Last year I had the exhilarating, nerve-wracking experience of going to Paris to compete in the Coupe du Monde, a worldwide pastry and baking competition. As you can imagine, it was a real change of pace from my everyday life, running a baking business with my wife, Cynthia. It was a week I’ll always remember, in large part because our team won high marks for brioche-type breads, those yeast-raised doughs that get their taste and tenderness from lots of eggs and butter.
It was a big thrill to get competition honors for such a challenging dough. But because we had all practiced hard and mastered the tricks—measuring precisely, using the freshest eggs, keeping the dough cool enough to hold the butter—we made moist, fluffy brioche with a thin golden crust, a yellow, tender interior, and a deliciously eggy, buttery taste.
You’ve probably seen brioche in various shapes and sizes—braids, rings, loaves, rounds, and cylinders. My favorite, though, is the classic fluted shape with a hat, called a brioche à tête (brioche with a head). When you’re first learning to shape this classic brioche, it’s easier to start with small, individual rolls.
Fresh ingredients, precisely measured
Brioche is from the northern dairy farming regions of France, where some of the finest-quality butters are produced. I believe that the butter makes the brioche. I use Plugrá, an American butter that has deeper flavor and more butterfat than most supermarket brands. If your market sells French butter such as Echiré or Président, you might try one of them. You can, of course, use regular unsalted American butter, if that’s your only option; just make sure it’s fresh and it hasn’t picked up any flavors from your refrigerator. Your eggs should be as fresh as possible so you’ll get the eggiest flavor. Your flour should be all-purpose, 11 1/2% protein or higher (the package should read 3 grams protein per serving). The flour should be very fresh; the moisture content of older flour is unpredictable, and this can throw off your proportions.
Measuring precisely yields more consistent results. I weigh everything, including the eggs, adding part of an egg or a little milk to get the exact weight, because the correct ratio of wet to dry is crucial. Brioche dough that’s too wet will be slack and hard to handle, and it won’t spring up as pertly during baking. Dough that’s too dry will give you brioche that’s heavy and dry, rather than light and fluffy.
Knead by hand and keep a close watch
A dough with this much butter needs a close watch so it gets just the right amount of mixing and doesn’t overheat. Undermixing can result in dough that’s heavy and rises sluggishly. Overmixing overheats the dough, which in turn may cripple the yeast or cause the butter to fall out of the dough.
Kneading is easier on a cool countertop. I like to use marble or granite, if possible, but if you don’t have these, see the sidebar for tricks on keeping the dough cool. You knead the basic dough until it starts to get smooth, and then you’ll start working in the butter. The kneading is a combination of folding, pushing, throwing, and slapping motions. You’ll be tempted to add flour to this sticky dough, but don’t: use a scraper instead. Additional flour will dry out the dough, producing a tougher, less tasty result.
Pounding the cold butter with a mallet or a rolling pin makes it more pliable so it’s easier to break into pieces and add to the dough.
When you’ve started adding the butter, it’s important to work quickly. The warmth of your hands will help incorporate the butter into the dough, but too much handling will turn the dough slick and oily, which means that butter’s starting to fall out. If you feel this happening, gather up the dough and stash it in the fridge for a five-minute cool-down. Again, use a scraper. Keep kneading, and what happens next is really kind of wild—this sticky dough will transform into a smooth, silky dough that will almost shimmer.
A cold overnight rise and a warm-oven proof develop the dough
This brioche gets added taste and tenderness from spending the night in the refrigerator. The long, cold rise gives the gluten time to relax, which makes the dough easier to shape. The long rise also gives the dough time to lose its yeasty taste and develop deep eggy, buttery flavors.
You’ll shape the dough following the photos above. Don’t be afraid to handle the dough firmly and poke all the way down to secure the hats. Again, remember that it’s important to work quickly.
Make a “proofing box” for the shaped loaves. The rise between shaping and baking is called a proof. Professional bakers use temperature- and humidity-controlled boxes, but you can make your own proofing box at home, putting a rimmed baking sheet filled with hot tap water in the oven (don’t turn it on) along with the shaped loaves. Small brioches will take about an hour to proof; large ones usually need an hour and a half.
Proofed loaves should grow to 1 1/2 to 2 times their size and spring back gently when you poke them. It takes a little practice, but if you’re not sure, underproofing is better than overproofing: you’re apt to get better spring-up during baking with underproofing.
You’ll brush the loaves with an egg glaze both before and after the proof; this double coat gives an especially lovely sheen. Rotate the sheets halfway through baking, and take the rolls out when they’re a deep golden brown. The brioches are done when a cake tester comes out clean.