Have you ever stepped into a sandwich shop or a bakery and attempted to decipher the names of the different offerings?
What’s the difference?
Perhaps you’ve contrasted the tangy, chewy bite of sourdough with the sweet tenderness of brioche and wondered how bread could vary so much in texture.
Well, wonder no more! Today I am here to answer your questions with a lesson in enriched breads.
Enriched Dough: What Is It?
All yeasted dough fits into one of two categories: enriched or lean.
Enriched bread, on the other hand, contains a high percentage of fat – most often thanks to eggs, milk, and/or butter – and is also sweeter than its lean counterpart.
Brioche and challah are the most popular variations, along with pannetone or stollen around the holidays.
The Science-y Stuff
Fat – whether from butter, eggs, or milk – tenderizes dough by coating and shortening the gluten strands. This creates a softer crust and more tender crumb than a lower fat alternative.
Fat also slows down yeast activity, requiring a longer fermentation time that helps to develop lots more flavor.
Surprisingly, the additional sugar also hinders yeast activity. Sugar attracts water, leaving the yeast and sugar to fight over the limited resource in the dough.
The yeast must become fully hydrated before it can start to feast on the sugar, so when the two are at odds, fermentation slows down significantly.
Notes on Ingredients
When working with milk, it is important to first heat it up to 180°F. Milk contains an enzyme that weakens gluten, but this enzyme is denatured and rendered ineffective at high temperatures.
Just pop the milk in the microwave or on the stove until it begins to foam and is about to boil. This process is called “scalding.”
Because sugar, butter, and eggs are heavy ingredients, an enriched dough will be much heavier than its lean counterpart.
It is especially helpful to use at least a portion of high-protein flour to provide the strength required to balance this extra weight.
Methods for Mixing
There are three main methods for enriched mixing.
Remember how fat shortens gluten strands and slows down fermentation? And remember how sugar fights with the yeast for water?
Each of these mixing methods help the gluten and the yeast to do their jobs properly. They may vary depending on the type and quantity of enrichment in a given recipe.
First is the straight method. This is about as simple as it sounds: all of the ingredients are mixed together at the same time.
This method can be used when the dough is enriched with a low percentage of fat, which will have a minimal effect on gluten development or yeast activity. This is the method used in our Italian Easter Bread.
In this method, all that is needed to counteract the milk or butter is a long, intense kneading.
The sponge method begins by mixing all of the yeast with a small amount of sugar, flour, and water or milk, and letting it ferment for a short time before mixing in the rest of the ingredients.
This allows the yeast to hydrate and begin its work without battling the sugar for water.
This method also helps to develop flavor. Giving the yeast time to work on just a small amount of flour adds significant complexity to the final product. The sponge method is what Lorna uses in her Kulich recipe.
3. High Fat
In a very high fat recipe like brioche, the gluten must be fully developed before the butter is added. This method is sometimes combined with the sponge method, or it may be used on its own.
To mix using the high fat method, all of the ingredients except the butter are kneaded until they hit the windowpane stage, signifying that the gluten is fully developed. Room temperature butter is then added a little bit at a time until it is fully incorporated.
Try this method with my recipe for brioche.
Once the dough is mixed, it must go for its initial rise, or what bakers call the bulk fermentation.
With a lean bread, this is often accomplished at room temperature. An enriched version, however, loves a long, cold fermentation – giving the yeast a comfortable environment in which to take its time.
I usually opt for 12 hours in the refrigerator, but if you are working on a tighter schedule, try 45 minutes at room temperature followed by two hours in the fridge. At the very least, this will help to retard the fermentation – but even more importantly, it cools the dough to help with shaping.
The texture of enriched dough lends itself well to sculpting and molding fun designs.
Different types of enriched breads are often associated with particular shapes. From the classic challah braid to the French brioche a tète, many shapes have long histories and meanings behind them.
Enriched dough is most fun because of its limitless design options. There is no need to hold yourself to the classic shapes.
If you’d like to get creative with your work of art, check out our guide to shaping for some inspiration to get you started.
Because enriched dough is heavier in weight than lean, it will collapse easily if overproofed. For this reason, it is really important to keep an eye on your loaf as it is prepared for baking!
When proofed in too warm an environment (85°F or higher), the butter in the dough will begin to melt. In order to prevent this, and to limit the chances of overproofing, it is best to perform the final rest in a space that is between 65 and 75°F.
The extra sugar in an enriched dough caramelizes quickly during baking, hence the nice contrast of soft brown crust and tender interior.
This bread will also benefit from a pre-bake egg wash. Brushing the top evenly with whisked egg helps to seal in moisture, create an evenly browned crust, and leave a nice sheen on the final product.
In order to fully bake the inside of the loaf without burning the crust, enriched dough bakes best at a mid-range temperature between 325 and 375°F.
A good tip to remember is that the larger the loaf, the lower the temperature – it will take longer for the inside to cook, thus you don’t want to bake at a temperature so high that the crust will burn.
After baking and cooling, slice to your desired thickness using a good serrated bread knife. Make sure to equip yourself with indispensable baking tools that every baker needs, whether it’s before or after baking!
Give it a Try!
Is your mouth watering now for a tender, cake-like slice of bread? Go ahead, give one of our recipes a try!
Do you have a fond memory of a sweet, enriched bread? What’s your go-to recipe? Tell us about it in the comments below!
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About Kendall Vanderslice
Kendall’s love of food has taken her around the world. From baking muffins on a ship in West Africa and milking cows with Tanzanian Maasai, to hunting down the finest apfelstrudel in Austria, she continually seeks to understand the global impact of food. Kendall holds a BA in Anthropology from Wheaton College and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University, and has worked in the pastry departments of many of Boston’s top kitchens. Based in Somerville, Massachusetts, Kendall helps to run a small community supported bread bakery and writes about the intersection of food, faith, and culture on her personal blog, A Vanderslice of the Sweet Life.