I grew up eating Wonder Bread. These were the days before the ubiquity of artisan bread in supermarkets, and even if they were available my mother was none too keen on spending extra bucks on fancy bread. At the time, bread was just a vessel for delivering huge globs of strawberry preserve and peanut butter to my mouth. Bread was just an afterthought.
Then I went to Japan. I wasn’t even a teenager yet but the sheer variety of delicious bread that the bakeries and supermarkets offered had left quite an impression on me. The regular sandwich bread or “shokupan” were much taller and the texture was unlike that of the Wonder Bread. It wasn’t just airy, it had a certain resiliency. Tearing through Wonder Bread was like pulling apart foam, whereas tearing through the shokupan was like shredding loosely woven wool felt.
Bread was no longer just an afterthought. It became the main attraction.
In the last several years I’ve almost completely stopped using commercial dry yeast, and in order to utilize the discarded sourdough starter from its weekly feeding, I can pretty safely say that I’ve made my fair share of sandwich bread. Sadly though, none of them were satisfactory to me. They may look good, and they may taste good, but they just weren’t the right texture.
I can’t even begin to truly understand what is going on with the chemistry (which I almost failed in high school) or biology (we are after all dealing with living organisms) of bread-making. Although I’m experienced with baking bread I am very far from calling myself an expert. So, I’ve been relegated to testing out different recipes and learning from my mistakes. I’ve tried so many sandwich bread recipes, I was starting to think that my failures were because of my sourdough starter.
Until I found this Japanese Milk Bread recipe by Julia Moskin from The New York Times.
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This recipe uses tanzhong, a Chinese method for bread-making that uses a cooked flour/water mixture to achieve the soft texture. One thing I noticed with the tanzhong in this recipe is that it uses milk in addition to water and is a little bit more runny than what I’ve made before which has been more like the texture of choux pastry dough.
The dough itself is pretty basic. Bread flour, sugar, salt, egg, milk, and butter. So what is the difference?
I suspect a key difference may be the knead time. This recipe kneads for a total of 15 to 17 minutes. That’s about five minutes more than what I’m used to. That may not seem like much, but the dough was noticeably more elastic and because of this the dough is quite magnificent after it has risen. It is very pliable and nice to work with. I have to say I’ve already made this bread three times since my first attempt and the dough has come out consistently elastic and wonderful.
Another possible difference which I haven’t yet experimented with is the shaping. The recipe instructs to roll out the dough to an oval, then fold the ends to create a square, and then roll up and place crosswise in the pan. Oddly enough, the picture on the recipe is that from a Pullman loaf pan, but the instructions are for an open loaf pan yielding a rounded top. I stuck to the recipe and made a rounded loaf but I am curious as to how it will turn out in a Pullman loaf pan.
One final note, I did deviate from this recipe in that I used my sourdough starter instead of dry yeast. It pleases me to realize that it wasn’t because of the starter that past attempts weren’t coming out the way I wanted it, it was the recipe!
For those who are making this recipe with a sourdough starter, I added a little more flour to compensate for the liquid that is already in the sourdough starter. In my case, the discard was about 200 grams and I added about 75 grams of flour. For the rise time, I waited overnight for the first rise and then four to five hours for the second rise in the pan.