Tangzhong
This bread’s feather-light texture comes from using a tangzhong, or “water roux,” which originated in Japanese baking but was popularized throughout Asia and beyond by Taiwanese pastry chef Yvonne Chen. (Another Japanese technique known as yudane, which uses boiling water, is similar.) In bread-making, tangzhong is a mixture of flour and water (or milk) that is cooked on the stovetop before it is added along with other ingredients. Cooking alters the chemical structure of flour, breaking down the starches and causing them to swell and absorb water to a much greater degree than they would without heat, in a process known as gelatinization. Inside the dough, the tangzhong absorbs even more water, making the final bread softer, fluffier, springier and more resistant to staling.
No Need to Proof Your Yeast
You may notice that the accompanying recipe omits any “proofing” of the yeast, calling instead for the yeast to be added directly to the dough. While it was once necessary to dissolve active dry yeast in warm water with a pinch of sugar and wait for it to bubble (therein “proving” it is alive), active dry yeast has become more reliable. If you keep your yeast sealed and refrigerated, and it is not approaching the expiration date, you can be confident it is active. There is even an advantage to adding it to the dough directly: The motion of the mixer dissolves the granules slowly, which helps prevent the dough from fermenting too quickly.
Mix Low and Slow
Gluten forms when certain proteins in wheat come into contact with water, and kneading or otherwise working bread dough develops more gluten, lending breads like sourdough their chewy texture. It might seem counterintuitive, then, that a soft, tender bread like this one requires lots of gluten development. But gluten provides structure, allowing the dough to expand dramatically in the oven, and supporting the bread as it cools so it does not collapse. Because the proteins in wheat are slower to absorb water than starches, the dough should be mixed slowly at first, so resist the urge to increase the speed and hurry things along, since it could impede development.
The whole process takes time, especially since you are adding fat, which inhibits the formation of gluten bonds, so set your timer and consider putting on a podcast while the mixer does the work. At the end of the suggested mixing time, make sure the dough has sufficient “strength,” or gluten development, by doing a windowpane test. Work a small portion of dough outward between your fingertips. A well-developed dough will stretch, without breaking, into a thin membrane that light can pass through.
Ensuring that your dough bakes into soft pull-apart bread is largely about controlling the temperature during mixing. The prolonged action of the dough being worked generates friction, causing it to warm, and a too-warm dough can ferment too quickly, throwing off the rise. It may also become greasy when the butter is added and lack elasticity, leading to a dense, dry crumb.
To prevent this, make sure that the tangzhong is not the least bit warm when you assemble the dough, and that your eggs and butter are cold. Even at cool room temperature, the buttery dough will be quite soft, so a slow rise in the refrigerator will firm up the butter and make the dough workable. (Bonus: The cold rise also helps develop flavor.)
Shape Your Dough Cold
In general bread and pastry terms, cold dough is easier to handle than room temperature dough, and that is especially true for a butter-rich dough like this one. When cold, the butter is firm and the dough can be shaped and manipulated easily. As it warms though, the butter softens and the dough becomes stickier and looser, so try to work efficiently.
Pay Attention to Rise
A well-developed dough will triple in volume (or more) from the initial dough to the finished bread — if, that is, you proof it sufficiently. Make sure you let the dough rise until it has doubled in size. Keep it covered, since a dry surface will prevent the dough from expanding properly, and lightly mist it with water, if needed. (A little humidity will help the process along.) Once the dough has doubled in size, you can expect it to expand at least 50% in the oven.
Recipe: All-Purpose Enriched Bread
Yield: 2 loaves
Total time: 1 hour 45 minutes, plus 6 to 26 hours’ resting and proofing
- 1 cup/240 grams whole milk or buttermilk
- 6 tablespoons/50 grams plus 3 3/4 cups/490 grams all-purpose flour, plus more, if needed, for work surface
- 5 large eggs, chilled
- 2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
- 1/4 cup/50 grams sugar
- 10 grams kosher salt (2 3/4 teaspoons Diamond Crystal or 1 1/2 teaspoons Morton)
- 2 teaspoons/6 grams active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup/113 grams unsalted butter (1 stick), cut into 1/2-inch pieces, chilled, plus more, at room temperature, for pans
1. Make the tangzhong: Combine the milk and 6 tablespoons flour in a medium saucepan and whisk until smooth. Place the saucepan over medium heat and cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture begins to thicken, about 2 minutes. Continue to whisk vigorously, making sure to scrape along the bottom curve of the saucepan, until the mixture is very thick and looks like smooth mashed potatoes, about 20 seconds longer.
2. Remove saucepan from heat and scrape the tangzhong into the bowl of a stand mixer. Cover the bowl and let the tangzhong sit until it is room temperature, about the better part of an hour. (A cool tangzhong is crucial to ensuring proper dough development; you can speed it along by chilling the bowl and occasionally uncovering it to stir the tangzhong.)
3. Make the dough: To the bowl of the stand mixer, add 4 eggs (reserve the remaining egg for brushing over the dough), then add the oil, sugar, salt, yeast and remaining 3 3/4 cups flour. Fit the mixer with the dough hook and mix on low speed until the ingredients come together as a coarsely textured dough, about 3 minutes. Stop the mixer, scrape down the sides of the bowl with a bowl scraper or flexible spatula, then mix on medium-low, scraping down the sides once or twice more, until dough is smooth, firm and very elastic, 12 to 15 minutes. It will have gathered around the hook but still cling to the slides and bottom of the bowl, and have a mostly tacky, not sticky, texture.
4. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add half of the chilled butter pieces and mix on low speed until the butter pieces have incorporated into the dough, about 5 minutes. Stop the mixer, scrape down the sides again, and add the remaining butter. Mix on low until all the butter is completely incorporated. The dough should no longer stick to the sides of the bowl and will have a very smooth, supple appearance. Increase the speed to medium-low and continue to mix until the dough is extremely elastic, another 10 to 15 minutes.
5. Test the dough: To see if the dough has built sufficient strength and elasticity — which it will need to expand to its maximum volume in the oven — stop the mixer and raise the hook. The weight of the dough will slowly pull it downward off the hook. (A strong dough will stretch the distance to the bottom of the bowl, rather than tear.) You can also do a windowpane test: Pinch off a golf ball-size piece of dough, and use your thumbs to flatten it and work the dough outward into a thin layer. Slowly stretch the dough, until it forms a thin membrane through which light can pass. If it tears before that point, or as it falls from the hook, continue to mix on medium-low and repeat the test every 5 minutes.
6. Let the dough rise: Scrape the dough onto a work surface. (If the dough is a bit sticky, dust it very lightly with flour.) Fold it in half several times to create a smooth, taut surface, then place back inside the stand mixer bowl, smooth-side up. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or an airtight lid and let rise at room temperature for 30 minutes, then transfer to the refrigerator and chill for at least 4 hours and up to 24. (If making hamburger buns or pistachio morning buns, stop here and see recipes.)
7. Prepare the pans: Using a pastry brush, lightly coat the bottom and sides of 2 standard loaf pans with room-temperature butter. Line each pan with parchment paper, leaving an overhang on the two longer sides, then lightly brush the parchment paper with more butter. Set the pans aside.
8. Portion the dough: Remove the dough from the refrigerator and uncover. Scrape the dough from the bowl and place on the work surface. Use the heel of your hand to knock out the gas and deflate the risen dough, which will be quite firm. Using a kitchen scale and a bench scraper or a knife, portion the dough into 16 equal pieces. (Each piece will weigh about 70 grams.) If you do not have a kitchen scale, you can eyeball it.
9. Form the loaves: Working with one piece of dough at a time, fold it onto itself a few times to create a smooth surface, then gather the edges and pinch them together to form a smooth bundle of dough that looks like a garlic bulb. Place it seam-side down on the work surface and position your hand over the dough, palm barely touching the top and fingers lightly cupping it and resting on the work surface. Drag your hand — and the dough with it — slowly across the surface, moving it in small, rapid circles. The friction between the dough and the surface will help tighten the dome so your loaves rise upward. You should not need to add flour, since the cold dough is easier to handle and much less sticky, but if your dough is slightly warm or otherwise sticky, add just a bit of flour to make it easier to handle. Continue with all the pieces of dough, then arrange the balls inside the prepared loaf pans, 8 per pan in a 2-by-4 pattern.
10. Proof the loaves: Cover the pans tightly and let sit at room temperature, undisturbed, until the dough has doubled in size and the individual domes appear puffed and balloonlike, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
11. Meanwhile, arrange an oven rack in the center position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Beat the remaining egg in a small bowl until no streaks remain, then set aside.
12. Test the loaves: For the softest, airiest bread, the dough must be fully proofed. Test it by uncovering the loaves, lightly oiling your finger, and gently poking the surface. It should feel filled with air, spring back, and hold a slight indentation from your finger. If it does not, cover again and continue to let it rise, repeating the test every 10 or 15 minutes.
13. Apply egg wash and bake the loaves: Brush the surfaces of the proofed loaves generously with the beaten egg and transfer the pans to the oven. Bake side by side, rotating each pan 180 degrees and left to right after 15 minutes, until the surfaces have risen dramatically and are deeply browned, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool completely in the pans, then cut along the short sides with a paring knife to loosen. Use the parchment paper to lift the loaves out of the pans. Slice with a serrated knife.
TIP: The bread is best the day it is baked but will keep, wrapped tightly at room temperature, for up to 5 days. Toast lightly to revive.
Yield: 10 buns
Total time: 1 hour 45 minutes, plus 6 to 26 hours’ resting and proofing
- Neutral oil, such as vegetable, or nonstick cooking spray, for the baking sheets
- 1 recipe All-Purpose Enriched Bread dough, chilled
- All-purpose flour, for dusting (optional)
- 1 large egg
- 3 tablespoons hulled sesame seeds
1. Prepare the baking sheets: Line two large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Lightly brush or spray the parchment with oil, then set aside.
2. Portion the dough: Remove the dough from the refrigerator and uncover. Scrape the dough from the bowl and place on the work surface. Use the heel of your hand to knock out the gas and deflate the risen dough, which will be quite firm. Using a kitchen scale and a bench scraper or a knife, portion the dough into 10 equal pieces. (Each piece will weigh about 113 grams.) If you do not have a kitchen scale, you can eyeball it.
3. Form the buns: Working with one piece of dough at a time, fold it onto itself a few times to create a smooth surface, then gather the edges and pinch them together to form a smooth bundle of dough that looks like a garlic bulb. Place it seam-side down on the work surface and position your hand over the dough, palm barely touching the top and fingers lightly cupping it and resting on the work surface. Drag your hand — and the dough with it — slowly across the surface, moving it in small rapid circles. The friction between the dough and the surface will help tighten the dome so your buns will have a uniform, round shape. You should not need to add flour, since the cold dough is easier to handle and less sticky, but if your dough is slightly warm or otherwise sticky, add just a bit of flour to make it easier to handle. Continue with all the pieces of dough, then arrange the balls on the prepared baking sheets, 5 per sheet, spacing evenly.
4. Proof the buns: The buns proof best in a humid environment, so use a spray bottle, if you have one, to lightly spritz the baking sheets with water, or just sprinkle some water around the buns with your fingertips. Loosely cover the baking sheets with plastic wrap, then cover with a damp kitchen towel. Let sit at room temperature, undisturbed, until the buns have doubled in size and appear puffed and balloonlike, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
5. Meanwhile, arrange one oven rack in the upper third and one in the lower third of the oven, then heat it to 350 degrees. Beat the egg in a small bowl until no streaks remain, then set aside.
6. Test the buns: To see if the buns are fully proofed, uncover one, lightly oil your finger, and poke the surface gently. It should feel filled with air, spring back and hold a slight indentation from your finger. If it does not, cover again and continue to let them rise, repeating the test every 10 or 15 minutes.
7. Apply egg wash and bake the buns: Brush the surfaces of the proofed buns generously with the beaten egg and sprinkle the sesame seeds over top. Transfer the pans to the oven, one on each rack. Bake, rotating each pan 180 degrees and top to bottom after 13 minutes, until the buns are puffed and deeply browned, 18 to 22 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely on the baking sheets. Split horizontally with a serrated knife.
TIP: The buns, stored airtight, will keep at room temperature for up to 5 days, or can be frozen up to 1 month. Toast lightly to revive.
Pistachio Morning Buns
Yield: 15 buns
Total time: 2 hours, plus 6 to 26 hours’ resting and proofing
- 1 cup/128 grams raw shelled pistachios
- 1/2 cup/105 grams Demerara sugar
- 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 cup/113 grams unsalted butter (1 stick), plus 1 tablespoon, at room temperature, for greasing the pan
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 recipe All-Purpose Enriched Bread Dough, chilled
- All-purpose flour, for rolling
1. Toast the pistachios: Arrange an oven rack in the center position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Scatter the pistachios on a rimmed baking sheet and bake, shaking once, until they are golden brown and nutty smelling, 6 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool completely. Very finely chop the pistachios or crush them beneath a heavy pot, and set aside.
2. Make the filling: In a small bowl, combine the sugar, lemon zest, cardamom and salt, and mix with your fingertips, rubbing in the lemon zest until the mixture is fragrant and well combined. Set aside 1/4 cup of the mixture for sprinkling over the baked buns, then combine the remaining sugar mixture with the chopped pistachios and set aside.
3. Combine 1/2 cup butter and the honey in a small saucepan, and warm over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter is melted and the mixture is combined. Remove from the heat and set aside.
4. Prepare the pans: Using a pastry brush, brush the bottom and sides of a 13-inch-by-9-inch baking dish with the remaining tablespoon of room temperature butter, then set the pan aside.
5. Roll out the dough: Remove the dough from the refrigerator and uncover. Scrape the dough from the bowl and place on the work surface. Use the heel of your hand to knock out the gas and deflate the risen dough, which will be quite firm. Dust underneath and on top of the dough with a bit of flour, then roll it out into a rectangle measuring about 22 inches long, 12 inches wide, and a scant 1/4 inch thick, dusting with more flour if necessary to prevent sticking. Try to work quickly to prevent the dough from warming, which will make it harder to slice the buns.
6. Fill and form the buns: Dust off any excess flour, then brush the entire surface of the dough with all but 3 tablespoons of the honey butter mixture. (Reserve the remaining honey butter mixture for brushing over the baked buns.) Sprinkle the pistachio mixture evenly across the surface, pressing it gently into the dough so it adheres. Starting at one of the longer sides, roll the dough into a tight log. If the dough seems very soft, slide the log onto a baking sheet and chill until firm enough to slice, 10 to 15 minutes. Use a serrated knife to slice off the ends of the log, then cut it crosswise into three even sections. Cut each section into five even pieces, so you have 15 total. Arrange each piece cut side up in the prepared baking dish, forming a 3-by-5 grid.
7. Proof the buns: Cover the pan with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until the buns are all touching, very puffed, and about doubled in size, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
8. Meanwhile, arrange an oven rack in the center position and heat the oven to 350 degrees.
9. Bake the buns: Uncover the pan and transfer the buns to the oven. Bake, rotating the pan 180 degrees after 15 minutes, until the buns are golden brown all over, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and immediately brush with the reserved honey butter. Sprinkle the reserved sugar mixture evenly over top, then let the buns cool completely in the pan.
10. Serve: Use a small serrated knife to cut between the buns and all around the pan, then lift them out one at a time.