Why? Because in the bread world, the term "enriched" means that these doughs are made with the good stuff: milk, butter, eggs, and/or sugar.
This includes universal bread favorites like challah, babka, and brioche, and it includes pastries like Danish and croissant (though in those cases, enrichments aren’t just added to the dough—they are added through the process of lamination, where butter is layered throughout the dough via folding).
Enriched doughs can be very different than simpler "lean doughs" (a category that encompasses everything from baguettes to pita to ciabatta and beyond). So what are the factors to consider when making one? How do you differentiate between the different types? And can they be used interchangeably?
First up, let’s talk mixing method. While there are a few exceptions to this rule, many enriched doughs are mixed using a method known as the "improved mixing method." This refers to an intense period of mixing – generally beginning on low speed to combine ingredients and encourage the chains of gluten to form.
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After a period of time (about 3 to 5 minutes), the speed of the mixer is raised to medium and mixing continues until the dough has reached full gluten development. At this stage, the dough should be strong enough to be pulled to create a “window"—a piece of dough so thin that it becomes nearly transparent. This level of elasticity can only be reached through intensive mixing, both in duration and speed. The result of this mixing method is a bread with a very tight crumb structure and a soft, slightly chewy crust. It also gives the dough enough gluten strength to be able to be manipulated in lots of ways: Many enriched doughs have to stand up to unique shaping methods.
2. The rise.
Like all yeast-risen doughs, enriched doughs need to proof after mixing, and then again after shaping. But the enrichments can noticeably affect fermentation time, which may result in significantly longer rise times for these types of doughs.
Why this happens depends on the type and quantity of enrichments in the dough:
Sugar can impede fermentation by absorbing some of the moisture in the dough; the yeast has to “fight” to be properly hydrated before it can commence feeding and beginning fermentation.
Fat (in the form of eggs or butter) can coat the flour, which means it will take longer for the yeast to successfully consume the simple sugars found inside the flour’s carbohydrates.
Regardless, it’s important to allow a long enough rise time after mixing and again after shaping. Despite the instructions on some recipes, the dough may not double in size, and that’s okay. Trust the recipe’s time guidelines for the first rise—and allow your dough to rise in a warm place for best results (or opt for a slow rise instead)!
Once the dough is shaped, determining proper proofing is a bit easier. Press your finger gently into the dough: If it pops back immediately, it needs more time. If it holds it’s place for a moment, and then begins to slowly return to it’s original position, it is properly proofed and ready for the oven. If your fingerprint sinks in and doesn’t spring back at all, the dough may be over-proofed. You can still bake the bread if it's over-proofed, it just may not bake as nicely: It could be dense; it could fall. If you're worried that your dough will be proofed before you're ready to use it, just toss it in the fridge. Then either bring your dough to room temperature before shaping, or shape it while it's still cold and account for a bit of extra rising time.
Proper proofing is especially important for intricately-shaped breads: Without a decent rise, the dough will pull apart in the oven, resulting in torn-looking or rough braids, twists, and so on.
Because many enriched doughs are subjected to intense mixing, they can handle relatively intense shaping.
Work with a firm hand to expel excess air from the dough, and be relatively aggressive to make sure you have a firm “seal” where edges meet. If you aren't, the seal may not hold.
Some enriched doughs, like brioche, are pretty soft and/or sticky, due largely to the high amount of fat content. It can actually be easier to work with these doughs while they are cold: You can pop individual pieces in the freezer for a few moments before shaping, or press the whole dough into an even layer and refrigerate until it’s easier to handle.
Other enriched doughs are relatively firm, and actually don’t require much additional flour to shape properly. In fact, too much flour can make some doughs harder to shape them—so be judicious and start with a little flour, using more as needed.
Before you bake, consider how you’d like to finish your bread or pastry. Enriched breads are often brushed with egg wash before baking. Egg wash helps the crust brown more evenly, it seals in moisture at the exterior of the crust, and creates a gorgeous sheen on the finished product. If using, be sure to apply the egg wash carefully—especially for intricate or woven shapes—or you’ll be able to tell where you missed a spot after baking!
While lean doughs often bake at high temperatures (400 to 500° F), enriched doughs are usually baked on the lower side, between 325 to 400° F. Lower temperatures are usually reserved for larger loaves, which need a longer bake time. Temperatures on the higher end are especially common for laminated pastries, like Danish or croissant. The moisture inside the butter evaporates quickly at a high temperature, creating steam which pushes the dough up, creating the light, flaky layers. If loaves or pastries are browning too much or too quickly, you can tent them with foil or lower the temperature.
5. Determining doneness.
Unlike so many desserts, a toothpick inserted into the center won’t tell you if enriched breads and pastries are properly baked. The best way to determine doneness is to use a thermometer! Treat your pastry like a good steak and stick a thermometer in the thicket part: Enriched doughs are usually done around 185° F. If you’re working with a large/thick pastry or loaf, you can allow for up to 5° carryover cooking; so pull it out of the oven at 180° F to ensure it doesn’t dry out.
Now that you understand how to make, shape, and bake enriched doughs, let’s talk about the different kinds and how to use them. There are tons of breads and pastries made with enriched doughs: Some recipes are super versatile and can be used lots of different ways to make entirely new breads and pastries! Others have more specific ratios and can’t be used so interchangeably.
Challah: Challah has a noticeably higher level of eggs than the other doughs on this list, which contributes to its especially golden crust and often yellowish interior crumb. It also usually contains a small amount of sugar, but for textural reasons more than for sweetness or flavor. It may contain milk, but also often includes water; it doesn’t usually, but can, include butter. It is sometimes made with a simple preferment known as a sponge, which is mixed shortly before the dough is mixed. While challah isn’t usually eggy in flavor, it’s less versatile for making pastries, and is usually reserved for making traditional breads and rolls.
Brioche: Similar to challah, brioche is made with a large amount of eggs and often a combination of milk and water (though it can be made with just milk). However, it usually contains more sugar, plus a whole bunch of butter. While brioche can be trickier to work with, it’s incredibly versatile, and can be made into loaves, cinnamon rolls, doughnuts, pastries, or even laminated into Danishes! It’s also similar to the base (and sometimes it is the base) for recipes like babka and Gugelhupf, which are made noticeably different due to the addition of fillings and inclusions.
Soft Rolls/Parker House Rolls: These doughs, with a soft texture and a lightly buttery flavor, are usually made with milk, butter, a small amount of sugar, and sometimes eggs. The sugar isn’t usually contributing much sweetness—just tenderness in the finished dough.
Danish: Traditionally, Danishes are made from a relatively sweet dough that may contain milk and/or a small amount of eggs or butter. It is usually laminated to incorporate butter and make it light and layered in the oven, but the dough itself is a bit denser, producing a less flaky pastry that's perfect for adding fillings and toppings to. Nowadays, you can call lots of pastries Danishes, even some that aren’t laminated. You can also turn other doughs (brioche, sweet dough, etc.) into Danish!
Croissant: Croissant dough itself (before the process of lamination) is usually only lightly enriched, often made with water and only a small amount of butter (usually no eggs, and little to no sugar). But then butter is incorporated through the series of folds called lamination, which enriches the dough with layers of fat throughout.
Sweet Dough: This can either be a general term or it can refer to a specific type of dough that's made with milk, eggs, sugar, and butter. There’s less butter in sweet dough than in brioche, but it works similarly and is equally versatile (and less butter actually makes it easier to work with). Sweet dough yields a soft bread/pastry that's only lightly sweet—it's the fillings and inclusions that take it over the top and make it special. It can be used to make cinnamon rolls, coffee cake, Danish, braided loaves, twisted loaves or pastries, and so on! I’ve included a recipe for Sweet Dough below, plus ideas of how to turn it into all kinds of pastries, from a fruit-filled loaf, to swirly buns, and even laminated Danishes!
I always have three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's wrapped in a pastry crust. My newest cookbook, Savory Baking, came out in Fall of 2022 - is full of recipes to translate a love of baking into recipes for breakfast, dinner, and everything in between!
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