front view of brioche loaf

The Role of Butter, Eggs, Milk and Sugar in Enriched Bread (+ Brioche Recipe)

Sure, you can make bread with just four ingredients: flour, water, yeast, and salt. But, add a few more, and even more opportunities open up. Softer, sweeter, more tender breads start to become possible as well, by simply adding a few more ingredients: butter, eggs, milk, and sugar.

These ingredients turn your bread into an enriched bread, which which by itself is a whole world. Understanding how fats help extend shelf life, how eggs emulsify and how sugar does more than just feeding yeast opens the door to many new bread experiments. What about brioche (see below), babka or challah?

Enriched breads contain fat

Definitions vary slightly, but, generally speaking, what sets enriched breads apart from their lean counterparts is the presence of (large amounts of) fat. Eggs, milk, oil, butter. They all add fat. Even though some enriched breads don’t contain fat (but do contain a lot of sugar) we’ll first focus on the role of at since it has a big impact on how bread turn out.

Fat inhibits gluten formation

To make a light and fluffy bread, you need to develop a gluten network. This network is created by kneading flour with water, allowing the proteins in flour to align and reorganize themselves. The network is great at holding onto gas bubbles and is flexible enough to expand during proofing.

Proteins need to absorb water and interact with each other to form this network. Fat can interfere with this process by blocking access to water and other proteins. This is why many bread recipes that use extensive amounts of fat call for adding the fat at the end, once the gluten network has had a chance to form. It isn’t just bad news though. This limited gluten network has its advantages as well. It makes it easier to shape enriched dough into an intricate pattern.

five strand braid challah bread
A braided challah bread, it does not have a crusty crust, instead, it’s quite soft both inside and out.

Fat makes a softer bread

Whereas lean breads, such as a baguette, are well known for their crusty dry crust, the opposite is true for enriched breads. Most enriched breads don’t even have a sturdy crust, and definitely not a crunchy one. Again, we have fat to thank.

Since fats, especially fats like butter, literally melt in your mouth, your bread may also taste and feel more moist as a whole.

Fat slows down staling

Enriched breads tend to stale less quickly than breads that don’t contain any fat. In order for bread to turn stale moisture needs to be able to move around and leave the starch systems. Fat slows down this process. Once cooled down after baking, the fat simply surrounds the starch, serving as a protective layer. As a result, it slows down starch retrogradation which is responsible for turning bread stale.

Fat lubricates

At the same time, fat lubricates the dough. It will help the flour particles move alongside each other more smoothly. That makes doughs with a lot of fat very flexible and stretchy. The fatty lubrication helps the expansion of the dough during proofing, but also once it enters the oven and the fats start to melt and turn liquid.

During baking, solid fats such as butter will melt and spread throughout the bread, leaving behind small pockets. This adds to the fine crumb structure of enriched breads. You may have noticed that this structure is more similar to that of cakes. Cakes also contain a large amount of fat, resulting in a similar structure. Also, there definitely is some overlap within the cake and enriched bread categories.

Types of fat to use in enriched breads

There are a lot of different types of fat that can be used in bread. You can use a liquid fat such as olive or sunflower oil, or solid fats such as butter, margarine, or lard. The distinction between liquid and solid fats is an important one. Keep in mind that liquid fats will remain liquid, even when bread has cooled down again. Solid fats on the other hand will resolidify upon cooling. As such, solid fats can help create a firmer bread.

Not every fat is 100% fat

Butter is very commonly used in bread for a variety of reasons. It adds flavor, but also makes for a nice eating experience since the butter literally melts in your mouth. But keep in mind that butter isn’t made up of just fats. It contains only 80% fat and about 20% water. As such, adding butter also adds extra moisture to your dough. If you want to replace butter with another fat, you’ll have to correct for this. The same applies for margarine.

cultured (left) vs uncultured (right) butter
Butter, only 80% fat

Eggs emulsify

Breads with a high fat content often contain eggs. Eggs help to emulsify the dough. That is, it helps the fat and water to remain mix and not separate again either before or after the baking process. Eggs get this emulsifying property from the lecithin molecules naturally present in the egg yolk. Lecithin can hold onto both water and fat, keeping them together.

egg yolks
Egg yolks naturally contain lecithin, a powerful emulsifier.

Aside from their emulsifying properties eggs are also sources of both water and fat. About two thirds of an egg is made up of water, 20% is fat and most of the remainder is made up of proteins. The proteins fullfill an additional role. During baking they set – just like an egg does when fried – providing extra structure and stability to a bread.

Also, the proteins in eggs contribute to browning of the bread. The proteins participate in the Maillard reaction, which is responsible for browning. Some recipes will call for an egg wash on top of a bread. This again helps the bread to develop color, but it will also make the bread just ever so shiny.

Milk adds water and more

Milk, whether it’s from a cow or a plant, is mostly made up of water. As such, it is an important factor in hydrating the dough and achieving the desired consistency and stickiness. However, milk contains more ingredients the ratios of which depend on the type of milk you’re using. In cow’s milk, you’ll find about 5% sugar (lactose) as well as fat and proteins. For other kinds of milk, it will be worthwhile to check the packaging to see what other components it contains to understand its possible impact on the bread.

baked brioche loaf
This brioche bread browned quite quickly in the oven due to the extra sugar. By covering it with some aluminum foil we prevented burning.

Sugar is yeast’s food

Your regular granulated white or brown sugar is just one of several types of sugar you can use in bread. That sugar is made up of a molecule called sucrose. Other examples of sugars are fructose (common in fruits), lactose (present in cow’s milk), glucose, or maltose. Aside from small differences in sweetness, the functionality of these sugars in bread is quite similar. Also keep in mind that sugar syrups such as honey, agave syrup, corn syrup, and maple syrup are made up of these sugars, be it in slightly different ratios.

Sugars are crucial for yeast to thrive and proof your bread. However, you don’t necessarily need to add sugars to do so. Flours will contain enough sugars during resting to provide food. Adding a little extra can help speed up the proofing process.

But more is not necessarily better

Even though yeast needs sugar to survive and thrive, it can only handle so much. When there’s too much sugar, that sugar pulls on the moisture in the dough, making it harder for the yeast to access enough water. As such, breads with a lot of sugar will actually proof more slowly than those with no sugar at all. In some cases, you might even need special osmotolerant yeast that do enjoy these high amounts of sugar. Yeast really only need a little bit of sugar to do their thing, so adding large amounts of sugar will almost always leave some sugars behind.

Sugars hold onto water

Sugars love moisture. They’ll quickly dissolve in water and will hold onto that water. As such, they’ll interfer with the hydration of flour. But, by holding onto water they can also help ensure a crust remains soft and it can keep bread moist for longer, protecting it from drying out.

Sugar browns bread

For bread to turn brown you need both proteins and sugars. Again, flour can supply the necessary sugars. But, adding some extra sugars speeds up browning considerably! Enriched breads with a decent supply of sugar are even prone to burning in the oven and often need to be baked at a slightly lower temperature than ‘regular’ breads.

Sugars sweetens breads

Of course, any remaining sugars in the bread after baking will impact the taste and sweetness of a bread, as you’ll notice in the recipe for a brioche bread below. Give this enriched bread a try and then start experimenting with your own ratios!

front view of brioche loaf

Brioche bread

Yield: 1 loaf
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 55 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 25 minutes

This brioche recipe is inspired by a recipe from Paul Hollywood. There definitely exist recipes with more eggs and butter, but this already makes a soft, delicate and delicious bread.


  • 550g bread flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 50g sugar
  • 1 tsp yeast
  • 3 eggs (approx. 165g)
  • 240ml milk*
  • 150g butter


  1. Take the butter from the fridge and leave to warm up slightly.
  2. Mix the flour, salt, sugar, and yeast in a bowl.
  3. Add the eggs and milk and use the dough hook on a stand mixer to mix into a smooth dough (or knead by hand). The dough should be moist, but shouldn't stick to the sides of the bowl anymore. This should take a couple of minutes. Add a little extra flour or milk if necessary to get a coherent, smooth dough.
  4. Cut the butter into 1-2 cm pieces. While continuing to knead, add the pieces of butter. Continue kneading at a low speed until all the butter has been incorporated. You should no longer see any pieces of butter. This takes about 10 minutes. The dough will become quite sticky, making it hard to knead this dough by hand.brioche dough ready to proof
  5. Cover the dough with plastic or a lid and leave it to proof for at least 1 h, but feel free to leave it for 3-4 hours at room temperature. You can also place it in the fridge and continue going the next day.
  6. Prepare your baking pan by lining it with parchment paper or coating the sides with butter/oil and dusting it with a light layer of flour. This bread is quite prone to sticking to the pan, doing so prevents this.
  7. Once proven, take the dough from the bowl. Punch it down and shape into a rectangle, the width of your pan. Roll or fold the rectangle to create a cylinder the length of your tin.
  8. Cover the tin and leave to rest for 1-3 hours. It should increase in size considerably and fill up the tin completely, depending on the size, even rise up a little. Patience will be rewarded, a well-proven dough will make a better bread!brioche dough ready to bake
  9. Bake in the middle of a preheated oven at 210°C (410°F) for 45-55 min. The brioche will brown quite quickly. If it runs the risk of turning too dark, cover the top with some aluminum foil after 15-25 minutes. It's best not to do this at the start since the bread will still expand quite a bit and the foil will interfere with that process.baked brioche loaf
  10. Take from the oven and remove from the tin. Leave to cool down.
  11. Wrap the bread in plastic and store it for a few days at room temperature. Or, to store even longer, slice the bread and freeze it in a plastic bag.


*We tested making a brioche with 50% cow's milk and 50% rice milk, that worked fine also. So feel free to replace (part of) the milk with plant-based alternatives. The overall appearance might be slightly different, but it won't ruin the bread.


Gan, Z. & Angold, Roger & Williams, M.R. & Ellis, Peter & Vaughan, J.G. & Galliard, T.. (1990). The microstructure and gas retention of bread dough. Journal of Cereal Science. 12. 15-24. 10.1016/S0733-5210(09)80153-7, link

Pareyt, Bram & Finnie, S. & Putseys, Joke & Delcour, Jan. (2011). Lipids in Bread Making: Sources, Interactions, and Impact on Bread Quality. Journal of Cereal Science. 54. 266. 10.1016/j.jcs.2011.08.011, link

Nathan Myrvold, Francisco Migoya, Modernist Bread, volumes 2 and 4, The cooking lab, 2017

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    • Hi Ladis,

      A good flour for croissants is one with a moderate protein content (in between the high contents required for bread and the low contents for things like cakes). You want a gluten network to be formed, but not so strong that it will impact your rolling of the dough. Recommendations would be around 11-12% protein content but you can still make croissants (at home) when that content is a little lower or higher.
      In my personal experience, I’ve used all-purpose (=moderate protein) & bread flour (=high protein) for decent croissants. That said, the better you get at making them, the more important the flour becomes to really fine-tune that recipe! I thought these two sources were helpful as well: focused on UK flours (so more European focused) and US reco’s.

      Lastly, don’t forget to check out our post on the science of croissants, hope that’s helpful as well!

  1. I get that you have to add butter all at the end of a dough, but most brioche recipes tell you to add pieces at a time gradually, waiting until that piece is incorporated before adding more. Do you think that does anything specific, or is it something like “adding butter gradually gives time for the dough to develop some gluten as its kneaded”?

    • Hi Alex,

      I’ve always doubted whether this really is something you need to do, especially for smaller batches. I can see it being necessarily for large batches where you might run the risk of it not mixing in well and maybe even separating (?). I’ve found that at home, it doens’t really matter for me, especially since you tend to knead the dough before anyway to ensure those gluten are developed. Curious to hear what you’ll find though!

      • I mostly ask this because I was recently making Liege waffles and all recipes I saw called for a traditional brioche slow kneading method with stand mixer and was curious if butter could be added all at once. I found Foodgeek on YouTube did an experiment where he slowly kneaded in cool butter, and compared it a dough with completely melted butter, and the end product was almost identical, only a small difference in rise height. I was trying to adapt Liege waffles for a simpler recipe that didn’t require a stand mixer, so gave it a shot with a no-knead method mixing in melted butter, and it seemed to work out okay.

        • Nice, glad to hear you found something similar. I tend to think that those instructions have come from the pre-electric-mixer time. If you have to mix in a big block of butter by hand, that’s going to be a lot more challenging, than just adding it to a mixer.

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