Not your regular white bread, Sourdough Japanese Milk Bread is the tastiest sandwich bread with the fluffiest crumb. Made with just a few simple ingredients, this bread uses a unique technique that incorporates roux in the dough, infusing added moisture that gives this loaf its pillowy crumb.
What makes Japanese Milk Bread special?
Japanese Milk Bread is a pillowy sandwich bread with a slightly sweet flavor and a golden brown crust. Also known as Shokupan, this bread is commonly sold at Asian bakeries and is prized for its light, cloud-like crumb.
Other soft breads such as brioche and challah get their tenderness from enrichments like butter, eggs and oil. My brioche loaf recipe for example, calls for 1 stick of butter to achieve its fluffy texture. What makes milk bread so special is the addition of a cooked mixture of flour and water, known as Tangzhong. This adds a high level of moisture to the dough imparting a delicate, cottony quality to the crumb without the need for lots of enrichments.
What is Tangzhong?
Tangzhong is what differentiates milk bread from all other enriched bread. Adding more water to bread results in a softer, fluffier texture. However, it also makes dough stickier and more difficult to handle. Cooking the flour and water together into a thick roux, pre-gelatinizes the starches in flour. This allows the dough to absorb and hold on to more water without making it too slack and sticky.
What you need
Active Sweet Stiff Starter: Make sure your starter is active before making this recipe! Your loaf will be too sour, heavy, and dense if you use a weak starter. I like to mix my sweet starter the night before and make the dough in the morning.
Bread Flour: The high protein content of bread flour provides structure and allows dough to hold its shape as it rises even with all of the enrichments in the dough, substitute all-purpose flour if that’s all you have. Do not use whole wheat or rye flour or your bread will turn out too dense.
Milk powder: Introduces more sugar and protein to bread improving structure, texture, and browning. It's optional but highly recommended.
Salt: Use sea salt or kosher salt for the best results. You may need to adjust your measurements if you use teaspoons, but the gram measures will be the same.
See the recipe card for detailed ingredient information.
Importance of a strong starter
Having a mature active sourdough starter is especially important for making enriched loaves like Sourdough Japanese Milk Bread. Enrichments such as butter, eggs, sugar, and milk can impede fermentation. If the starter is too weak, it might excessively slow down the process, leading to heightened acidity, which in turn weakens the gluten structure, causing the dough to tear and lose its ability to retain the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation. The consequence? Dense, gummy bread.
Looking for more soft, fluffy bread recipes made with sourdough? Try my Sourdough Dinner Rolls, Sourdough Brioche Bread, Sourdough Hamburger Buns, Sourdough Babka, Sourdough Sticky Buns and Sourdough Monkey Bread.
Using a stiff sweet starter
I like to use a sweet stiff starter when making enriched dough. A sweet stiff starter is a 50% hydration starter with sugar added. While this is a high-hydration loaf (about 70%), remember that we want to control the addition of water through the Tangzhong.
Using a low-hydration starter prevents more moisture from being added to the dough so that it does not become too wet and slack. This also enables me to add a higher proportion of sourdough starter to the dough, which helps the dough rise quicker.
STEP 1 Prep: The night before, make your sweet stiff starter (image 1). The next day, make the Tangzhong (image 2).
TIP: Make sure to allow the Tangzhong to cool completely before incorporating it into your dough. High temperatures will kill yeast, preventing it from effectively fermenting and causing your dough to rise.
STEP 2 Make the dough: Whisk the wet ingredients together (image 3). Make the dough and knead the butter in a tablespoon at a time (image 4). Knead the dough for 5 to 10 minutes (image 5). Your dough should feel supple and look completely smooth after kneading (image 6).
TIP: If your dough feels too sticky to knead, return it to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let it rest for 30 minutes before continuing. Allowing dough to rest lets the flour fully hydrate and gluten bonds strengthen, resulting in dough that's much easier to handle.
STEP 3 Proofing: Transfer the dough to a clean, lightly-oiled bowl and let it rise until doubled in volume (about 4 to 6 hours).
TIP: Be patient and give your dough enough time to rise, fluffy bread is a result of well-risen dough with lots of built-up carbon dioxide.
STEP 4 Cold proof: Once your dough has doubled, transfer it to the refrigerator to proof overnight.
TIP: Cold proofing slows down yeast activity and allows the dough to develop deeper flavors without over proofing. This breaks up the baking process but is optional. You can skip this step and make this a same-day bake by continuing to shaping.
STEP 5 Shape the dough: Divide the dough in 4 equal portions. Round each portion into a tight ball, cover and let the dough rest for 10 minutes. Flatten dough ball into a long oval, about 10 inches (image 7). Roll the dough into a tight cylinder (image 8).
TIP: You can shape your dough anyway you want. I prefer shaping in this manner because it prevents my bread from cracking and splitting as it bakes.
STEP 6 Final proof: Place the dough side-by-side in a prepared loaf pan (image 9). Let the dough rise in pan until puffy, well-risen and almost fills your pan (about 2 to 4 hours). Brush the dough with egg wash (image 10).
STEP 7 Bake: Bake at 350 F for 40 to 45 minutes.
Tips for Success
- Use a mature active starter, you’ll want a healthy starter that’s strong enough to efficiently ferment the dough and allow it to rise.
- Use bread flour instead of all-purpose, with a higher protein level, bread flour improves the structure of bread resulting in taller, softer bread.
- Let the bread cool completely before slicing, while it may be tempting to tear into this bread right out of the oven, slicing it while it's still hot will cause all of the moisture to escape and cause your bread to dry out faster.
Sourdough Japanese Milk Bread is buttery and slightly sweet. Sourdough adds a little bit of tang. Using an active sweet stiff starter tames the sour qualities of sourdough and prevents your bread from becoming too sour.
Yes, but because of its lower protein content, your loaf may not rise as high. Bread flour has a protein content of 11 to 13%, which enables the dough to create stronger gluten bonds this allows your bread to maintain its structure and shape as it rises, and prevents it from collapsing in the oven.
There are a few reasons your bread did not turn out light and fluffy.
- Your starter is too weak
- You did not give your dough enough time to rise
- Your dough was not kneaded enough and the gluten structure was too weak
- Your dough has acidified and the gluten has broken down
A Pullman pan is a metal baking pan used to make sandwich loaves. It comes in multiple sizes but usually has much higher, straighter sides than a typical loaf pan to allow for taller bread. Some Pullman pans come with lids, however, this recipe does not require one.
You can use a standard 8½ by 4½-inch loaf pan instead, but your loaf will not rise as high.
More sourdough bread recipes you may like
Did this recipe rise to the occasion?
We knead your feedback! Did our recipe impress your taste buds? Leave a star rating and write a review to help us create even better recipes.
I read all the comments and love hearing your feedback.
Sourdough Japanese Milk Bread Recipe
This section may contain affiliate links
Sweet Stiff Levain
- 60 grams all-purpose flour
- 28 grams water
- 7 grams sourdough starter fed or unfed
- 10 grams organic cane sugar
- 40 grams all-purpose flour
- 170 grams water
- 75 grams whole milk
- 1 egg large (50 grams in shell)
- 6 grams salt
- 30 grams organic cane sugar
- 7 grams milk powder optional
- 300 grams bread flour
- 28 grams unsalted butter softened
- 1 egg
Make the sweet stiff levain
- The night before, combine sweet stiff starter ingredients together. Stir until well combined, cover with a piece of plastic wrap and set in a warm place.60 grams all-purpose flour, 28 grams water, 7 grams sourdough starter, 10 grams organic cane sugar
Make the Tangzhong
- The next day, combine the all-purpose flour and water in a microwave-safe bowl. Whisk until no dry bits of flour remain.40 grams all-purpose flour, 170 grams water
- Microwave the mixture in 30-second increments, whisking after each interval.
- After two or three times, your mixture should appear thickened. Leave the cooked roux uncovered until completely cooled.
Make the dough
- Whisk the milk, egg, salt, cane sugar, and milk powder (if using) together in a large mixing bowl until completely incorporated.7 grams milk powder, 6 grams salt, 1 egg, 75 grams whole milk, 30 grams organic cane sugar
- Stir in the bread flour, the cooled Tangzhong and all of the sweet stiff starter. Mix until the dough comes together in a cohesive mass.300 grams bread flour
- Knead the butter into the dough one tablespoon at a time, waiting until each addition is absorbed before adding more. The dough will gradually feel less greasy and more supple as you knead.28 grams unsalted butter
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rest for 1 hour.
Strengthen the dough
- Turn the dough out on a lightly-oiled work surface. Knead the dough until completely smooth about 5 to 10 minutes.
- Place the dough in a clean, lightly-greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise until it has doubled in volume. The dough should look bubbly and feel like it is full of air. This could take between 4 to 6 hours. Give your dough enough time to rise, don’t shape it until it has risen noticeably.
- Cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. This helps the dough develop flavors.
- Shape the dough
- Grease an 8 by 4-inch loaf tin with butter, or line it with parchment paper. Turn the dough out on a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces using a bench scraper. Round each into a tight ball.
- Using a rolling pin, flatten the dough into a long oval, about 10 inches long. Working with the short side, roll the dough into a tight cylinder. Place each portion into the prepared pan. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and set it in a warm place.
- Let the dough rise until puffy and fills the pan up to an ½-inch below the top.
- Preheat the oven to 350 F. Beat the egg until no traces of egg white remain.
- Brush the tops of the dough with egg wash. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until the loaf is golden brown.1 egg
Cool the loaf
- Let the loaf cool on a wire rack for at least two hours before slicing.
- Store the unsliced loaf in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.
These recipes were developed and tested using grams for precise measurements. To increase your chances of success, I recommend investing in a kitchen scale. I've included rough volume estimates (in tablespoons and cups), but they might not be totally accurate.
Remember all ovens are unique, these recipes were tested in my oven which runs cooler than others. You might need to lower the temperature if your bake appears to be browning too quickly. Monitor your bake closely and make adjustments if needed.