Asian soft breads
Asians like our breads pillowy soft and fluffy. These are seen in bake shops from North Asia Japan, to Taiwan, to Hong Kong, to South East Asia Singapore and Malaysia. The western buns tend to be bigger, heartier and rougher with more texture.
In our house, we prefer soft breads, freshly baked, please.
I have watched my dad make breads since the 1960s, when breads were rare in Singapore. He was taught how to make breads by the British when Singapore was still a colony. At one point of his pastry career, he worked in Cold Storage before the 1972 fire that wiped out the place that was a landmark in Orchard Road. My dad also lost his wedding ring when he took it off to knead bread and left it in his apron.
Making bread is about allowing the gluten to form. Therefore, importance lies in the kneading of the bread, the proofing and the testing to see if the gluten is well formed. Hence, the window pane test is crucial at the end of the kneading process.
Basic Bread ratio
Flour : water = 1 : 0.6
- Activate yeast (predough stage)
- Add the rest of the ingredients at room temperature except salt (Heat and Salt kill off the yeast, butter stops the gluten from forming)
- Proof and knock back (as many times as you want)
- Shape, final proof and bake
How many times do I proof?
The more we proof the doughs, the more the yeast develops, giving the breads more texture and crust. Hm… not the kind of breads Asians are known for. Once in a while, when we have curry or feel like having a Roti John, we do want to make such breads. Otherwise, crusty breads are not what we are after. Therefore, the fewer times we proof, the more we like our breads.
Trapping the moisture
If the bun is to be soft and pillowy, the trapping of the moisture is vital. I have spent quite a bit of time searching for this secret in many methods, and baked 65C bread tangzhong, Hong Kong’s zhongzhong, with and without starters, with and without roux etc etc. The ones that claim to have a history of thousands of years, and the ones that claim to cost millions. They all worked and they all have a common motive, which is to trap in as much moisture as possible at the right temperature or create the right environment for the flour to trap as much moisture as possible.
In proofing the breads too many times, I feel that the dough will lose too much moisture to the surrounding air, especially if we stay in countries that are not so humid. I remember my bread teacher used to put a bowl of water in the proofing cupboard and generate steam to keep the dough moist as they proved. The result is soft soft buns.
Another thing he did was to spread oil on the dough during the first proof, and then spray water on the breads after shaping. All to stop the dough from drying out.
So these theories on proofing make a lot of sense to me. I then thought about the yeast.
I saw how the commercial yeast evolved over the last 40 years, from the time my dad used fresh yeast that he kept in his commercial freezer to those quick activating ones we get in stores today. In fact, it is hard to find fresh yeast these days. So I experimented a few times to see if these yeast work uniformly. Most do.
In breads, we call for high gluten flours, to hasten the development of gluten. Bread flour typical has 12%-15% protein content, and are most suitable for making big, hearty loaves. However, for more dainty buns, I’d always do half bread flour, half plain flour. The additional of a low gluten flour here makes the bread soft and pillowy.
And this is how I derived this method of making Asian buns. You just need to proof these buns enough for them to continue activating the yeast in the oven. They will be soft even after a day (if you keep them in air-tight containers), and can be kept for up to 3 days.
Flours can differ greatly by brand and country. Basically , how dry the flour is does affect the final product.
Kneading is best done with the hands, as gluten forms the fastest that way. When kneading, don’t be tempted to add flour. Once the gluten is formed, it is no longer sticky. We call it the 三光 (three clean) stage, where the hands, table and bowl are all clean of the dough. If the dough is really too sticky, rather than work flour into the dough when kneading, use the flour to flour your hands and equipment without introducing more flour into the dough.
Soft the second day
This is quite common sense yet we often neglect. After the breads are cooled to room temperature, of course it is important to keep them in air-tight containers. We remember to do so with store bought breads, yet often treat home made breads with double standards.
Ok. Time to action! Bake some and enjoy!
250 ml water at 40C
3 Tbsp milk powder (if you cannot find milk powder, just replace the water with milk)
300g bread flour
200g plain flour
1 egg (keep some for egg wash if you are going to egg wash your buns)
- In the machine's mixing bowl (or Thermomix bowl), place the instant yeast and then the water and let it froth. Mine took less than 2 minutes. If it doesn't froth, then throw it out and try another time. If it doesn't froth the second time, throw out your yeast. It has lost its efficacy.
- Add sugar, milk powder, and egg, then the flours and then sprinkle salt over the flour.
- Use a normal blender mode, beat it for 2 minutes. (TM #2, 2 minutes)
- Change to the dough hook, for another 5-10 minutes at medium speed (TM knead, 6-10 minutes).
- Dough is done when it passes the window pane test. (Google if you do not know what window pane test is).
- It is hard for machines to knead the dough till it passes the window pane test, so I take it out and slap it 30 times against the bench to get the gluten out if the dough just won't pass the window pane test.
- Add the butter and spin until it has been incorporated into the dough.
- Divide the dough into 40g each (for small buns) and 60g for commercial sized buns.
- Find a nice 'face' of the dough, and shape each into a round.
- Wrap each dough with 1 tbsp of the filing if using.
- Spray a layer of water over the shaped buns for it to rise in a warm place at 38-40C.
- Let it rise to double its size (Mine took 30 - 40 minutes under indirect sun), always cover with a wet cloth to stop the moisture from escaping.
- Brush the top with a thin layer of beaten egg.
- Add a topping if using.
- Bake for 10 - 12 minutes at 200°C or until the sides and bottom of the buns are 2/3 golden brown.
- Finish the buns off by brushing either honey or butter (depending on what your filings are).
- Remember to keep these in air tight containers or sealed bags immediately when buns are cooled to room temperature, and they will stay soft the next day.