This soft and glorious Hokkaido milk bread recipe, made using the tangzhong method of cooking flour in milk, has been a long time coming.
I first tried making fluffy Japanese milk bread a couple of years ago. Japanese bread seemed to be all over the internet, and I wanted to know what the fuss was about!
I’ve done a lot of baking in my life, but as soon as I’d made my first loaf of this golden brown and slightly sweet bread it shot into my top 5 favorite breads to bake. I started baking loaves and Japanese milk bread rolls almost every week, much to the delight of my family.
Like some of my other favorite enriched dough recipes (think easy potato rolls, lemon buns and twisted cinnamon bread, Hokkaido milk bread makes a soft, silky dough. It’s fun to work with and bakes perfectly in either a regular oven or a steam oven.
It’s taken many loaves to reach the point where I’m happy to share my version of this fluffy white bread. Read on for my tips and tricks that’ll help you get the best results when you try it for yourself.
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What is Hokkaido milk bread?
As best I can tell, a Hokkaido milk bread recipe is very similar to other Japanese milk bread recipes.
It’s a style of pillowy soft white bread, enjoyed in Japan as a sandwich loaf. Enriched with eggs, butter, milk and sugar, it uses the tangzhong method (which is actually a Chinese technique). Tangzhong is a mixture of flour, water and, in some cases, milk, cooked into a thick roux or paste to use as a starter. More on that below.
Hokkaido is a Japanese area renowned for high quality dairy products. Given this is a bread enriched with milk it seems as though the Hokkaido reference is down to this.
In the course of my Japanese milk bread recipe research, I have found many Hokkaido milk bread recipes contain both whole milk and milk powder. My recipe does, too, for the extra richness and fluffy texture it brings to the loaf. I think of it as the ‘milkiest milk bread’, tracking with the dairy inferences to Hokkaido bread.
What is the tangzhong method and how does it work?
The tangzhong technique is sometimes used in bread baking. It involves cooking a small portion of flour and liquid (usually water or milk, or both) until it becomes a smooth, thick paste. This gluey paste is cooled and mixed in with the bread dough. The method was made popular by Taiwanese cook Yvonne Chen, in her book 65°C Bread Doctor.
Tangzhong bread works like this: heat and liquid make the starch molecules in the cooked flour swell and bond together. This creates a gel-like structure that can trap and hold water. The heat is really important here. Starch molecules absorb liquid whatever its temperature, but they’ll absorb more if that liquid is hot than if it’s cold. When this gelatinized mixture is added to dough, it provides moisture without making it difficult to handle Thus, pillowy bread that has a super soft texture and stays fresh for longer.
Tangzhong is similar to the yudane method, however yudane relies on just mixing boiling water with flour and letting it sit overnight for gelatinization to occur. Tangzhong milk bread offers the more ‘instant gratification’ approach, so that’s what I prefer to use.
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Tips for making the best Japanese/Hokkaido milk bread
In some ways, apart from the tangzhong variation, this Hokkaido milk bread recipe is pretty straightforward and similar to other bread recipes. There are some helpful hints I can give you for the best results, though.
- Milk powder: it’s not critical, but adding milk powder as well as whole milk to your Japanese bread results in a soft texture that you won’t get with whole milk alone.
- Softened butter: when you’re mixing the dough and adding butter, it needs to be soft enough to easily mix into the other ingredients. If it’s straight from the fridge it’ll never mix in.
- Yeast: I use active dry yeast for my milk bread, with excellent results. I’ve also used instant yeast with success. Because this bread dough has a relatively short rise time and plenty of food for the yeast in the form of sugar and milk, you can use the two types interchangeably without sacrificing on bread quality.
- Stand mixer: there is no way I’d make any enriched bread without my stand mixer and dough hook attachment. These types of breads have very sticky dough and need a lot of butter worked into them, particularly in the early stages of mixing and kneading. Although the final dough is lovely to handle, I wouldn’t mix it by hand as it takes forever before it’ll pass the windowpane test*.
- The dough rise: this is a dough that loves a nice warm place to proof. If you have a steam oven or dough proofing machine use that (directions in the recipe). A regular oven with the light switched on and the door closed is another option for some of us. Otherwise, cover the dough and put it in a place that’s got a fairly consistent temperature of 75-80°F/24-27°C.
- Loaf pan: the pan or bread tin you use makes a difference to your baked bread. I use a deep loaf pan (9x4x4.5″), so the bread can rise and dome without overflowing the pan. A shallower pan will give you a more puffed, muffin-top look to your bread. You can also bake this in a covered pullman pan if you want a very even rectangular loaf. If you go the pullman pan route, skip brushing the risen dough with milk before baking.
- Baking: I have baked fluffy Japanese milk bread in a regular oven and a combi steam oven. Both yield really great results but the combi steam oven has the edge on forming a thinner crust that softens nicely when the bread cools.
*never heard of the windowpane test? This involves gently stretching a small piece of dough to check its elasticity. If the dough can be stretched thin enough to resemble a translucent windowpane without tearing, it indicates proper gluten development, which means good stretch and chew in the finished bread.
Japanese milk bread step by step (visual guide)
Make the tangzhong (roux/starter)
First up we need to make the tangzhong roux, or starter. Combine the ingredients in a small saucepan. Stir as the mixture heats and becomes a thick paste, about the consistency of mashed potato. Cover so it doesn’t form a skin as it cools, then set aside.
Mix up the dough
While you wait for the roux to cool, you can start prepping the dough. Put the dry ingredients into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment. Mix briefly, then add milk, cooled tangzhong and egg.
Mix until a shaggy dough forms. With the mixer running, drop in the butter piece by piece. Continue mixing for 5 minutes, then increase to medium speed and mix until the dough is elastic, smooth and soft. This will take about 5 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl.
For benchtop proving, cover the bowl and let the dough sit at warm room temperature (75-80°F/24-27°C is ideal), until it has doubled in size, about 1-1 1/2 hours.
If you’re using a steam oven for proving, set it to steam, 85°F/30°C, 80% humidity. If your steam oven doesn’t go as low as 85°F/30°C, you can go as high as 104°F/40°C, but watch the dough as it’ll prove faster. Put the uncovered bowl in the oven until it’s doubled in size, about 40 minutes.
Form the loaf
Turn the risen dough onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 3 equal portions. Roll each into a rectangle about 1/4 inch/7mm thick and fold the long sides in about 1″ towards the center. Neatly roll up the pieces of dough and place in a greased 9×4 inch (23x10cm) deep loaf pan. You should have three little ‘snails’ lined up in the bread tin.
For benchtop proving, cover and let rise until the dough springs back when pressed with a fingertip, about 45 minutes.
For steam oven proving, set the oven as you did for the first rise, proving until the dough springs back when gently pressed, about 25 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven while you preheat for baking.
Bake the loaf
When it’s time to bake, preheat your oven as per the recipe directions, depending on whether you have a regular oven or combi steam. Brush the top of the dough with milk and bake until the top is a deep golden brown. Or bake to temperature, in which case the inside of the loaf should read 190°F/88°C on an instant read thermometer.
Cool (very important!)
Remove from oven and admire your beautiful milk bread! Now’s the hard part: let the loaf sit for 5 minutes before removing it from the pan to a cooling rack. Then let it cool to room temp before slicing. It’s tough, but you’ll have a better loaf for giving it time to cool down.
Any bread not eaten on the first day will keep for a couple of days at room temperature or frozen for up to 2 months. Stale milk bread makes the most amazing French toast.
I can’t wait for you to try my fluffy Japanese milk bread recipe, and I hope you love it as much as we do here. Happy baking and I’ll see you here again soon.
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Hokkaido Milk Bread (Fluffy Japanese Bread)
- 1/4 cup bread flour
- 1/4 cup whole milk
- 1/4 cup water
Cook the roux/starter
- Combine the ingredients for the roux/starter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir continuously as the mixture heats and then thickens to the consistency of mashed potatoes. This will take about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and cover, letting the mixture sit until it gets to room temperature.1/4 cup bread flour, 1/4 cup whole milk, 1/4 cup water
Make the dough
- Put the bread flour, sugar, yeast, dry milk powder, and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix the dry ingredients briefly to combine, then add milk, cooled roux/starter, and beaten egg.2 1/2 cups bread flour, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, 2 tsp active dry yeast, 2 Tbsp dry milk powder, 1 tsp fine salt, 1/2 cup milk, 1 egg
- Mix on low for 5 minutes until a shaggy dough forms. With the mixer running, drop in the cubes of butter, one by one, and continue mixing for 5 minutes. Turn the speed up to medium and mix until the dough is elastic, smooth and soft, about 5 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl.1/4 cup unsalted butter
- For benchtop proving, cover the bowl and let the dough sit at warm room temperature (75-80°F/24-27°C is ideal), until it has doubled in size, about 1-1 1/2 hours.
- If you're using a steam oven for proving, set the oven to 85°F/30°C, 80% humidity. Put the uncovered bowl in the oven until it's doubled in size, about 40 minutes.
Shape the loaf
- Transfer dough onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 3 equally sized pieces. Roll each out into a rectangle about 1/4 inch/7mm thick. Fold the long sides of each piece of dough in about 1" towards the center. Starting on one of the short edges, tightly and neatly roll up the dough and place in a greased 9×4 inch (23x10cm) loaf pan. Repeat with each piece of dough so you've got three little 'snails' lined up in your loaf pan.
- For benchtop proving, cover the pan and let rise until the dough springs back when gently pressed with a fingertip, about 45 minutes.
- For steam oven proving, set the oven to 85°F/30°C, 80% humidity. Put the uncovered pan in the oven until the dough springs back when gently pressed with a fingertip, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven while you preheat for baking.
Bake the loaf – regular oven
- Shortly before you're ready to bake, preheat oven to 350°F/180°C. Brush the top of the risen loaf with milk and bake for 35-40 minutes or until the top is a deep golden brown. If you'd like to bake to temperature, the inside of the loaf should read 190°F/88°C on an instant read thermometer.2 Tbsp whole milk
Bake the loaf – steam oven
- Preheat oven to Combi Steam, 350°F/180°C. If your oven has variable steam settings, set to 60% steam (if not, don't worry! Just set to combi steam/convection steam at the correct temperature and the oven will work out the humidity). Brush the top of the risen loaf with milk and bake until the top is a deep golden brown, about 30-35 minutes. If you'd like to bake to temperature, the inside of the loaf should read 190°F/88°C on an instant read thermometer.2 Tbsp whole milk
- Remove from oven and let the loaf sit for 5 minutes before removing it from the pan to a cooling rack. Let it cool to barely warm before slicing. Any bread not eaten on the first day will keep, well wrapped, for a couple of days at room temperature. Alternatively, slice and freeze, well wrapped, for up to 2 months.
- You can skip the milk powder in this recipe if you don’t have any, however it will make a difference to the softness and richness of the finished loaf.
- I use a deep loaf pan for this bread (9x4x4.5″), so it can rise and dome on top without overflowing the pan. A shallower pan will give you a more puffed, muffin-top look to your bread. You can also bake this in a covered pullman pan if you want a very even rectangular loaf. If you do this, skip brushing the risen dough with milk before baking.
- Leftover/stale Hokkaido Milk Bread makes excellent French toast and toasted sandwiches.