Why It Works
- Using bread flour ensures a high proportion of gluten-inhibiting fats can be incorporated into the dough.
- A combination of eggs and whole milk achieves an extra-tender and airy crumb.
- Chilling the ingredients ahead of time helps control fermentation during the long mixing process.
- Mixing the brioche in stages, with rest periods in between, creates a strong gluten network and prevents the dough from overheating.
- Adding the sugar later in the mixing process allows the butter to incorporate more easily.
- A cold fermentation builds complex flavor and lets the fat re-solidify, making the dough easier to shape.
Brioche is, without a doubt, the gold standard of enriched bread, the yardstick by which all others are measured. It is unashamedly rich with a melt-in-the-mouth quality and has a relatively soft, thin crust that can be squished without cracking. It has a tight, even crumb that, when baked correctly, can be torn apart like cotton candy into fluffy strips. Although brioche may sound complicated or fancy, it’s made from common pantry staples: flour, butter, eggs, salt, and sugar. In fact, its proportions of butter and sugar to flour are similar to pie dough. And much like pie dough, brioche is all about the butter, just expressed differently. Instead of being crisp and flaky, brioche is pillowy and soft, thanks to an almost three-fold increase in hydration (about 25% for pie dough versus 70% for brioche), mainly in the form of eggs and the addition of yeast.Remove the yeast from a list of brioche ingredients and one could mistake the ingredient list for cake, and they'd be right! Brioche is the original cake; consider the famous mistranslation of “Qu'ils mangent de la brioche!,” which may or may not have actually been said by Marie Antoinette, to “Let them eat cake.” After all, it was only with the introduction of chemical leaveners like baking soda in the mid-1800s that we began to disassociate cake with yeast. To boot, brioche has a much lower sugar content than the average modern cake, which makes it an incredibly versatile cake-like bread for both savory and sweet applications. It lends itself equally well to sandwiches and burgers as it does to being soaked with syrups, speckled with chocolate chips, or swirled with jam.
What is Brioche: A Look at Ingredients and Ratios
In the world of breads, there are two basic categories: lean and enriched. Lean doughs refer to your typical sandwich bread, pizza, or baguette and have little to no sugar or fat added. When a dough is enriched, it means it has been bolstered with sugar, eggs, or fat to create various textures and flavors. From Parker House rolls to challah, panettone to cinnamon buns, you’ve probably been enchanted by the softer and fluffier profile of enriched doughs.
When you slice open a loaf of well-made brioche, you’ll be greeted with an ultra fine crumb. This is partly thanks to the yeast which ferments the flour and produces bubbles of carbon dioxide that expand in the oven, causing the bread to rise. The rest can be attributed to the butter. As the bread bakes, the butter (which was dispersed throughout the dough during the mixing process) melts, lubricating the dough around it and leaving pockets of air bubbles in the gluten structure. Once it cools, all the melted fat re-solidifies in the crumb, yielding a springy yet delicate bread.
Whilst there is no strict formula for brioche, there are some commonalities we can rely on.
First, there needs to be a significant proportion of fat in a brioche dough, which comes mostly in the form of butter. In baker’s percentages or baker’s math (where we calculate the percentage of an ingredient in proportion to the total weight of the flour), a true brioche should be well above 30% in fat, usually in the 45% to 80% range, though recipes may go all the way to 100%. Below 30%, you are getting into demi-brioche territory, a designation bakers use to refer to less buttery dough. Brioche with more butter will rise the least and is dense and rich. This is because fat inhibits gluten development and increasing the amount of butter in dough will ultimately limit the strength potential of the gluten network. Brioche made with less butter will sit taller but have a less tender, yet flavorful crumb. Although you wouldn’t think it with those percentages, a well-made brioche of any fat percentage will always be very light.
Second, eggs are key. They work to bind the ingredients together, both as a hydrating agent and an emulsifier, while providing flavor, color, moisture, and structure in the final loaf. Yolks contain lecithin, an emulsifier that is both hydrophilic (water-loving) and lipophilic (fat-loving), meaning it binds the water and fat components in the brioche dough. The proportion of yolks and whites makes a big difference on the final loaf. Brioche made with whites alone produces a brioche that is more similar to sandwich bread, while brioche made only with yolks has a vibrant, tall, and rich crumb that towers over its white counterpart. This is because lecithin, with its emulsifying power, helps to retain bubble structures by stabilizing the interaction between the at-odds fat and water in the dough, thus improving extensibility and volume in the final loaf. Without the emulsifying power of the eggs, you are limited in how much fat you can incorporate into the dough successfully―anything above 50% will leave you with a greasy mess after baking, just like a broken mayonnaise. It may be helpful to consider brioche as an emulsion that can break under heat and stress. If it breaks, the final dough will have little solid beads of butterfat distributed throughout after chilling. Although you could bake it, the final texture would be subpar and somewhat greasy.
Since brioche is a highly structured dough, with its interweaving web of fat, eggs, gluten and sugar, the use of strong bread flour, which has a protein content of 12.7% or above, is essential because fat, especially in high proportions, inhibits gluten development. When added to the dough, the fat coats the flour, preventing the proteins from forming long chains of gluten.
It’s possible to make brioche with all-purpose flour by reducing the hydration slightly, since lower protein flour can absorb less water (the proteins gliadin and glutenin, which form gluten, can absorb around twice their weight in water). But possible doesn't mean advisable. The seemingly minor protein difference between all-purpose flour (10-11%) and bread flour (12-13%) is enough to make a big difference in the quality of your brioche even after accounting for the necessary shift in hydration. In my experience, brioche made with all-purpose flour is more likely to produce a sad soupy dough instead of a happy springy one. And instead of brioche that's chewy and fluffy, loaves made with all-purpose flour tend to be spongier and more cake-like with a low, wide profile. There simply isn’t enough gluten produced from all-purpose flour to support the structure of the final baked product.
The Sugar, Water, Yeast, and More
While butter, eggs, and flour are the main building blocks of brioche, there are other essential supporting ingredients that help define its final characteristics. Sugar kickstarts fermentation and helps the dough retain moisture, as well as adding a pleasant but subtle sweetness. Salt strengthens the gluten structure and helps ensure a successful fermentation by inhibiting microbial activity. Yeast, which must be fresh or instant due to the mixing method, is at a slightly higher baker’s percentage of 1.8% compared to most yeasted breads (for reference, a typical loaf of white sandwich bread is 1.5%) to accommodate the enriching ingredients, namely sugar. Although sugar at first boosts the yeast, anything above 5% (this recipe is 14%) will ultimately slow down the fermentation process. Sugar, being highly hygroscopic, steals water from everything, including yeast cells. As a result, enriched doughs generally benefit from a slightly higher proportion of yeast.
As always, water (in the form of eggs, milk, and butter) plays an important role in the character of the final loaf. When it comes to hydration level, brioche is generally in the range of 60% to 80%, depending on the desired final product. A 100% brioche is outrageously airy and soft but difficult to make and runs the risk of stressing your stand mixer beyond repair. Brioche made with lower hydration is better for shaped bread, like babka, as it is less sticky and easier to manipulate. In this recipe, I aim for just under 70%, which strikes a great balance between airy and robust.
The Mixing Process
The word brioche comes from the French verb, broyer, which means “to pound,” so you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that this dough needs a lot of mixing. Like, a lot.
Traditionally, brioche is made by mixing the flour, sugar, salt, yeast, eggs, and milk (often referred to as hydrating agents) in a bowl. When placing the ingredients in the bowl, I make sure to keep the yeast apart from the sugar and salt as an insurance policy since the two ingredients affect the performance of yeast by stealing all of its water. (Although it’s unlikely to do damage in such small quantities, it’s better to be safe than sorry). The ingredients are mixed until medium gluten development is reached, the point at which the dough can be stretched but will tear easily. After this, softened butter is added piece by piece, and the mixing continues until full gluten development is achieved, the point at which the dough can be easily stretched into a very thin sheet without tearing. This is also known as the windowpane test. During this mixing process, long chains of gluten are formed, which ensures lofty loaves. Once mixed, the dough undergoes a long, cold fermentation in the refrigerator where it develops flavor and, crucially, firms up as the butter chills, making it easy to work with.
Although I’m sharing the most widely-accepted way to make brioche, there are plenty of other ways to force the butter into the dough. For starters, it is possible to ‘hyper mix’ brioche, a technique which involves throwing all the ingredients in the bowl and hammering the dough for up to 40 minutes in a mechanical mixer. I don’t recommend this due to the risk of overheating and damaging the dough (I’ll get into that shortly.)
On the other extreme, you can make brioche in a no-knead style, but it will never rise as tall as a mechanically-mixed brioche since the gluten chains are not as long. The same goes for brioche mixed in a food processor: it can be done incredibly quickly (5 minutes!), but the slicing action of the blades limits the long protein chains, and the result is a loaf with smaller volume, no matter how long you proof it. You can also make brioche by hand, but it is not advisable due to the warmth of your hands, which is likely to melt the butter over long periods.
This recipe employs the traditional mixing method, but I incorporate a few tactics to improve the process and final product.
Better Brioche Tactic 1: The Importance of Resting and Temperature Control
Temperature plays an important role in the success of brioche. When you mix the dough, you must balance gluten development with fermentation. These two processes are at odds with one another: Fat inhibits gluten development so a fat-containing dough needs to be worked more. However, working the dough results in a rise in temperature, which risks amping up the fermentation too much. If the yeast ferments the flour before a strong gluten network has been established, you will end up with a sticky dough that isn't strong enough to hold onto the little bubbles of carbon dioxide created during fermentation.
As you mix the dough, the friction generated by the mixer turns to heat. This, alongside the warmth from the surrounding atmosphere, can mean a rapid climb in dough temperature (since the rate of fermentation and temperature are linked, it’s important to take steps to control this). Taking strategic rests during the mixing process can limit this heat transfer. These downtimes serve as mini autolyse periods. Gluten will happily develop on its own without any interference or mechanical kneading. All you need to do is introduce flour and water and leave them to it―this is known as autolyse. During these rest periods, the tightened gluten strands relax and the dough will show improved flexibility and elasticity. As a result, these rest periods result in a reduction of the overall and active mixing time. Don’t forget that when it comes to bread, doing nothing is something!
Better Brioche Tactic 2: Controlling Temperature
Brioche is a sensitive beast, and because we all live in different climates and keep our homes at different temperatures, not one method fits all. Given the prolonged mixing process and heat it creates, I recommend first chilling all the dry ingredients, a step worthwhile no matter what temperature your home is.
Since air is being incorporated into the dough during the mixing process, the ambient temperature of the environment is crucial. I first tested this recipe in the summer and using both chilled flour and plasticised butter (cold butter that has been pounded until malleable without warming it up much; it will incorporate similarly to butter that's been softened by letting it warm slightly, but won’t raise the final dough temperature by as much) was essential to keeping the dough relatively cool. However, upon retesting in the winter in a much cooler home, I found that softened butter (65°F/18°C) incorporated more effectively.
After mixing, the dough should be around 77°F (25°C). If the dough is less than 77°F (25°C), I rely on a short ferment (about one hour) at room temperature to allow the yeast to establish before moving the dough into the refrigerator to cold proof. If your yeast is not properly established at this stage, the final proof will take around 50% longer. Although yeast should, in theory, come alive anytime, I often notice that enriched doughs performs poorly in the final proof if the dough hasn’t undergone fermentation and the yeast has clearly become active. For this recipe, you do not need the dough to double, you are just looking for visual puffiness.
Better Brioche Tactic 3: Holding Back the Sugar
Thought butter was gluten’s biggest enemy? Think again! Brioche dough is also under attack from the sugar. Sugar is highly hygroscopic, meaning it loves water. Sugar will do anything—beg, steal, or borrow—to get a hold of moisture. Because of this, it immediately begins to compete with the flour for water once added. To avoid this, I hold back the sugar until after I've added a portion of the butter. There are several benefits to this: The first lot of butter incorporates more easily into a denser sugarless dough―it’s almost like tempering, like you would egg yolks for custard, by adding a bit of butter in and preparing it for the next stage, allowing the dough to adjust to the fat. When you add the sugar, the dough will temporarily appear slacker and wetter as the sugar rapidly draws water from the gluten structure. However, since the dough is already well developed from the first stages of mixing, it will recover quickly. If you were to add the sugar at the beginning of the mixing process, the initial gluten development would take much longer (see Better Brioche Tactic 1).
Shaping, Proofing, and Baking Brioche
The final shaping of the brioche will impact the bread's crumb. I offer two ways to shape the dough in my recipe below. The first is what's called brioche Nanterre, in which a series of dough balls are proofed together in one loaf pan, giving you a highly tearable, pull-apart bread, and the other is a classic loaf, which is simply rolled up and proofed as one big piece of dough, that is great for slicing. Beware of dusting with too much flour during the final shaping stage as it can prevent the dough from fusing together.
The proofing and baking stages are the last chances for you to make a significant impact on your loaf: Slightly underproofing your dough will give you the largest oven spring but will likely result in a large rip in the crust as the under-fed yeasts have a maniacal last supper, and the heat of the oven causes a fermentation spike and a more erratic, slightly drier crumb. On the other hand, pushing the loaf to the other extreme by overproofing will result in a less dramatic spring but an airier crumb, though it may be at risk of deflation after baking. For brioche, I err on the side of being overproofed to achieve that light, fluffy crumb. Depending on the ambient room temperature, the refrigerator temperature, and the shaping of the dough, the proofing stage will take anywhere from 1 1/2 hours to 5 hours.
To promote oven spring, preheating the oven slightly hotter (400°F) than the baking temperature (350°F) will encourage an initial rapid rise. Although brioche has plenty of butter to effectively brown on its own, a slick of egg wash adds a luxurious shine befitting of such a decadent loaf. When fresh, there’s not much better than slicing your brioche and enjoying it slathered with jam. (There’s no need to add butter since brioche is its own source of fat and, when lightly toasted, those buttery flavors come through even more.) It also makes for an over-the-top grilled cheese, an indulgent breakfast sandwich, and serves as exemplary soldiers for dipping into soft boiled eggs and as the ultimate base for French toast.
- 2 1/4 cups (285g) bread flour, chilled in freezer for 2 hours beforehand
- 2 teaspoons (6g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1 3/4 teaspoons (5g) instant yeast
- 1/4 cup minus 1 teaspoon (55g) whole milk, cold
- 4 large eggs (200g) plus 1 large egg yolk (15g), divided, straight from the fridge
- 3 tablespoons (40g) caster or superfine sugar
- 3/4 cup (170g) unsalted butter, cut into 1 to 2-inch cubes, and softened to about 65°F/18°C (see headnote for guidance on controlling butter’s temperature)
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, add flour, salt, and yeast, making sure to place yeast and salt apart from one another in the bowl. Add milk, 3 eggs, and egg yolk and mix on low speed until no dry flour remains, about 1 minute. Increase speed to medium and mix for 3 minutes, then let rest for 3 minutes. Repeat mixing on medium speed and resting dough, scraping down bowl and hook as needed, until dough is homogenous and somewhat elastic (you can stretch it but the dough will tear fairly easily).
With the mixer running on medium speed, add one-third of the butter, one piece at a time, making sure to wait until each piece is mostly incorporated before adding the next, about 4 minutes. Add sugar and mix until fully incorporated, about 1 minute (the dough will slacken and look more wet). Repeat adding remaining butter, one piece at a time, and scraping down bowl and hook as needed, about 8 minutes. Let dough rest for 2 minutes.
Increase speed to medium-high and mix until dough pulls away cleanly from sides of bowl and is able to be gently stretched into a thin sheet without tearing, about 8 minutes.
Scrape dough onto a clean, un-floured work surface. Using clean hands, slide hands under left and right side of dough and lift it up from the middle until dough releases from work surface, then slap the bottom half of the dough down onto the work surface, quickly stretching the top half up and folding it over the bottom half (it will be sticky at first but don't worry, this process will reduce that as you work; do not add flour). Repeat this slap and fold motion, rotating dough as you work, until dough is smooth and less sticky, about 5 to 10 slaps.
Transfer dough to a greased parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and let dough proof at room temperature until dough is visibly puffed, about 1 hour. Press dough into a roughly 8- by 14-inch rectangle, cover tightly with plastic, and place in the refrigerator. Let dough proof and allow the butter to solidify for at least 4 hours or up to 24 hours.
Grease an 8 1/2- by 4 1/2-inch aluminum loaf pan and line with a 7- by 13-inch sheet of parchment paper so that parchment hangs over the long sides of the pan to form a sling. Transfer chilled dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Using a rolling pin or your hands, stretch the dough into a 8- by 14-inch rectangle. Starting at the narrow end, roll dough to form a log, then transfer to the prepared loaf pan seam side down. Alternatively, for brioche Nanterre, divide dough into 8 equal portions (70g each), forming each into a smooth ball. Arrange dough in a single layer in prepared loaf pan; they can be slightly touching and will proof into each other.
Loosely drape plastic wrap over pan to prevent a crust from forming and let dough proof at room temperature, between 2 1/2 to 5 hours for a large loaf, or 1 1/2 to 3 hours for a Nanterre-style loaf. The loaf is ready to bake once the dough is peaking above the rim of the pan by 1 inch and looks very wobbly. When pressed with a lightly wet or oiled finger, your finger should leave a slight indentation and the dough should bounce back slowly.
Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 400°F (204°C). In a small bowl, whisk remaining egg until homogenous, then using a pastry brush, gently brush all over loaf.
Place loaf in the oven, reduce temperature to 350°F (180°C), and bake until deep golden brown and to an internal temperature of 190°F (88°C), about 35 minutes (if loaf is darkening too quickly, loosely cover with aluminum foil); if loaf has not reached desired internal temperature, continue to bake, checking temperature in 5-minute increments until desired final temperature is reached.
Transfer pan to a wire rack and let cool for 10 minutes. Run a butter knife along edges to loosen, then lift loaf using overhanging parchment. Remove parchment, return loaf to wire rack, and let cool completely. Slice and serve as desired.
stand mixer with dough hook attachment, rolling pin (optional), digital thermometer, kitchen scale, bowl scraper, pastry brush, 8 1/2- by 4 1/2-inch aluminum loaf pan
The recipe can easily be doubled and will fit in a stand mixer bowl.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Brioche is best enjoyed on the day it’s baked. Leftover brioche can be wrapped tightly in plastic and kept at room temperature for up to 2 days, refrigerated for up to 7 days, and frozen for up to 1 month. To freeze, I recommend slicing your brioche first then defrost individual slices by toasting. If you prefer to freeze a whole loaf, defrost overnight in the refrigerator.