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Japanese milk bread- How to make the softest, lightest and fluffiest bread ever

In this post, I will show you the softest, lightest and fluffiest Japanese milk bread recipe.

You may wonder, Japan is not the country famous for bread, so what is so unique about the Japanese bread recipe?

I was equally puzzled why the Japanese bread (Hokkaido milk bread) is so soft until I found the secret ingredients on a Japanese website (Thanks to Google translate !)

What is TangZhong?

TangZhong is the term of the semi-cooked flour/water mix when it is heated up to 165°F/74°C, which resembles a pudding-like roux. The gelatinized starch withholds more moisture, which makes the bread incredibly soft and fluffy.

This method is not something familiar to people who grow up in the west, where bread is the staple food. 

In fact,  archaeology and history show that bread has been eaten since at least 30,000 years ago, according to an article. There is extensive evidence of breadmaking in Ancient Egypt and the Middle East long ago.   Fast forward to the present time, the method of bread making has been improvised in different ways all over the world.

So today I am using one of the Japnese bread-making methods, the TangZhong method,  which has not seen in any English cookbooks. (As far as I have read 🙂

Making Japanese milk bread for a change

Bread is something undeniably tasty. The flavor of a good loaf, the cracking sound of biting into a freshly baked baguette, and the texture of the soft crumb is almost a sensual experience.

But in the Far East at Hokkaido, Japan, at the land of the rising sun, people living there are making bread with a soft, tender and silky smooth texture, taking the position at the other end of the spectrum.

Japanese or Hokkaido milk bread has become the typical stable in Japan, It is as light as a feather and can tear apart like cotton when it is fresh from the oven.

Read on if you are willing to stick your neck out trying something unconventional.

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info. I may receive commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

 I will show you the softest, lightest and fluffiest Japanese milk bread recipe.

How to make Japanese milk bread – the easy step-by-step guide

Making Japanese soft bread can be messy, and it takes time to master. Therefore, I try to strip off the unnecessary information, making it simple and straightforward.

As you will notice in the video, I use a simple, small mixer for demonstration rather than using my large mixer in my cafe.  The method is virtually hands-free except for shaping the dough. Alternatively, make use of your bread machine if you have one.

Step 1- Preparing the TangZhong

This is the most important step in baking Japanese milk bread that is as soft as cotton.

Here are the steps:

  • Mix one part of bread flour with five parts of water.
  • Place the flour/water mixture in a small pan (I use a milk pan), heat it up slowly over low heat.
  • The slurry will start to become thicker as the temperature rise. Eventually, you can draw lines while stirring, similar to the consistency of whipping cream just before it forms soft peaks. At this time, it should be around 65°C/150°F. (You can use a kitchen thermometer to test it, but after a few practices, you should be able to judge it visually to decide when to remove it from heat.
  • Let the TangZhong cool down before adding to the dough.
Hokkaido milk bread
Look at the paper-like texture when you tear open the bread!

Step 2- Scaling all the ingredients

Scaling the ingredients is quite straightforward. The only thing might be a little tricky is how much water is required. My favorite amount of water is 63ml per 100g of flour. This ratio usually yields bread dough that is moist, elastic but not too wet to handle by hand.

Flour has the most significant effect on the outcome of bread among all the ingredients. You need to use bread flour, not the cake flour in this recipe.

Bread flour has 12% to 14% protein (gluten), which can produce bread with good structure and texture.

The recipe is set up with the weight of flour as 100%, and the amount of other ingredients is relative to flour.

I will not follow exactly the textbook method, but with a few twists to bypass some kinks and quirks along the way.

Note on bread flour

Bread flour contains 12% to 14% gluten, which is an essential ingredient for a good bread structure. Gluten is the composite of the protein called glutenin and gliadin.

When flour meets water, glutenin will denature and forms a long, curly string. This string gives the bread the desired structure, allows the dough to expand and rise. Glutenin is hydrophilic (meaning attract water) and able to hold more water in the structure of the bread. Therefore, glutenin contributes to the elasticity and springy property of the dough.

Gliadin is hydrophobic (water-repelling) and therefore counteracts the elasticity of gluten and contributes to extensibility to the dough.

Bread flour has the percentage of gluten that provides the optimum amount of gluten for bread making.

Hokkaido mild bread
Japanese bread is soft like cotton and with a fine texture.

Step 3- Mixing the dough

Mixing is self-explanatory, but there are some key points worth taking note to get the best result.

(Note: Please refer to the recipe for the step-by-step mixing instruction.)

  • Incorporate the flour and water and set aside to let it rest. This step is called autolyze, which is a passive step to develop gluten. You can skip this step, but autolyzing the flour will produce loaves of bread with better structure.
  • If you are using active dry yeast, mix it with water to bloom it before adding to the flour and water.
  • Mix with a dough hook at low speed. If you use a small mixer, start with low speed as it might be damaged if you are mixing a tough dough. Low speed is preferred as high speed might tear apart the gluten.
  • Mix all the remaining ingredients (except butter) in the recipe for eight to ten minutes. You will notice the sticky mess in the mixer slowly bind together and takes shape.
  • Add the butter at the last stage since butter hinders gluten development. After a while (about mixing for eight to ten minutes, depends on the power and the speed of the mixer) the sticky mass will become a sticky dough, and eventually turns into an elastic dough with a shiny surface.
  • Perform a stretch test. Mix the dough until you can stretch the dough to form a semi-translucent film without breaking it. This method is commonly used to determine whether the mixing is sufficient. At this stage, you can stop mixing and proceed to the next step.

Step 4- Bulk fermentation

After mixing, leave the dough aside and wait for it to expand. The expansion is due to the yeast cells consume the sugar (which is the result of the starch breaks down during fermentation) and start to produce gas and alcohol. (Yes! The yeast cells can eat, fart and poop!).

Things to take note at this stage:

  • It is best to cover the dough with a kitchen towel or cling film to prevent a crust from forming.
  • Let the dough rise to room temperature. Do not rush the bulk fermentation. In fact, slow rice is better because it encourages flavor and structure development.
  • Fermentation is completed when the dough is double in size. If you poke your finger into the dough at this stage, a dent will remain.

Step 5- Punching, portion, rounding, resting and folding the dough

So far your hands are clean because the mixer is doing all the hard work for you. Now it is time to get your hands dirty. This is a step you cannot rely on the machine.

Some books break down this step into several sub-steps, which is labeled in bold in the following paragraphs. These are quite straightforward, but if you are unsure, please refer to the video below.:

  • Use your fist to punch down the dough (lightly of course!). Punching helps to release the air trapped in the dough. Lift up the side of the dough with a floured hand, and it should flop out in one giant blob onto the table. It is now much less sticky (and more elastic) thanks to the formation of gluten.
  • Use a baker’s scale, portion the dough and divide it into pieces of uniform weight with a dough spatula. Remember there will be about ten to thirteen percent water loss during baking, so the bread/bun will become lighter than the pre-baked dough. So let’s say you want to make some rolls weighted 50g each, you should weight 60 g of dough to get the desired weight.
  • Shape each portion into smooth, round balls. This procedure is called rounding, which stretches the gluten to form a skin on the surface. It helps to shape the dough and also retain gases produced by the yeast cells.
  • Let the dough rest on the working surface for ten minutes to let the gluten relax. It is easier to shape the relaxed dough into the pattern you like. Folding is a crucial step to making Japanese milk bread, although it does not apply to many continental bread recipes. First roll out the dough as thin as possible (if you carry out the previous steps
  • Folding is a crucial step to making Japanese milk bread, although it does not apply to many continental bread recipes. Folding the dough like making croissants help to form texture with layers. You can peel off the bread by layers as thin as paper by hand. Add this little trick to your bread making routine. You will be amazed by the paper-like texture. Roll out the dough with a rolling pin into a rectangle, as thin as possible but not to break it. After that, roll it up like making a Swiss roll.
  • Apply some oil to the cake pan before placing the dough in it to ensure easy removal after baking
  • Clean up your working surface with the bench scraper.
Japanese soft buns for breakfast
Japanese soft buns are perfect for breakfast or afternoon tea.

Step 6- Proofing

Proofing is the final step before baking. Here are a few points worth to pay attention:

  • After putting the shaped dough in the loaf pan or baking pan, cover it with a damp cloth to retain moisture.
  • You can leave them in a warm place until it doubles in bulk. You may also place it in a cold area and let it proof for a longer time (also called retarding). Slow proofing will give the bread better flavor.
  • If you have a rich dough (as in this formula, in which there is a high content of butter), you may want to under proofed slightly as the weaker structure of gluten (as a result of the higher amount of oil) with not withstand much stretching.

Step 7- Baking and cooling

Bake at 180°C/350°F for 25 minutes or until the crust turns golden brown.

Be careful so not over baked the rolls as we are making Japanese soft bread, not a crusty finishing like banquettes.

Perhaps the most noticeable change during baking is the size of the dough. So if you bake the dough which has doubled its bulk, the final volume of the bread will be more than double, around 2 1/2 times larger than the original size. The volume expansion is due to the last effort of the faithful yeast cells before they eventually surrender their life as a result of the increased heat in the oven. This process is called oven spring.

Oven spring occurs due to the rapid rising of temperature in resulting rapid expansion of the gas trapped in the dough and the increased activity by the yeast at a higher temperature. However, once the temperature reaches 60°C/140°F, yeast will be killed, and the dough will stop rising.

Another significant change is the browning of the surface, producing the unique flavor of the bread. At this stage, the starch is broken down into simple sugar, and the proteins are torn apart into amino acids. These simple sugars and amino acids interact with each other to form thousands of organic component which collectively stimulate our senses. That is why you are attracted by the aroma drifting from the kitchen to your dining room. In chemistry, this happening in the oven is called the Maillard reaction.

After baking, remove the Japanese milk bread from the pans quickly to allow the moisture and alcohol to escape quickly. Apply some melted butter before cooling if you prefer to have a soft crust on the bread.

Additional note: Use the right amount of water for the dough

The amount of water is way too little if it is the only source of liquid. That is why you may find that is is too dry in the beginning.

However, after adding the egg and the TangZhong, which have a high percentage of water, the total amount of water becomes just right.

More water is added from the butter at the final stage ( butter contains about 16% of water), which make the final dough has the right consistency.

You can take a look at the images below:

Looks too dry
MIlk bread 2
Add TangZhong
MIlk bread 3
Add butter
Japanese style butter buns
The buns are just baked and cooling on the rack.

Japanese Milk Bread Recipe

Yield: 10 small buns

Japanese Milk Bread

Japanese soft roll

Japanese milk bread is the fluffiest, softest bread you can find. 

Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 44 minutes
Total Time 54 minutes

Ingredients

TangZhong: (Part 1)

The main dough: (Part 2)

Instructions

TangZhong:

  1. Mix the bread flour and water in part 1) in a small pan, heat it up slowly over low heat.
  2. When the slurry starts to become thicker, you can draw lines while stirring it. When this happens, remove it from heat.

The main dough:

  1. Sprinkle and dissolve the active dry yeast in water, wait for five minutes until the yeast is activated.
  2. Mix the water/yeast combination and flour in part 2 together, mix it for half a minute and set aside to autolyze for at least half an hour.
  3. Add the TangZhog and rest of the ingredients in part 2 (except butter) into the flour/water mixture. Mix with a dough hook for eight to ten minutes.
  4. Add butter and mix for another two minutes or until you can stretch the dough to form a semi-translucent film without breaking it.
  5. Cover the dough with a kitchen towel or cling film. Let the dough ferment at room temperature until it doubles in size. If you poke your finger into the dough at this stage, a dent will remain.
  6. Punch down the dough. Place the dough on a working surface. Portion the dough and divide it into pieces of uniform weight.
  7. Shape each portion into smooth, round balls. Let the dough rest on the working surface for ten minutes to let the gluten relax. 
  8. Roll out the dough as thin as possible, and then roll it up like making the Swiss roll. Place them in an oiled bread pan.
  9. Cover it with a damp cloth or cling wrap to retain moisture.
  10. Leave them in a warm place until it doubles in bulk.
  11. Apply some egg wash on the surface. Bake at 180°C/350°F for 25 minutes or until the crust turns golden brown.

Notes

Two teaspoons of milk powder can be replaced by 40 ml of milk. So the 55ml of water will become 40ml of milk + 15 ml of water (The main dough)

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

10

Serving Size:

10 buns

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 148Total Fat: 4gSaturated Fat: 2gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 1gCholesterol: 27mgSodium: 112mgCarbohydrates: 23gFiber: 1gSugar: 4gProtein: 4g

This data was provided and calculated by Nutritionix on 5/25/2019

How to convert the ordinary bread formula to Japanese milk bread

This Japanese milk bread is the softest, lightest and fluffiest bread ever.

The following example demonstrates how to convert any bread recipe to the pillowy soft Japanese milk bread.

Let’s say you have a basic white bread recipe as below:

– High gluten flour (bread flour)105g
– Water 47ml
– Milk powder 4g
– Castor sugar 15g
– Salt 1g
– Egg 20g
– Butter 15g
– Active dry yeast 1g

Following the following steps:
1. Set aside 5% (5g) of the bread flour in the recipe to prepare the TangZhong.
2. Reduce 5g of flour in the recipe.
3. Set aside 25ml (5 times of the weight of flour) of water for the TangZhong
4. Reduce 25ml of water in the recipe

The revised recipe will be as below:

TangZhong:
– 5g of bread flour
– 25g of water
The main dough:
– High gluten flour (bread flour)100g
– Water 22ml
– Milk powder 4g
– Castor sugar 15g
– Salt 1g
– Egg 20g
– Butter 15g
– Active dry yeast 1g

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Lor

Friday 2nd of October 2020

Thanks for the recipe. Did want to mention that the tang zhong is also described as a roux, which is a French term. This has been in use as the start of sauces and pastries. Most commonly known would be choux pastry with which you make eclairs and profiteroles. So not in bread that I have seen, but close.

Gale

Tuesday 22nd of September 2020

Hi KP Kwan, been studying your method as I'm a new baker just would like to ask because I read in your article that liquid or water content is supposed to be 63% of liquid per 100g of flour but when I compute the recipe the liquid should be more or less 165ml?(250g+13g=263) 263flour x 0.63 liquid =165.69)But in the recipe its just 55ml? Im confuse please help

KP Kwan

Tuesday 22nd of September 2020

Hi Gale, Sorry to make you confuse. The 63% that I refer to is the total of all liquid (water + egg). So flour is 13 from Tangzhong + 250 from main dough = 263 And the liquid is 63 (from TnagZhong) + 55 of water and 50 of eggs from the main dough = 168 168 divided by 263 = 63.8% I hope now it clear to you :) KP Kwan

CGI

Friday 26th of June 2020

HI, I like the colour of your bread. May I know how to do the perfect egg wash?

KP Kwan

Saturday 27th of June 2020

Hi CGI, The bun looks golden partly is because it has a lot of butter. I just beat the whole egg and apply to the buns.

Sue

Monday 22nd of June 2020

Hi Sifu

I followed everything to a tee, but when my bread came out the crust was rather hard. Not in an unpleasant way, but not like how Tang Zhong is supposed to come out. Inside was super soft and fluffy though.

Does this have to do with my oven temperature being too hot? Or maybe I over kneaded the dough with my dough hook?

Thank you(:

KP Kwan

Tuesday 23rd of June 2020

Hi Sue, Kneading should not affect the hardness of the crust. Tangzhong makes the bun soft but will not also soften the crust. I suggest you use a slightly lower temperature and try not to bake until the color is too dark. Hopefully, that is the reason. KP Kwan

Florence

Monday 8th of June 2020

Hi KP Kwan , Thanks for sharing this recipe n detailed explanation. Have made twice n turn out well. I would like to check if I use instant yeast , do I still need to mix the yeast in the water for 5 mins? Secondly, if I intend to keep the dough for next day baking, at which stage I put into the fridge? The next day , after taking out from the fridge, I need to leave the dough at room temp b4 baking . Thanks n a blessed week

KP Kwan

Tuesday 9th of June 2020

Hi Florence. Here are my answers: 1. You do not need to dissolve the instant yeast with water, although there is no harm. 2. I will make the bread until the final stage. My method is to keep the shaped dough in the freezer. When I want to bake it, remove it from the freezer and let it proof at room temperature and bake. The proofing time can be longer because it starts from the frozen state. (If you put it int the fridge, not the freezer, It may be overproof on the next day. I hope this information is useful. Thanks. KP Kwan

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