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How to Make Japanese Milk Bread at Home

September 23, 2014

It's always more fun to DIY. Every week, we'll spare you a trip to the grocery store and show you how to make small batches of great foods at home.

Today: You don't have to go all the way across the Pacific in search of the fluffiest, lightest, tallest bread of your life; Cynthia from Two Red Bowls is showing you how to do it in your own kitchen.
 

When I first set out to make Hokkaido milk bread from scratch, I was nervous. These sky-high, snow-white loaves are the cornerstone of any respectable Asian bakery -- feathery soft yet rich and decadent, with wisps of bread that pull away in sheets when you separate its parts. For me, it was practically legendary.

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To add to the mythos surrounding this lofty bread, I couldn’t find much in my research on traditional ways to make it, or even on its origins. Most recipes appeared to use tangzhong, a type of roux-like paste designed to give bread a finer crumb and a softer, fluffier texture. And many of them lead back to this recipe by Christine Ho, which is in turn based on a cookbook called 65 Degrees C by Yvonne Chen.  

In the end, I tested three different recipes, and the one that won my heart was indeed the one I adapted from Christine’s. It was a dream to knead, shape, and bake, and the bread was just like I’d imagined: sweet, fragrant, and pillowy-soft. It’s good enough to eat plain and even better in sandwiches, but in my opinion, it’s best when toasted, lightly buttered, and smothered in sweetened condensed milk -- the milk toast of my dreams.
 

Hokkaido Milk Bread

This recipe yields one loaf made in a 9- x 4- x 4-inch pan. Taller loaf pans are ideal -- I used a Pullman without the lid. For those using the metric system or a bread machine, feel free to check out Christine’s original recipe; hers will also yield two smaller loaves or one 13 x 4 loaf instead of one 9 x 4.

For the tangzhong:

6 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons bread flour

For the rest:

1/4 cup whole milk
1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 3/4 cups (about 350 grams) bread flour
Scant 1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon sweetened condensed milk or milk powder (optional)
1 egg
2 tablespoons butter

For the egg wash:

1 egg
A splash of milk (optional)

In a small saucepan, whisk together 6 tablespoons of water and 2 tablespoons of bread flour until no lumps remain. Heat the mixture over medium-low heat, whisking constantly. It should thicken to a gel-like consistency after just a few minutes.

As soon as lines appear in the mixture when it's stirred, remove it from the heat and transfer it to a small, clean bowl. Let it cool to room temperature.

Next, heat the milk briefly to just above room temperature, about 110° F or lukewarm to the touch (I do this simply by microwaving it for 10 to 15 seconds). Sprinkle the yeast over the milk and set it aside for 5 to 10 minutes for the yeast to activate (you’ll see the milk start to foam).

In the meantime, sift together the bread flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. In a smaller bowl or a measuring cup, whisk together the tangzhong, cream, condensed milk (or milk powder), and one egg.

  

Add the foamy yeast mixture to the wet ingredients, then make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in all of the wet ingredients. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms into a loose, shaggy dough, then switch to using your hands.

Knead for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the dough forms a semi-smooth ball. The dough will be quite sticky -- sprinkle flour over your hands and the dough as is necessary while you knead, but try to avoid over-flouring. (One tablespoon of flour should be enough.)

Add the butter to the dough, one tablespoon at a time, kneading after each addition. Add the second tablespoon of butter only after the first has been evenly incorporated. 

The dough will be slippery and messy at this point, but just keep kneading (actually, it’s oddly satisfying) and it should eventually form a soft and pliable dough that’s easy to work with. Knead for an additional 4 to 5 minutes, or until the dough becomes smooth and elastic.

  

Place the dough in a large bowl with plenty of room and cover it with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Let it proof for 1 to 2 hours, or until well doubled. 

Alternatively, you can let the dough proof overnight in the refrigerator, which I prefer. It gives the gluten extra time to develop, and yields a better flavor, in my opinion. Plus, dividing the labor over two days makes the process much more manageable. The dough should be fine for up to 24 hours.

Once the dough is doubled, turn it out and punch it down. Divide it into three or four equal pieces. For each piece, roll the dough out to a long oval. Fold the oval into thirds widthwise (as shown below), then flatten again. Roll the dough up lengthwise, then place into the loaf pan. Repeat with the remaining pieces.

    

Let the dough proof again until it's doubled, another hour or so. After about 40 minutes, preheat the oven to 350° F. When the dough seems ready, test it by pressing it gently with one finger; when the indentation bounces back slowly but remains visible, the dough is ready to bake.

Whisk an egg with a splash of milk and brush the egg wash over the dough.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until golden-brown on top. When it’s done, the bread will sound hollow when tapped. 

Let it cool briefly, then slice and enjoy it fresh, or toast thick pieces and slather them with sweetened condensed milk

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Cynthia of Two Red Bowls

75 Comments

Dave June 20, 2018
Terrific Article, Cynthia! A quick question, if I may... I think I probably will prefer to keep doing everything manually and from scratch, but I've been thinking of getting a bread machine just for fun. Have you ever used one? If so, do you recommend any particular machine? And finally, would this recipe lend itself to being made in a machine? Many thanks! Dave
 
helen October 2, 2017
I made this bread and it's wonderful.<br />bake bread all the time.<br />I tripled it and did it all in my Kitchen Aide.<br />Put all dry ingrid. in bowl and went from there.<br />I baked all 3 loaves at once till they reached 195 to 200 degrees.<br />About 35 mins.<br />Such beautiful color.<br />Will make often.<br />Thanks, Helen
 
Chrisgelica July 9, 2017
I made this with AP flour and doubled the recipe. It was SO good though I should have baked it longer. I made one loaf as shown and one long loaf and both had sections that were not fully cooked which was sad but I am trying again tonight and cooking it a little longer.
 
Trish S. December 31, 2015
Just to let all the bread machine readers know, I tried this recipe with my machine and it worked fine. The process however, ends when you add the wet ingredients all together, as there is no need to knead after that. Also, you have to put the wet ingredients in the bread machine pan first (even though it contains the yeast) and then put your dry ingredients in. I tested both ways and this works best for this recipe.
 
Ann October 15, 2015
Hi . . is it possible to use All purpose flour?
 
Author Comment
cynthia |. October 27, 2015
Hi Ann, yes, it is possible to use AP flour, although the bread may not be quite as chewy or stretchy when pulled apart, because AP flour won't build quite as much gluten. But it should still be fine -- let me know what you think if you try it!
 
Wei K. September 27, 2015
Thanks for sharing your recipe Cynthia.<br />I made the bread and it is quite yummy. May I know what may have gone wrong that my bread didn't look as soft as yours? Also, if I want to make a loaf for slicing, how should I shape/ put the dough in the tin? Thank you :)
 
Author Comment
cynthia |. October 27, 2015
Hi Wei, I'm sorry that it didn't turn out as soft as you hoped! Did you use a stand mixer or knead by hand? How long did you let the dough rise? Unfortunately there can be a lot of reasons why bread could be softer -- if you kneaded by hand, it's possible that it needed a few more minutes of kneading to build up the gluten to be really light and lofty. If you used a mixer, on the other hand, it's possible that it was actually over-kneaded (so frustrating, I know!) The best trick I've heard is from Sam at http://lovecommacake.com/blog/2014/10/2/chocolate-cardamom-swirl-bread -- the dough has been kneaded enough when it feels like a "baby's thigh," soft and pudgy, not tight and taut, but not slack and squishy. Haha. As for rising, when bread is too dense or not soft, it's also possible that it didn't rise long enough -- it should double once overnight and then nearly double again after shaping, to the point where if pressed, the indentation springs back very slowly but still remains. If you press it and it springs back right away, it needs to rise more; if you press it and it deflates, it has over-risen. <br /><br />Finally, to make a loaf for slicing, all you need to do is shape it into a log the length of the tin :) if you like, you can flatten it and roll it up like a cinnamon roll (similar to the photos above, but just one long roll instead of four short ones!)<br /><br />I hope I haven't inundated you with too much information -- hope this was helpful and that the bread turns out better if you try it again! Thank you so much for the kind words!
 
mes3900 August 23, 2015
I just made your recipe and it turned out super! The bread rose 2-3 inches above the sides of my Pullman pan (with no lid). The texture is just like the pictures and the taste is amazing. I put the dough in the frig about 14 hours before I got it ready for baking. I followed your instructions exactly so I could have a benchmark for making a few changes! I have only been baking bread for a few months and this recipe did not prove too difficult and the results are stellar. Thank you for posting the recipe
 
christina April 28, 2015
Hi Cynthia<br /><br />I made milk bread follwing your recipe. Its great. Wonder if I can use wholemeal flour instead? Do I use the same amount as normal flour? Do I need to let the dough come to room temparature before shaping? Do I use lesser yeast if I am using the instant yeast?<br />Sorry to load you with a lot of questions. I am a beginner.<br />Thank you very much.
 
Author Comment
cynthia |. August 21, 2015
That's amazing, thank you so much for letting me know!!! Let's see, here is what I know about your questions -- I have very little experience with whole wheat flour, but I would try substituting just some of it for the bread flour and see how it goes (maybe 3/4 cup or so whole wheat and 2 cups bread flour). I think using only whole wheat would probably change the texture fairly significantly, and you might need to add a few more tablespoons of milk. But I can't speak from a ton of experience on that one! As for shaping the dough, nope! I actually like shaping it while it's still relatively cool because it's easier to handle and not so sticky. Then I let it come to room temperature in the second rise. Finally, I think you should be able to use instant yeast in the same amount as active dry -- but instead of adding the yeast to the milk and letting it foam, you can just add the yeast straight into the flour with the sugar and salt and mix together all the wet ingredients without heating up the milk. :) Hope that helped!!!!! Thank you again for trying it out!!
 
Ana M. April 16, 2015
I just made this (substituted milk for heavy cream since I didn't have any, and it turned out fine! My loaf just wasn't quite as tall as the one pictured). It's absolutely amazing toasted and buttered with a fried egg on top, definitely making this again! Thanks for the great recipe :D
 
Author Comment
cynthia |. August 21, 2015
Oh my gosh, thank YOU so much for trying it and letting me know!!! YAY!
 
Julie April 14, 2015
Hi Cynthia,<br /><br />Thank you for the amazing detailed recipe! It took me two tries to get this right. I tried to take a short cut and use a food processor the first time--thereby overheating the dough and killing the yeast. I've learned that hand kneading is key and is really not that bad when you've got a non-stick surface like a silpat mat to knead on. My second try came out perfectly! I can't stop eating it even though it's midnight. <br /><br />I was thinking about using this dough to make ham rolls like I have had in Japanese bakeries. Have you ever added meats or cheeses to this bread? If so, at what stage would I add them--before or after the final shaping?<br /><br />
 
Author Comment
cynthia |. April 16, 2015
Hi Julia,<br /><br />Making these into ham rolls sounds SO good!!! I would wrap the add-ins into the rolls during the final shaping -- i.e., instead of rolling up the four pieces and placing them into the loaf pan for the final proof, roll the ham and cheese into the dough and let them proof on a baking sheet. I'd also bake for less time, probably around 20 minutes or so (or until golden brown on top). I'd love to hear how it turns out if you try it!! And I'm SO happy you liked the recipe plain!! Thank you so much for letting me know! (PS Kneading on a Silpat is nothing short of genius -- I'm going to have to try that!)
 
voyagechicster April 6, 2015
Hi, Cynthia,<br />Like the other said, I've tried to make milk loaf with other recipes and yours. I only got success with your recipe. Yesterday I made 2 loafs and it was gone within a day. I live in California so I did some modification to the recipe. First, I added only 1 1/4 cups of bread flour first and slowly mixed another 3/4 cups. The whole 2 3/4 cups of bread flour was too doughy for California dry weather. I also substituted sugar with honey. Then, I mixed in half tbs milk powder and half tbs of condensed milk. For tangzhong, I used milk instead of water. I proofed the two doughs in the fridge. The 18-hr dough turned out better than the 24-hr one. The second proofing was done in a light-on oven with a pan of boiled water at the bottom. The outcome was sooooo good! 1 loaf I added chocolate and the other one was just regular milk loaf. Thank you SOOO much. This is the very first time I tried to bake anything. Only 2 tries with your recipe. I got the perfect milk loaf everyone loves. I'll be baking this a lot ... or maybe as often as I don't gain too much weight!
 
Author Comment
cynthia |. August 15, 2015
Hi there!!! This is so belated, but I just wanted to say thank you SO much for this amazing comment!!! It truly made my day. I'm so glad that you liked the recipe -- it means so much :) Yay!
 
christina April 5, 2015
Hi Cynthia,<br />Thank you for your recipe. I read it last night and try it out immediately. The bread is so good. Wonder if I can subsititute the whipping cream with something less fatty and use olive oil instead of butter?
 
Author Comment
cynthia |. April 5, 2015
Hi Christina,<br />I am so so glad to hear that!! Yes, you can definitely substitute the whipping cream with equal parts milk -- the bread won't be quite as creamy and soft, but I have made it with all milk instead and I still love it. I'm less certain about the olive oil, but I think you should be able to make it just fine by substituting 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil for the butter, kneaded into the dough at the same point in the recipe as the butter. Let me know how that goes if you try it, I would love to hear your results! Thank you again for trying the bread, I'm SO glad you liked it!!
 
Lapheepun March 13, 2015
Hi Cynthia,<br /><br />Thank you for great recipe. I make the dough last night and bake it this morning. This is the first time that I have success in making bread after I try to make bread from several recipes. Because I don't have electric mixing and hand kneed so it might be one of the reasons that I always fail to make bread. But your recipe turn out very good and yummy even I did not measure some ingredients exactly (condense milk and I use substitute heavy cream). I will definitely make this again and again. Thank you!
 
Author Comment
cynthia |. April 5, 2015
This made my day -- thank you so much for letting me know!! I'm so glad you liked the bread!
 
Whisks &. March 2, 2015
Hi Cynthia, <br />I made the buns last night and put taro fillings inside. The buns are a bit dry though. How to fix that? Thanks!
 
Author Comment
cynthia |. March 6, 2015
Hi there, I'm sorry they were too dry for your liking! Maybe you could try taking them out of the oven a bit earlier next time? Did you bake them as individual buns on a baking sheet, touching in a baking pan (like this http://tworedbowls.com/2014/10/21/black-sesame-rolls-yuanyang-coffee-tea-glaze/), or in a loaf pan like the bread above? If the bread wasn't baked in a loaf pan, my guess is that buns will take less time to bake because the dough is shallower in the pan -- about 20-25 minutes instead of 30. The bread is done when it's golden brown on top and sounds hollow when tapped -- that's usually the best indication of when to take it out. I hope that helps!
 
Whisks &. March 10, 2015
I baked them as individual buns. I will try to bake with a bit less time. Thanks! :)
 
whitebreads March 2, 2015
Hi Cynthia,<br /> I am also having the same problem with my yeast not foaming with the milk. I tried proofing and it appears to be fine with the water and sugar. I'm not entirely sure why?
 
Author Comment
cynthia |. March 6, 2015
Hi there! I'm sorry, I'm not sure why the yeast isn't foaming with the milk. Try dissolving the sugar in the recipe in the milk (instead of adding it in the flour) before adding the yeast? That might give it more to "eat" and could help with foaming. Alternatively, you could try dissolving the yeast in 2 tbsp of water and sugar, since that has worked for you, and substituting that for half the milk. Let me know how it goes if you try it!
 
Author Comment
cynthia |. August 15, 2015
Hi! I know it's been forever since you wrote, but I was just doing some research on milk in dough and came across some interesting information -- http://community.kingarthurflour.com/content/milk-or-water-white-sandwich-bread-recipes it looks like certain milks may have an enzyme that inhibits or kills yeast, so that you have to scald it and then cool it down before adding the yeast. I don't know if this is totally irrelevant at this point or if you've figured it out, but I thought of you when I came across it and thought I'd pass it along!!
 
Michele F. February 9, 2015
Hi Cynthia, I tried this today and though the dough rose wonderfully, I found that after baking it for 30 minutes, although the top was a beautiful brown, the sides and bottom remained pale (unlike the loaf in your pictures) and the centre portion was still raw. What went wrong, you think? Should I have left it in longer? I was afraid the top would burn though.
 
Author Comment
cynthia |. February 9, 2015
Hi Michele, I'm so sorry it didn't work out! Yes, I think it needed to bake a little longer -- if the top begins to brown too much, you can cover the pan with foil and continue to bake until the bread sounds hollow when tapped. When covered, the top won't brown as much. Also, this is more of a guess, but you could try moving the bread to a lower rack in the oven, as well. Hope that helps!!
 
Win P. January 26, 2015
Hi Cynthia, I haven't had much luck with this recipe. The dough fail to rise on two attempts. Any idea what could be the culprit? The water roux I made was of paste like consistency and I also use machine with hook for kneading.
 
Author Comment
cynthia |. January 26, 2015
Win, I'm so so sorry to hear that!!! My first thought is the yeast -- did it foam when you combined it with the lukewarm milk? It should form a thick layer of foam on top of the milk, which is how you know it's alive and will help the bread rise. Also, did you try a cold rise overnight or did you let it rise in a warm place? With bread in general, I've heard of some trouble with cool rises, though that hasn't happened to me particularly -- you may want to try creating a warmer place for your dough to rise (some people preheat their oven for 30 seconds, then turn it off and place the dough inside, for instance) in case that helps the yeast along. Finally, I'm wondering if kneading with a machine might result in overkneading, which can also inhibit rising. How does your dough feel when it's done kneading? It shouldn't be flabby anymore, but should be somewhat firm and smooth but still soft and pliable, if that makes sense (one of my favorite baking blogs refers to it as "a baby's bottom" ;)! ) If it gets dense and hard, it might have been overworked. Let me know -- I hope we can figure out what went wrong! I'm so sorry again that it didn't work :(
 
Win P. January 27, 2015
I tested the yeast with water and sugar and it foams well. But with yeast and milk (no sugar) there was no foaming. <br /><br />I did refrigerate the dough over night on my second attempt and there was no rise at all.<br /><br />My room temperature is about 25-28C.<br /><br />I kneading with medium-low speed, after 10 minutes the dough was very sticky and "heavy", almost like my kid's play doh.<br /><br />I was thinking perhaps my water roux was too liquid? Should i let thicken more?
 
Author Comment
cynthia |. January 27, 2015
Hi Win!<br /><br />Thanks so much for the details! I don't think that this has anything to do with the water roux -- a bit wetter or a bit drier of a roux hasn't made a difference for my loaves. Hmm, I'm not sure why your yeast would have foamed in water and sugar but not milk, since milk contains its own sugar that should allow the yeast to foam -- but if you're sure it's alive, I think the best solution would be to allow the dough to rise is a warmer place (25-28C sounds like it should be good enough) for a longer period of time (maybe 2-3 hours), until doubled. You could also try the yeast and water mixture in your bread instead of milk, and just decrease the sugar in the rest of the recipe by how much you used. The heavy cream should make up for the water for the "creaminess" of the bread. Also, I don't have too much experience with stand mixers, but I might suggest kneading at medium-low for a few less minutes next time (say, 6-7?) until the dough is elastic and smooth, but still pliable. I usually find that the dough is heavy and dense before the addition of the butter, but soft and easy to knead after the butter is incorporated.<br /><br />I hope that helps!!
 
Author Comment
cynthia |. August 15, 2015
Hi Win! I know it's been forever since we talked about this, but I was just doing some research on milk in dough and came across some interesting information -- http://community.kingarthurflour.com/content/milk-or-water-white-sandwich-bread-recipes it looks like certain milks may have an enzyme that inhibits or kills yeast, so that you have to scald it (killing the enzyme) and then cool it back down to lukewarm before adding the yeast. I don't know if this is totally irrelevant at this point or if you've figured it out, but I thought of you when I came across it and thought I'd pass it along!!
 
Christina January 6, 2015
Can I get to the rolling point and then leave it in the fridge overnight? (basically I'm trying to just proof it in the morning and then bake)
 
Author Comment
cynthia |. January 6, 2015
Hi Christina, yes, that should be just fine! I haven't done the proof after shaping the loaf in the fridge but I've seen plenty of overnight cinnamon roll recipes that call for a similar technique, so my guess is that it shouldn't be a problem. I would just let it come to room temperature in the morning and bake it when it passes the finger-indentation test :) Let me know how it goes if you try it!
 
Jina December 30, 2014
I found few different recipe online. One use heavy cream and the other use more milk in Tanzhong.<br />I have tried Milk Bread from Chinese, Korea and Japanese bakeries in NY and by far Japanese wins. How do you rate your recipe compare to real Japanese version?<br />My daughter loves the bread from Japanese bakery but I want to make it in organic version since she eats them everyday. I am a novice baker and I don't think I can try all different recipes. I think I should stick to one and perfect it! Thank you-
 
Elena November 18, 2014
If I choose to divide the labor between two days, what are the exact steps? Do I let the dough rise once before I put it in the fridge?<br />Thank you
 
Author Comment
cynthia |. November 18, 2014
Hi Elena, nope, no need! I just throw it right in the fridge after I'm done kneading and let it rise there -- generally overnight, about 10-12 hours. Then I move on with shaping the loaf and the second rise the next day. Hope that works for you!!