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Japanese Milk Bread

Imagine Wonder Bread with a proper pedigree . . .
difficulty:
yield:

One 900-gram (2-pound) loaf

time:

4 to 5 hours (about 1 hour active)

introduction

Japan is not the first country that comes to mind when we think of unique or innovative breads—or any form of bread, for that matter. But it is the birthplace of the soft, billowy loaf known as Japanese milk bread.

Wheat has been grown in Japan since 300 BC, when the grain was cultivated to feed livestock. In lean times, however, people ate it, too. Wheat became more desirable after the Chinese introduced noodles to Japan, but it wasn’t until the end of World War II that the Japanese began to embrace Western-style breads. In the aftermath of the war and amidst a shortage of rice—Japan’s staple grain—the U.S. provided lunches for children in the form of sandwiches and offered housewives classes on bread making.

Since then, the Japanese have absorbed bread into their food culture and have put their own spin on it. They’ve created Japanese milk bread, and, in so doing, have fashioned the American sandwich loaf into a supermodel. Tall and angular with gorgeous loft and a beautiful tawny crust, the bread’s crumb is elegant, yielding, and velvety soft, and its flavor sweet and rich. In addition to loaf form, milk bread dough might be shaped into rolls filled with Japanese curry or sweet red beans, wrapped around a hot dog before baking, or formed into buns for holding stir-fried noodles (we’re not making this up).

This formula is a straightforward direct-rise bolted white wheat bread. It is exceptionally moist and slow to stale thanks to the yukone, or flour paste, often referred to as a “water roux,” that is used in its preparation. (The Chinese term tangzhong is more commonly employed than yukone, but the two words refer to the same thing.) In truth, Japanese milk bread contains no more milk than any other pain de mie–style bread, but its name suggests a tenderness that is not misplaced. It is sometimes referred to as Hokkaido milk bread, a credit to the northern prefecture famous for its dairy products and the source of much of Japan’s milk. This recipe makes an exceptional loaf for sandwiches or toasting—or the best hamburger or hot dog buns you’ve ever tasted.

Baking Notes

Please purchase osmotolerant instant yeast, such SAF Gold, for this recipe. With a relatively high sugar percentage in the formula (just over 10 percent), the sugar will steal water from the yeast, slowing the fermentation and resulting in a denser loaf of bread. Regular instant yeast simply can’t win the battle for water against the sugar.

We make the yukone in our recipe by cooking Carolina Gold rice flour and water into a thick paste, or “water roux.” The paste, combined with the liquid ingredients and yeast before dry ingredients are added, produces a dough that is as smooth and stretchy as taffy. When handling strong, wet doughs like this one, water, not flour, is often better to prevent sticking. Use a splash as a contact barrier between the dough, the work surface, and your baker’s tools—including your hands. If the final dough grabs, sprinkle on some droplets and take control of the situation.

Deep, straight-sided loaf pans called Pullman pans make gorgeous sandwich loaves. They are sold with and without slide-on lids; you’ll need one with a lid for this recipe. Baked in a lidded Pullman pan, the bread forms sharp, neat corners and a tidy square shape that we appreciate in a sandwich loaf. We purchased nice, sturdy Pullman pans made by USA Pans online.

Proofing and baking in a lidded loaf pan can be tricky, as the solid top makes it impossible to monitor the dough’s progress. Follow the recipe instructions carefully and your loaf will bake up just as it should: flat-topped and crisp-crusted. When proofing, set a timer to avoid overdoing it—even a tight-fitting lid won’t prevent overproofed dough from spilling out during baking. If, on the other hand, you throw the loaf into the oven before it’s perfectly proofed, it won’t form a squared-off top. But who cares? The bread will still be rich, tender, and make damned good sandwiches.

equipment mise en place

For this recipe, you will need a digital kitchen scale; a heavy-bottomed small saucepan; a whisk; a small silicone spatula; a digital instant-read thermometer; a small bowl; a medium bowl; a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment; a wooden spoon; a plastic bowl scraper; a metal bench knife; a large bowl (ideally one made of ceramic); a 13 by 4 by 4-inch Pullman loaf pan with lid; a wire cooling rack; and an oven mitt.

  1.  

    In a small heavy-bottomed saucepan, whisk together the rice flour and water. Set the pan over medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly with a small silicone spatula and scraping the bottom of the pan, until the mixture has gelled into a thick paste (fig. 1.1) and registers 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Scrape the paste, or yukone, into a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate until the yukone temperature drops to 90 degrees or cooler, at least 30 minutes.

  2.  

    In a medium bowl, whisk together the bread flour, sugar, and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the milk, then add the yeast and whisk to dissolve. Add the egg and the yukone and whisk until well combined. Turn the dry ingredients into the mixer bowl and mix with a wooden spoon until the ingredients form a homogenous dough. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl with a plastic bowl scraper to ensure no bits of flour remain. Let the dough rest in the bowl for 10 to 15 minutes.

  3.  

    Attach the bowl to the stand mixer along with the dough hook. With the mixer running on medium-low speed, add the butter cubes a few at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. When all the butter has been added, increase the speed to medium-high and mix until the dough is taffy-like and pulls away from the sides and bottom of the bowl, 5 to 7 minutes. Pinch off a piece of dough and gently pull it with your hands; it should stretch into a thin, translucent film without tearing (fig. 3.1). If the dough tears, mix for 1 to 2 minutes longer, then test again.

  4.  

    Wet your work surface with a thin film of water to prevent the dough from sticking. Using a plastic bowl scraper, scrape the dough onto the moistened surface. Hold a water-dampened metal bench knife at about a 45-degree angle to the work surface and push the dough—essentially scrape it—toward your other hand. As the dough moves, its surface will start to tighten and the mass will form an oblong. Rotate the dough 90 degrees, and repeat the pushing/scraping process until its surface is nice and taut (fig. 4.1). Spray a large bowl (ideally one made of ceramic) with nonstick cooking spray, then transfer the dough to the bowl. The dough’s internal temperature should register 80 to 84 degrees. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it in a warm spot. Let rise until the dough is doubled in size (fig. 4.2), 1 to 1½ hours.

  5.  

    Lightly flour your work surface. Remove the plastic wrap from the bowl and dust the surface of the dough with flour. Run the plastic bowl scraper around the edges of the dough to release it from the bowl, then invert the bowl, allowing the dough to drop onto the floured surface. The dough will be very puffy (fig. 5.1), a sign of healthy fermentation. Sprinkle the dough with flour and pat it with your hands to de-gas thoroughly.

  6.  

    Take the right edge of the dough and fold it to the center (fig. 6.1), then fold the left edge to the center (fig. 6.2). Repeat with the bottom and the top. The dough should now be squarish in shape (fig. 6.3). Flip over the dough, cup your hands around its sides, then move your hands together in a tight circular motion, dragging the dough along and allowing its bottom to grip the work surface. Continue to “round” the dough until it forms a compact ball with a smooth, taut surface (fig. 6.4). Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rest for 15 to 20 minutes.

  7.  

    Spray a 13 by 4 by 4-inch Pullman loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray. Dust the top of the dough with flour. Using the bench knife, scrape up the dough mass and flip it over. Dust again with flour and de-gas by pressing with your hands. Stretch the dough to a rectangle about the length of the loaf pan and about ½ inch thick; position the rectangle so that it is parallel with the counter’s edge. Starting at the side nearest you, tightly roll up the dough, pressing along the seam that forms as you roll. Press along the final seam to seal. Roll the dough seam side down and coax it into a uniformly thick cylinder.

  8.  

    Place the dough in the prepared pan—it should make contact with the small ends of the pan and come close to the long sides, too. Spray a sheet of plastic wrap with nonstick cooking spray and lay it over the top of the pan. Let the dough rise until it is about ½ inch shy of the top of the pan, about 1 hour (fig. 8.1). Meanwhile, adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 425 degrees.

  9.  

    When the dough is properly risen, remove the plastic wrap. Spray the inside of Pullman lid with nonstick cooking spray. Slide the lid onto the pan, then let the dough rise for 15 minutes longer. Do not open the lid to check; if the dough has made even the slightest contact with the lid, it will tear if the lid is moved.

  10.  

    Slide the pan into the oven and immediately reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Bake for 40 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, then slide off the lid; the top of the loaf will be perfectly flat and lightly golden. Return to the oven and continue to bake until the loaf is deep golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes longer.

  11.  

    Remove the pan from the oven and set it on a wire rack. Immediately invert the loaf into an oven mitt–clad hand, then set the bread bottom side up directly on the rack. Let cool for at least 1 hour before slicing, or for thinner, more uniform slices, let cool for several hours.

    1. 1.1
    1. 3.1
    1. 4.1
    2. 4.2
    1. 5.1
    1. 6.1
    2. 6.2
    3. 6.3
    4. 6.4
    1. 8.1