Japanese Milk Bread

My life was forever changed the first time I tried Japanese milk bread. I’m serious, there is nothing truly like it. Pillowy is the word that comes to mind. I’ve made many breads in my lifetime, but Japanese milk bread is in a category of its own and a worthy try if you enjoy baking.

Japanese milk bread (also known as Hokkaido milk bread) is known for its distinct slightly sweet flavor and soft interior and doesn’t get stale and hard. Even several days later, the loaf will remain soft and springy like the first day.  This is possible because of the heated gelatinized starch in the flour which keeps moisture inside the bread and also helps to prolong freshness.

Japanese milk bread

Milk bread was developed in Japan in the 20th century, using something called tangzhong (or roux), which is a warm flour-and-water paste traditionally used in China to make buns with a soft, springy texture and tiny air bubbles. In French cooking, this would be referred to as a roux. Japanese milk bread, known for its delicate crumb and buttery taste is not nearly as complicated to make at home as one may expect.

Milk, when used to make bread, creates breads that are richer and have a more velvety texture. Milk also makes a softer crust that will brown more quickly due to the sugar and butterfat in milk. Some Japanese milk bread recipes call for dry milk in addition which some people feel makes the bread more flavorful and tender, but I disagree and do not use this in my recipe.

Japanese milk bread

Annie Sheng, an anthropologist studying Asian bread at Cornell University, has pieced together her research, and according to Sheng, milk bread may have been invented by British baker Robert Clarke, who opened Yokohama Bakery in Japan back in 1862. it’s hard to say when milk bread, known as shokupan (“food bread”) in Japan, officially came onto the scene.

Japanese milk bread

Some milk bread recipes (like mine) are made with tangzhong, made of a warmed milk-and-flour slurry.  Others are made with yudane, a sandy flour-and-water paste that gives the loaf the right bounce and a longer shelf life. Some are just a mix of flour, milk or water, sugar, salt, active dry yeast, and at times butter.

Loaves are shaped like a flat-topped Pullman, known as kaku-shoku in Japan, or rippled with rounded ridges in the Yamagata style, but despite the method and shape,  that combination of flour, some kind of liquid, sugar, salt, and yeast all lead to one thing: irresistible, cottony milk bread.

Japanese milk bread

According to Eric Rath, a history professor at the University of Kansas and an author of several Japanese food history books, the Japanese considered bread a snack, which led to a preference for sweeter bread. Carbs in bread form arrived in Japan with the Dutch and Portuguese in the 16th century.

Most Japanese households didn’t have ovens, so bread never stuck as an essential food. Around World War II, we began to see bread as a staple in Japan, because rice became scarce and expensive just as American supplies of wheat and yeast were coming in “When rice was rationed during wartime, there was an emphasis on making bread“.

Japanese milk bread

Rath isn’t sure exactly when milk bread reached the States, but Sheng theorizes that it could have come with the birth of Japanese grocery stores in the late 1990s, followed by the arrival of the popular Asian bakery chains like South Korea’s Paris Baguette in the early 2000s. Some Japanese milk bread is not real bread, and it’s not considered artisanal like sourdough. I beg to differ and considering how trendy it’s become recently, I think many others agree.

About the Author

Andrea Potischman

I am a professionally trained NYC chef turned CA mom and food blogger. I post about real food, with doable ingredient lists that are family friendly.

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