Milk Bread, also known as shokupan, is soft, tender, and delicious. How delicious?
More Delicious than Squishmallows
Do you remember The Great Before? It seemed that no one ate bread anymore. Low-carb, no-carb, and bread is bad.
It was sad.
Then, the pandemic came along and suddenly everyone was baking and consuming mass quantities of homemade banana bread and sourdough. Imagine: everyone was making, scoring, and eating sourdough loaves!
Now, thankfully, bread is back. I never totally stopped eating bread but I certainly ate more of it during the lockdown years. And I don’t regret it. Let’s call it comfort carbs.
Because I am a longtime challah baker, I know my way around a yeasty bread bowl. I kept seeing milk bread on social media but had never made it. People were obsessed!
This Asian-style bread intrigued me. I decided to try it.
Milk bread is sometimes called shokupan or Japanese milk bread. It is soft, fluffy, and tender. The crust is golden brown and glossy.
The interior is pillowy, plush, and deliciously cotton-like. It’s the Squishmallow of the bread world.
By the way, does everyone own a Squishmallow yet? My twenty-something daughter has several. Sometimes I “borrow” one from her room when I’m watching TV.
It is an aptly named squeezable bundle of polyester fiber and spandex joy.
The inventor of Squishmallows, Jonathan Kelly, was inspired by a trip he made to Japan. He saw the “kawaii” or “cuteness culture” and plush toys that were popular there. After he returned to California, Squishmallows were born.
You could say Squishmallows are the milk bread of the plush toy world.
Shokupan means “food bread” in Japanese and has a murky past. Did it arrive in Japan with Dutch and Portuguese explorers in the 1500s and 1600s, or was it invented by a British-Japanese baker in the 1800s? It’s not clear.
What do we know? It's soft. And addicting to eat.
Milk bread is made with just a few ingredients: flour, yeast, milk, salt, sugar, and butter. You can bake all kinds of bread with these basic ingredients. But the technique is what sets milk bread apart from the rest.
It starts with either yudane or tangzhong.
Yudane and Tangzhong
Yudane (a Japanese term) is a water roux made by combining equal parts boiling water and flour. Tangzhong (a Chinese term) is also a water roux but is cooked in a saucepan. The Chinese-style roux has a 1:5 flour-to-water ratio.
Both methods yield a sticky, gelatinous blob. This blob is cooled, then added to the yeast mixture. The point of the water roux? Moisture is added to the finished product.
As a result, the bread is fluffy, tender, and squishy.
I prefer the tangzhong method after having tried both ways. The cooked water roux adds a taste and texture that I happen to like. Try both and see what you think.
- Do not walk away from the saucepan when making the tangzhong. The flour-water mixture heats up fast and will scorch if you have the burner on too high or don’t whisk it continually. You’ve been warned.
- Don’t freak out if the dough seems overly sticky. This is a wetter dough than many bread doughs. Add additional flour to the mixer a tablespoon at a time until the dough just starts to pull away from the bowl cleanly.
- Make a double batch. Milk bread is very addicting to eat. You might be sad if you only make one batch. I was.
This recipe, like most that I feature, is inspired by the many recipes that I find on Pinterest, Instagram, and Google searches. I combine bits and pieces of several recipes to suit my needs. Many thanks go to Chopstick Chronicles and Hungry Huy for their shokupan bread recipes!Print
- ⅓ cup water
- 2 Tbsp. + 1 tsp. all-purpose flour
- ½ cup milk (cow or almond)
- 1 ½ tsp. active dry yeast
- 2 ⅔ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp. sea salt
- 3 Tbsp. granulated white sugar
- 1 large egg
- ¼ cup butter, melted
- 1 large egg
- 1 Tbsp. milk or water
- Make the tangzhong. Pour water into a medium saucepan. Place the pan over medium-high heat and add the flour. Whisk until combined. Continue to whisk as the mixture heats up. Remove the pan from the heat once a roux, or loose paste, is formed and the whisk leaves a clear trail on the bottom of the pan. Set aside and let cool.
- Make the yeast dough. Heat the milk in a small bowl in the microwave for 30 seconds or until body temperature (around 98 F/36 C). Add the yeast and stir until dissolved. Let it sit for a few minutes until foamy. Tip the yeast mixture, flour, salt, sugar, egg, and butter into the bowl of a stand mixer and stir with a large spoon to combine. Mix the dough for 8 to 10 minutes until it comes together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl using the dough hook attachment. You may need to add a sprinkle of flour if it is too tacky.
- Proof the dough. Gather it up out of the mixer, shape it into a loose ball, and place it inside a large bowl that has been sprayed or lightly greased with oil. Cover with lightly greased plastic wrap and place in a warm spot. At this point, you can refrigerate the dough overnight and bake it the next day. Let rise for 1 hour or until doubled in size if you are baking it the same day.
- Shape the dough. Punch down the dough and hand knead it for a minute or two.
- Loaf bread: Grease a 9x5 loaf pan and set aside. Divide the dough equally into 3 pieces. Knead each piece a few times. Taking one piece, pat or roll it out into a large oval shape. Fold up the bottom third towards the middle and fold down the upper third towards the middle, like you would fold a letter to go inside an envelope. Turn the dough so the short end is facing you and roll it up into a short, fat log. Place seam side down in the prepared pan. Repeat with the other two pieces.
- Buns: Grease an 8x8 square pan or 7x11 small rectangle pan. Divide the dough equally into 6 pieces for large buns or 9 pieces for smaller ones. Knead each piece a few times. Roll one piece into a ball and place it in the prepared pan. Repeat with the other pieces.
- Proof the dough for a second rise. Cover it with lightly greased plastic wrap and place it in a warm spot. Let rise for 1 to 1 ½ hours or until the dough has risen over the top of the pan. If your dough was kept overnight in the fridge, it will take longer to rise, closer to 2 to 2 ½ hours.
- Preheat the oven to 350 F/176 C and move the oven rack to the center position. Remove the plastic wrap from the dough. Mix the egg and liquid to prepare the egg wash. Gently brush the dough with egg wash. Place the pan in the oven and bake for around 30 minutes, give or take 5 minutes. Bread is done when the tops are golden brown. Remove the bread from the oven and let it cool for 5 minutes in the pan. After 5 minutes, immediately remove the bread from the pan and place it on a wire rack to finish cooling. Time yourself and see how long you can resist eating these while they are warm.