Speak to Me of Brioche

Brioche is one of those base pastry components that most of us take for granted, and that’s a mistake because brioche is miraculous in itself. It’s a bread, but more than that a golden bread, and more than that a very rich but still feather light golden bread, full of egg yolks and butter (sometimes brown butter, which cranks the deliciousness factor still higher). But how can a bread contain so much egg and milk fat yet remain so light? Friends, it’s all in the mixing.

The story of pastry is one of war between the forces of Up and the forces of Down. The Up brigade consists of all the materials that give a baked item its volume and lightness: mainly white, gluten-rich wheat flour but also water, egg whites and leavers like yeast and baking powder. Together these components form what you might think of as the beams and girders of a bread or cake layer. They are the structure that surrounds and contains the empty space in the crumb.

The opposition consists of everything that gives bread its flavor and tenderness: fats of all kinds, sugars and syrups, wheat bran and germ, and any sort of inclusion you can think of from pieces of fruits and vegetables to purées like pumpkin, cocoa powder, chocolate chips, nuts, seeds and so on. All these make breads and cakes interesting. But they’re also all downers, so to speak. They undermine structure, either by interfering with gluten formation or by simply weighing the dough down to the point that the leavening can’t lift it.

The trick to good brioche is manipulating the forces Up and Down in such a way that they deliver the best of both. One could in theory knead the heck out of a flour-and-water paste to get a good strong gluten network formed, then add fat, since once a gluten network is formed fat can’t easily disrupt it. But that’s not how brioche dough is made. The fat is added steadily, some in the initial sponge, more in the first stage of mixing and then a whole lot in the second stage of mixing. The result being that a strong network of gluten molecules never quite has a chance to form. Some of the gluten molecules end up getting lubricated with fat along the way, and that forever denies them the opportunity to get the hook up, as it were.

Yet to ensure that this gluten-compromised dough can get as strong as it reasonably can before baking it is mixed, mixed, mixed — up to 25 minutes for some formulas. All that mixing develops any remaining gluten but also creates a very uniform dough which bakes up with a tight, even crumb. That fine texture is itself a source of strength for the finished brioche. In place of a system of thick beams and supports you have a fine lattice-like structure which is surprisingly strong but still a delight to chew. High ratio cake layers are built according to this same principle. There again, more fat and sugar doesn’t necessarily translate to less height or fall-apart texture, because it’s all in how you mix it.

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7 Responses to Speak to Me of Brioche

  1. Jessica Katz says:

    I know there are many different brioche recipes out there, so there may be no simple answer to this question. But since you’re talking about mixing here, can you help me understand why some brioche recipes, like yours (which type I’ve made before, successfully), call for mixing steadily but only until until the butter is all integrated, at which point the dough is still a little sticky and “lax” or saggy or shaggy for lack of better words, whereas Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery (whose brioche recipe I’ve made numerous times, with great success) calls for mixing for an additional 15 minutes even after the butter has been slowly integrated, until the dough is firm, smooth, and silky – more like a ball (the dough actually does cohere into a ball around the hook)? What is the purpose of that additional mixing, do you know? As I’ve said, I’ve used both methods, side by side even, and couldn’t really discern a noticeable difference (they were different recipes, so it was difficult to tell what factors caused what slight differences there were!)

    • joepastry says:

      Hi Jessica!

      That’s an excellent question. The reason for the extra mixing is gluten (structure) development. I’ve used both brioche and focaccia recipes that call for that degree of mixing…you go and go and go until suddenly SCHOOP! the whole mass collects around the beater in a ball. My guess is that if you measured these breads side by side the very developed bread doughs would be taller and lighter than the others, if a litter tougher and drier. It’s all about preference. You can mix this dough longer as well though I’m honestly not sure if it gets to that point. I think I”ll just try that!

      Cheers,

      - Joe

      • Jessica Katz says:

        Thanks Joe, of course that makes sense. When I did my little side-by-side comparison, the recipes I used were the Flour one and one from Alice Medrich’s “Pure Desserts” (called Desiree’s Brioche”). I do remember the Flour one being taller and slightly “tougher” (as brioches go!), but the Alice Medrich one also has a much higher proportion of butter – 10 oz per 15 oz flour, vs 11 oz per 23 oz flour for the Flour recipe – so I don’t know how much of the texture difference might have been attributable to that. I know brioche recipes can vary widely in their richness from lean to exceptionally decadent!

        • joepastry says:

          Quite true, Jessica! I tried to split the difference with the recipe here on the blog, but you’re quite right: there are some very, very rich brioche formulas out there. Comparing the proportion of butter is probably the first clue to how tall and/or tender the brioche will be. Thanks for the comment!

          - Joe

  2. Ted says:

    But, but, but…

    I know I made no-knead brioche dough last year, and it made the best-est cinnamon rolls that ever came out of my kitchen.

    But maybe that’s not real Brioche, ’cause it’s not kneaded?

    (Glad you are recovered from flu.)

    • joepastry says:

      Makes sense to me! You can make brioche lots of different ways. Less mixed (with less developed gluten) would make denser and impressively rich and buttery cinnamon rolls. Nothing wrong with that!

      And thanks Ted! it was touch and go there for a while (in my mind).

      - Joe

  3. Jim says:

    Your fine pastry story — about the struggle between the forces of Up and the forces of Down — illuminates the dark “glutenian” conflict at odds when we bake. It has inspired me to question “when” I add the various ingredients into my bread recipes. Any future post regarding “ingredient timing” would be much appreciated.

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