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When you’re looking for a super soft, rich, slightly sweet bread, look no further: a brioche style bread is what you’re looking for! A brioche bread has a soft, fluffy structure and slightly sweet flavour.
A brioche uses a what you would call very rich dough. The dough contains quite a lot of butter and eggs which give it that unique texture and flavour. However, it also makes it a bit more complicated to make since yeast in your bread doesn’t get along with them as well as it does with the flour and water.
What is special about a brioche bread?
A brioche bread is a very ‘rich’ bread. Whereas standard breads can be made from nothing more than water, flour, salt and yeast, a brioche will contain plenty eggs, milk and butter. That makes a bread ‘rich’. The high fat and protein contents of these ingredients is what makes the bread so special.
A brioche used to be a bread for the rich, or at least those who had access to butter. Before the era of refrigeration that wasn’t very common. Butter would go rancid a lot more quickly and was more of a privilege, the poor would eat bread made from just water and flour, without the more expensive ingredients.
So why do butter and milk make a brioche so special?
The role of butter in brioche
Brioche contains a high amount of butter (the recipe at the bottom of this post contains 150g of butter per 500g of flour, but there’s certainly recipes with even more!). Butter consists of approximately 80% fats, the remaining is mostly water and some proteins.
Different fats, have different melting points (think olive oil vs. butter vs. coconut oil). Most of the fats in butter are solid in the fridge. However, at room temperature part of the fat will melt. That results in a softer butter (and is something we try to prevent from happening in short crust pastry). When heating the butter a little more (approx. 40C) the butter will be liquid and almost all fats will have molten.
Role of butter in brioche
So why do we want these fats in a brioche bread?
The main reason is sensory: fat in products makes them ‘richer’ and gives them a different mouthfeel, it becomes more smooth. Besides this general role, in brioche butter has a slightly more specific role. When a brioche dough (which contains the butter) is placed in a hot oven the butter will melt. As a result the fats become a bit more mobile and they will re-organize themselves slightly. Since fats don’t tend to like to sit in water, it has been found that the fat will actually surround the air bubbles in bread. This way the fat stabilizes the air bubbles. As a result, brioche breads tend to have a lot of small air bubbles.
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 stretchable. The fatty lubrication helps expansion of the dough.
Since the fats remain in place after baking (they cool down and solidify again), they will remain around these air bubbles. That helps in keeping the bread fresh, it serves as a protective layer.
Using butter in brioche
For a brioche bread we don’t tend to melt the butter when using it in the dough. We do soften it (to help with kneading), but melting it would make the dough too soft and sticky.
Also, butter shouldn’t be added at the start. Reason being that butter (or more specifically fats) interfer with the formation of a gluten network. This gluten network is of importance for creating a strong, springy consistency of the bread (as we’ve described in a separate post dedicated on gluten). The fat in butter will cover the gluten proteins, preventing them from doing their job in making a strong dough.
Therefore, butter in a brioche dough is ended towards the end of the kneading process. At that point in time the gluten network should have been able to form. The butter will still coat the gluten particles creating fat bubbles in the dough. These will then melt when the bread is baked.
The role of eggs in brioche
Eggs have several roles in a brioche bread. One of the roles is very similar to that of butter. Egg yolks contain a lot of fat and this has a similar role to that of the fats in the butter.
The eggs however contain a lot more water than butter does, so it also contributes significantly to the moisture content. This is why the eggs are added during the kneading process, else there wouldn’t be enough moisture.
Besides fats and moisture the eggs also contain a lot of proteins. These proteins will set when baking and will influence the texture of bread, however, the influence should be pretty minor. They have a bigger impact actually on the colour of the bread. Since these proteins can participate in the Maillard reaction which is a browning reaction between sugars and proteins. The more proteins in a bread dough, the faster it becomes brown. Since a brioche dough also contains quite a bit of sugar, they tend to brown very quickly.
The role of milk in brioche
Last but not least a brioche dough contains milk instead of water. Milk again plays several roles. It contains proteins which contribute to browning and (unless you’re using skimmed milk) it contains fats. The roles they play are again pretty similar as to those of eggs. Milk enriches a bread, makes it a little softer, affects that flavour and changes the overall appeal of the product.
Below you can find a recipe for such a Brioche style bread. It is inspired by a recipe from Paul Hollywood. Notice the high eggs, butter and milk content!
Read our other basics article on the role of ingredients in breads in general (not geared towards brioche),