The Trick to Easy Homemade Panettone? It's All in the Buttermilk

A loaf of panettone on a cutting board with a slice of panettone on a plate. A cup of coffee is next to the plate.
A slow-risen, buttermilk panettone that's really worth eating. Vicky Wasik

Panettone is gluttonous bread. (As it happens, it's also very glutenous, but more on that later.) Full of egg yolks, butter, fruits, nuts, and sugar, panettone is the holiday season made flesh, the ultimate way to ditch your beach bod and pack on some warmth for the winter. Most commonly, however, the panettone available in stores and bakeries is expensive, stale on arrival, and impersonal in character, often made long before it's sold and full of preservatives I don't know how to pronounce, which I figure means I should try to avoid eating them.

That ends now.

Making delicious, homemade panettone is indeed something of a commitment—start to finish you should expect this to take nearly two days!—but time, effort, and difficulty aren't all the same thing, and this recipe is as easy as it is time consuming, and well worth the reward. As we go forward, I'm going to explain the ins and outs of mixing the dough, and explain how to make this bread to your own whimsical tastes and fancies. Get greedy, folks, and let's talk dough.

The Biga

Biga for making panettone.

In bread baker terms, panettone dough is within the brioche family, meaning that it's a mid-low hydration dough that uses eggs and milk in place of water, and is enriched with butter and sugar. Translation: panettone is high in fat, which is why it's as delicious and satisfying as it is. What makes it unique with respect to other enriched breads is its acidity, usually derived from a sourdough culture incorporated into the dough.

But cultivating and maintaining a sourdough culture is a hefty commitment for most home-bakers. See, sourdough cultures are symbiotic cultures of wild yeast and lactic bacteria. These cultures are allowed to proliferate in a mixture of flour and water over an extended period of time, creating a bread-leavening soup that is at once very much alive and acidic in character. It's primarily the presence of the lactic bacteria that sets sourdough-leavened bread apart from commercially yeasted breads with respect to flavor. These mixtures generally need to be fed daily, sometimes several times, and can take days to successfully revive from cold storage.

We don't want to have to feed a starter several times a day, and that's why this recipe is built around a pre-fermentation method called biga, which is most commonly used in Italian baking. Bigas, a relative of American starters or French poolish, are relatively dry mixtures of flour, water, and trace amounts of commercial yeast. The low hydration, combined with an extended fermentation time, gives biga-assisted breads an earthy, almost nutty flavor profile. Most conveniently, bigas need only be mixed the night before a final dough is mixed, making it easy to whip one up and put it to use. But commercial yeasted preferments lack acidity, which is where the buttermilk comes in. See, cultured buttermilk is naturally acidic, and contains within it a similar host of lactic microflora as sourdough culture does. That's why in this recipe, the water that would have been used to hydrate the biga is replaced with buttermilk, emulating the acidity of sourdough. Your biga is ready to use when it has roughly doubled in volume and smells sweet, which will take anywhere from 12 to 16 hours.

The result: Buttermilk + biga + time = a delicious and floral sweet dough base, without the hassle of using a sourdough culture. Mix it the night before and forget about it until the next morning.

But while that's happening...

The Soaker

Soak your cherries! The longer the better, but they need to soak at least overnight in order to properly hydrate. Nobody likes dry fruit, but there's an even better reason to soak it before adding it to the dough.

Generally speaking, whenever dried fruit is added to bread, the fruit should be soaked in water for a period of time. While this might seem like a minor detail, this step is hugely important. The reason for this is straightforward: when dehydrated things commingle with really wet things, osmosis takes over, and those dehydrated things begin absorbing water. In the case of bread, a failure to pre-soak dried fruit means that the fruit would steal water away from the rest of the dough, ultimately having a dramatic impact on our dough's overall hydration. Through presoaking, we avoid this trap, and ensure that however much liquid we put into our dough stays in the dough, allowing us as bakers to more consistently control outcomes.

But when it comes to something like panettone—a celebration made starchy—using water for the soaker was just too boring. And I have to come clean on this: I love boozy bread. Sweet doughs with liquor in them are just delicious, so it was a priority of mine to squeeze some bourbon into this recipe. After all, why miss the opportunity? Adding the lemon zest to the soaker offers the final dough a citrusy aroma that nicely complements the tanginess generated by the buttermilk.

But really, you can make your soaker out of anything you want. Use raisins, or apricots, or cranberries. Use rum, or amaretto, or limoncello. In place of a soaker, you can throw in chocolate, or chunks of marzipan. More than any other part of this formula, the dough additions are where there's room to play around, so make it count.

And so, with my biga proofing and my cherries pre-gaming, it's time to disappear for 12 hours... which brings us to mixing the final dough.

Mixing Your Panettone

For those of you who've checked out the recipe, you'll notice that this dough needs to be mixed in stages, and that it takes nearly an hour in the mixer to achieve its final form. If you've got ants in your pants—a chronic condition for men in my family—then be warned: the order and steps in the mixing process matter, and jumping the gun on any of them will negatively affect the final product. This is a slow bread. Good thing you've got some extra bourbon around, right?

We'll take this down in steps.

  • Step 1: Mix everything except our salt, sugar, butter, soaker, and hazelnuts. That means putting all of your biga, egg yolks, yeast, and the remainder of the flour and buttermilk in the mixer, and mix until it's incorporated. The goal here is to fully hydrate the flour so that gluten can begin developing before we throw in any of the delicious but really heavy stuff later on.
  • Step 2: Add your sugar and salt. This is what it sounds like. What's most important to know is why we withhold these ingredients from our initial incorporation. Sugar and salt both strongly attract water. They attract water so strongly in fact, that they can compete with our flour and yeast for water if their introduction isn't managed properly. By withholding these at first, we give gluten formation and yeast activation a head start, significantly reducing the amount of time it takes to develop the desired amount of gluten in our dough, which is a lot.
  • Step 3: Develop gluten. Knock your dough around in the mixer at medium-high speed to develop a strong and elastic gluten network. It should form a taught but stretchy ball. Developing such a formidable gluten network will help the dough support the weight of all the fun stuff we're about to throw in it.
  • Step 4: Add your butter. And yes, it's a lot of butter. Most important here is to pre-soften your butter but make sure it's still cold. It's going to take a good while of spinning in the mixer for all of the butter to incorporate, and if your butter isn't still cold then the heat generated by the mixer will cause the butter to separate, making it nearly impossible for the dough to come back together. To soften butter and keep it cold, I like to think angry thoughts and whack it with a rolling pin over and over and over. Fold it in half a few time and keep whacking it to make sure it gets the point. Then, with the mixer running slow, drop pieces of butter in the bowl and watch them disappear. If you see some butter wall-flowering itself on the side on the bowl, chaperone it back into the mix with your dough spatula. Your dough should loosen and become voluptuous in feel as the butter fat lubricates your gluten network.
  • Step 5: Add your soaker and nuts. Toast the hazelnuts whenever is convenient, but make sure they aren't hot when you add them to your dough, or they could cause the butter to separate. Before adding your soaker, make sure to pour off any extra bourbon. (This isn't waste! Your cherry bourbon syrup is the perfect sauce for your panettone. Save it, and you will be rewarded). I always dump it all in at once, set my mixer on low and then turn away for five minutes. Your dough will come apart briefly into a horrid chunky mess for a few minutes, then will pull itself back together if you've developed adequate gluten. Stay calm, it will look worse before it looks better.
  • Step 6: Shape your panettone and set for proofing. When your dough comes back together into a uniform mass, with all of the tasty bits evenly distributed through the dough, it's time to shape and set the panettone for proofing. Remove the down from the bowl, shape into a boule (it's going into a mold, so don't overthink this) and place it into an un-greased panettone molds, making sure that they fill up the molds no more than a third of the way up.

On Proofing and Shaping

For those of you familiar with the workhorse loaf, there a few steps that are essential to hearth baking that are conspicuously absent here. Most notably, this recipe requires no bulk fermentation, and there is no pre-shape.

But oh my!!! You warned us not to skip those steps in your earlier article! How will we ever learn to trust you again?!?!?

Calm down. I've got my reasons.

If we think back to our earlier posts, we should remember that a proper bulk fermentation serves primarily to develop structure and flavor. Similarly, the purpose of a pre-shape is to generate adequate structure so that a loaf will be able to support itself in the oven.

Since our panettone is being baked in a mold, we don't need to worry about generating surface tension during shaping because our loaf won't be expected to hold itself up—the mold will provide the loaf support throughout its proofing and baking. As for flavor, bulk fermentation or not, this bread is going to taste like buttermilk, and cherries, and lemon zest, and bourbon, and butter, no matter how we proof it. Why add another five hours to an already time consuming project?

With that out of the way, I want to take a minute to throw out some suggestions for creating a nice proofing environment for your panettone. Panettone needs a lot of warmth, humidity, and time to rise, and there's a real risk that the surface will dry out during proofing if proper measures aren't taken. Lucky for us, there are a few things a baker can do to help the panettone along.

  • Cover and egg wash your panettone! A light coat of egg wash applied two or three times throughout proofing helps keep the bread's upper surface malleable, allowing it to rise unhindered. Covering your molds lightly but securely with plastic wrap ensures that moisture doesn't escape into the air, which is a chronic problem on dry, cold, winter days. If you have an empty cardboard box lying around, place that over your rising loaves for added protection.
  • Crank your heat! Seriously. If you have control over the heat in your kitchen, then aim for 80 degrees of higher. I usually place the panettone on a sheet tray and place it on top of my stove with the oven on, making sure that the loaves aren't in direct contact with any active heat sources.
  • Humidify your kitchen! Humidifying the air greatly helps dough rise and reduces the chances your dough will dry out. Both of these are good. I like to get a stock pot full of water boiling on the back of my stove. If you have a humidifier already, use that. Or, soak some towels in water and place them in your oven, making sure to keep your panettone near the oven vent. However you do it, it'll only help.

Whew. And that's most of the work. With the mixing, shaping, and proofing-habitat-making accomplished, most of the rest is just waiting. When your panettone has risen two-thirds up the sides of the mold, which can take anywhere from 8-12 hours depending on your environment, it's time for a second egg wash and baking, the details of which you can find in the recipe.

A freshly baked loaf of panettone on a wood cutting board.

I like to mix and shape panettone early in the day, and then bake it that evening, knowing that I'll let it cool overnight before eating. Alternatively, you can mix your biga in the morning, mix and shape your dough that evening, and then bake it the next morning if you want. The schedule is yours to toy with. Make it work for you, and share it with the folks you care about.

And with that, I'm signing off. Happy baking everyone, and have some happy holidays!