Japanese milk bread is easily one of my favorite breads to eat and to make. And this black sesame version is definitely one of my personal favorites. If you’ve never had Japanese milk bread, it is super soft and fluffy and has a pillowy texture. It also has a golden brown exterior from the milk that browns during baking and is enriched with butter.
But, most importantly, Japanese milk bread is an incredibly versatile bread dough and is used in many popular breads and pastries you can find at Asian bakeries. You can bake it up into a plain loaf or you can fill it with whatever your heart desires. You can make the fillings sweet or savory. Or shape the bread into loaves, buns, babka, or cinnamon rolls. The possibilities are endless. Which is why I love this bread so much. It’s truly a workhorse and is a blank canvas for so many different variations.
So, what’s the secret behind the soft, fluffy bread? The tangzhong method.
What is the Tangzhong Method?
Good question. I was first introduced to the tangzhong method in pastry school. And my mind was completely blown. The tangzhong method translates to “water roux” and originated in Japan. It typically has a 5:1 ratio of water to bread flour and involves making a roux (or paste) with a portion of the bread flour and water.
The Science Behind the Tangzhong Method
By cooking the roux, the starches gelatinize which ultimately allows the bread to absorb and trap more liquid. And, as a result, gives the bread its signature soft and springy texture. The increased moisture content also causes the bread to rise and bake up high and then keeps the bread softer and fresher longer. It won’t harden and completely dry out like a baguette does one day later.
Foolproof Tangzhong Method Tips:
- Use a small saucepan that has a smaller surface area to cook the roux properly (if it is too wide or too big, the water will evaporate too quickly)
- Mix the bread flour and water with a whisk to remove any clumps.
- Stir constantly while cooking on medium-low heat so it cooks evenly.
- Cook until the roux reaches 150°F/65°C so the starches gelatinize.
Note: The tangzhong paste should be thick enough where the spatula leaves a trail. It will have the consistency of a curd or pudding.
Tips for Making Japanese Milk Bread:
- Use wet hands! The dough will be sticky and tacky due to the increased moisture content so be sure to use wet hands when handling it.
- Gradually add the butter! Add the softened butter one tablespoon at a time. You may need to scrape down the bowl and fold the dough over onto the butter using a wet rubber spatula to help it incorporate. Don’t worry if it is buttery and sticky. It will take a few minutes to come together.
- Be patient! The dough can take awhile to knead in the stand mixer so be patient. The dough should be very extensible and elastic like a rubber band.
- Keep an eye on it! Depending on the time of year and how hot or cold it is in your house, the dough may rise faster or slower depending on the temperature. So keep an eye on it!
- Flour your surface! When rolling out the dough, flour your work surface and hands well. Remember, the dough will be a bit a bit tacky.
- Don’t overproof it! Japanese milk bread tends to rise high because of the increased water content that creates steam while baking. So you want the dough to rise just below the lip of the baking pan leaving ~¼” space.
- Watch it browning! The milk will cause the bread to get a nice golden brown color. If you find the loaf is browning too quickly, then simply cover the milk bread with foil during the last few minutes of baking.
- Use a thermometer! To check if the bread is done, insert an instant-read thermometer into the center of the loaf. It should read 200°F.
Now it’s time to get baking! Please don’t be intimidated by the tangzhong method because Japanese milk bread is a lot easier to make than you think and the process is pretty straightforward.
Unlike many yeasted breads, it doesn’t need to ferment overnight and it doesn’t require any folds or turns. From start to finish, it should only take a few hours. So if you’re new to yeasted breads, I think this is a great recipe to start with.
I’ve also tested this recipe more than a dozen times and I’m excited to finally share it with you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!
Black Sesame Japanese Milk BreadPrint Recipe
For the tangzhong
- 3 tablespoons (25 grams) bread flour
- ½ cup (120 grams) water
For the Japanese milk bread
- ½ cup (120 grams) warm whole milk (105°F-110°F)
- 2 ¼ teaspoons instant yeast
- 2 ¾ cups (350 grams) bread flour
- ⅓ cup (67 grams) granulated sugar
- 1 ½ teaspoons (5 grams) kosher salt
- 1 large egg
- 4 tablespoons (56 grams) unsalted butter, softened
For the black sesame paste
- ½ cup toasted black sesame seeds, finely ground
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
For the tangzhong water roux
- In a small saucepan, combine the bread flour and water and whisk to remove any lumps. Cook over medium-low heat for 3-5 minutes until the roux starts to thicken and reaches 150°F/65°C, while whisking constantly. The roux should have the consistency of a curd or pudding. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
For the Japanese milk bread
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the hook attachment, add the warm milk (105°F-110°F), eggs, and tangzhong. Then add the bread flour, sugar, instant yeast, and salt. Do not add the softened butter yet.
- Turn the mixer on medium-low and mix for 5-7 minutes until gluten develops and the dough feels elastic.
- Add the butter one tablespoon at a time and mix until the butter is completely incorporated. This may take awhile for the butter, so be patient. Once the butter is incorporated, mix for another 5-7 minutes until the dough is smooth and feels elastic. Note: The dough will be a bit tacky, but should feel elastic like a rubber band which indicates good gluten structure.
- Using wet hands, shape the dough into a ball and transfer to a greased bowl or container. Cover and let rise until doubled in size for 45-60 minutes, depending on how hot your house is. Be sure to keep an eye on it because it can go fast if it’s hot outside!
- Meanwhile, make the black sesame paste while you wait. See recipe below.
Shaping and final proof
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Generously grease a 9”x5” loaf pan.
- For black sesame babka shape: Gently deflate the dough and roll into a rectangle on a well floured surface. Spread the black sesame paste (recipe below) over the dough in a thin, even layer using an offset spatula.
- Roll the dough starting from the edge of the shorter side (want to ensure it fits into the pan) and roll into a log like a cinnamon roll placing it seam side down. Cut the dough in half lengthwise to expose the center. Braid the two pieces overlapping each piece over itself and leaving the inside exposed.
- Place the loaf into a greased loaf pan and let rise for another 30 minutes, ensuring that the dough does not rise above the lip of the pan. Leave about a ¼” space because the dough will rise quite high during baking.
- For traditional Japanese milk bread loaf: Gently deflate the dough and divide into 4 equal portions. Shape each piece into a ball and roll them out into an oval using a rolling pin on a well floured surface. Fold the right side (lengthwise) over to the middle and then fold the left side (lengthwise) over to the middle so both sides meet but are not overlapped. Roll the dough out into an oval again and then spread with black sesame paste. Starting from the edge of the short side, roll the dough up into a cylinder like you would roll up a sleeping bag.
- Place each piece seam side down in the prepared loaf pan and repeat with the remaining dough. Cover and let rise for another 30 minutes, ensuring that the dough does not rise above the lip of the pan. Leave about a ¼” space because the dough will rise quite high during baking.
Bake the Japanese milk bread
- In a small bowl, whisk together 1 egg with 1 tablespoon of whole milk or water to make an egg wash. Once the dough has proofed, brush the top of the loaf with egg wash (do not need to brush the top of the babka).
- Bake for 20-25 minutes on the lower shelf until an instant-read thermometer reads 200°F when inserted into the center. If the loaf is browning too quickly, cover the top during the last 5-7 minutes with foil.
- Let rest in pan 15 minutes. Remove and let cool on a wire cooling rack.
For the black sesame paste
- Finely grind the black sesame seeds in a spice grinder or small food processor. Add the sugar and softened butter. Pulse to make a paste. Transfer to a small bowl, cover, and set aside.
- You can refrigerate this in advance. Before using, bring to room temperature to ensure it has a spreadable consistency.