On Bread Aesthetics

Several comments from readers expressing amazement that the tangzhong method isn’t more widely known. If this method really does all these amazing things, why don’t more bakers in America employ it?

All I can say is that it’s a matter of aesthetics. Crusty, chewy breads with elastic, uneven crumbs have been all the rage for almost twenty years now. At least in America, where a romance for Old World peasant breads runs very deep.

That’s not true in Japan and China. Bread eaters in that part of the world place a premium on tenderness, uniformity of crumb and thin, easy-to-eat crusts. I’d speculate that the bread aesthetic is connected to a broader east Asian sensibility that emphasizes balance, harmony, simplicity and order.

Then again it could just be a simple matter of taste. For it wasn’t so long ago that Westerners also prized fine, white, soft, easy-to-eat breads. Pan de mie, also known as Pullman bread, is a good example of the breads we Westerners used to love. It uses mostly white flours, it has a tight and even crumb, it’s even made in a 6-sided pan specifically designed to create a near crustless end product. Once it was considered the height of luxury.

Up until the 1960’s white breads like that were associated with good living, especially among poor European immigrants who had zero romance for the tough, chewy, coarse, whole-grained breads of home. They considered fluffy white bread to be more nutritious, better tasting, easier to digest and just generally more pleasant to eat. It was the food of the rich, a delicacy the upper classes of Europe had traditionally denied them.

That logic flipped in the 60’s when a handful of American bread eaters decided they were the ones being denied nutrition, flavor and digestive health — by the makers of fluffy white breads. That sentiment grew all through the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s to the point that now there’s scarcely a fine dining restaurant in America that doesn’t serve chewy, coarse-grained thick-crusted peasant breads as an accompaniment to expensive 4-course meals.

I’m not complaining mind you, I like those. It’s just an interesting reversal. One that the Chinese and Japanese, as far as I’m aware, have yet to make.

23 thoughts on “On Bread Aesthetics”

  1. I made some of this bread over the weekend, while it was, and still is, fluffy, with a tight white crumb, we were not fans of the sweetness. The recipe is used was from 350baker (I think????) and called for 4 tablespoons of sugar. Too sweet for our tastes. However, I plan on experimenting with incorporating this technique into my sourdoughs and see how it goes.

    1. Pain de mie you mean? Mine has only 2 tablespoons but it’s still a fluffy white bread! 😉

      Let me know how your experiments go!

      – Joe

        1. Thank you, Anna!

          The lower sugar shouldn’t make any difference at all in the way the bread performs. Let me know if you like it better!

          – Joe

    2. I make an ATK cinnamon bread based on a Japanese shokupan recipe (is shokupan similar to tangzhong?). It uses an insane amount of sugar and butter and I had to work a while at mastering it because it’s so different than those crusty European breads that I love so much.

      The lavish use of both sugar and butter made keeping that puppy from overproofing and collapsing a challenge! Still, it has that even, soft texture Joe describes and that suited the cinnamon flavor and appealed to my husband for breakfast. Besides, it’s pretty as hell.

      It doesn’t have any “gel” structure that I’m aware of but I guess I’ll learn more about that and see how it’s similar and different from what Joe is doing.

      If anyone’s interested, here’s the ATK recipe and it makes a lovely morning bread. I’d add some chopped nuts to the filling myself but my husband doesn’t care for them.

  2. I bought a Pullman pan. I loved the bread, it was soft and a perfect square. It made such neat sandwiches.

    1. And that’s exactly what it was created for! I’m totally with you, those perfectly square sandwiches are terrific. Geometry has its place, even at lunch.

      Thanks Martha!

      – Joe

  3. As a child my siblings and I were in a commercial for white bread. I would take a bite out of a slice, chew, and exclaim, “YUM! It’s good!” I think I ate three loaves in about two hours. Oh, and this was on a playground, riding the merry-go-round, swinging, sliding. I don’t think any of us eat much white bread to this day.

    1. lol yeah, I feel the same way about popcorn. I once worked at a movie theater concession stand. It took the summer before I was ruined for popcorn forever, but the effect has lasted.


      – Joe

  4. I too made this bread over the weekend. I noticed it required 4 tablespoons of sugar, but less yeast than I would normally use. I thought it would be sweet but it was not in my case. I used a bread machine on the dough cycle for the first rise, punched it down, shaped it in a regular bread pan and baked it. The bread came out wonderful. It is great for morning toast. I also think it would make very good cinnamon/raisin bread. It has a wonderfully buttery taste since I used butter instead of oil.

    1. Oh, cinnamon raisin toast!

      I remember discovering it as a kid. I think I ate nothing but that for about six months. I better not get back into it. God only knows what might happen.

      Thanks Jim!

      – Joe

  5. Interesting, I just made pan de mie the other night (end of Passover), I love it for sandwiches. But I add coarse semolina flour to it, which limits the white fluffiness somewhat, gives the bread a bit of color and texture, but not too much. I’m looking forward to your upcoming tutorial on the tangzhong method, and I’m curious about the similarities you mentioned previously to the addition of potatoes or potato flakes in a bread recipe. A while ago I made a cinnamon raisin loaf that called for the addition of potato flakes, and I found it inedible. It wasn’t just soft and fluffy, it was downright mushy, even toasted. I probably just messed up somewhere along the line. But I’m looking forward to this.

    1. Hey Chana!

      Actually that’s a pretty common problem with potato breads. Potato doesn’t create a gel, but the starchy flesh soaks up water like crazy. That’s a problem when there’s either a lot of potato or the pieces are really big. As you experienced: mush. This should be an improvement.

      – Joe

      P.S. – I also use semolina (durum) flour in my pain de mie. It’s a great middle ground!

  6. “it’s even made in a 6-sided pan” – I thought, “Wow!” I never realized that. Then I realized it was probably a typo. Unless that really is a fact?

    Something that always confused me when I was growing up was why Asian white bread was so much better than American white sandwich bread. I still think that today. And in countries like Korea, at least, the white bread is very nice because so much of the food is sweet. A sweet, soft, white bread goes much better with a sweet egg omelette than a yeasty European bread.

    When I was visiting Korea, even the garlic-cheese pizza was sweet – and served with whipped cream!

    1. I should have just said “lidded pan” but yet it’s true: top bottom, sides and ends. I got too fancy there with the lingo, Sherry. 😉

      And that’s fascinating. I’d think a little sweetness would be a terrific balance to a lot of savory dishes!


      – Joe

  7. What I’d like is a nice tasty loaf (like some of the slow-rise high-hydration stuff out there) without the big holes and tough (or crunchy) crust. It doesn’t have to be fluffy; in fact, I like the firmer texture of today’s popular breads, but it’s hard to make a sandwich when the filling (or at least the condiments) fall through the holes! I suspect as more baby boomers switch to dentures softer bread may come back into style.

    1. Hey Sandra!

      Try this pan de mie. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It’s got a lot of durum flour in it which gives it more body than a typical sandwich bread.

      – Joe

  8. I grew up on that fluffy “air bread”, as my Dad called it… and lived the transition to rustic bread. I like chewy, coarse-grained, thick-crusted bread and now that I’m about my Dad’s age I mock the sweet fluffy stuff that my kids like. So as the world goes round… I call it “air bread” and tell them that it has no nutritional value. But in the secrecy of the confessional I have to admit that I just love, love, love going to a BBQ joint and getting that stack of white bread to accompany the meat and sauce. It makes me feel like a kid all over again (except now I end up with lingering guilt that never was an issue when a kid). Mea culpa…

  9. I am not from China or Japan but a neighbouring Asian country which loves soft bread. Bread (in the form of a loaf that even now is only baked in commercial bakeries and many of these for a long time were owned and operated by the central government) was essentially seen as an indulgence, toast was a mark of sophistication and also prescribed to sick people because of its soft texture that lead to easy digestion. It was a western food group that was introduced during the colonial times. The “wet flour method” is commonly used to produce the most softest “pav” which is then dunked in to hot potato curry….or toasted and slathered with butter and eaten with sweet milky chai.

  10. I love soft sandwich bread! I’ve got Peter Reinhart’s buttermilk white bread, light wheat loaf, anadama loaf, and Portuguese sweet bread down pat. I love that I don’t have to plan a day or two ahead for a starter or pre-ferment, and I can have irresistible dinner rolls in a few hours. I’ve always got loaves in my freezer, and I hand them out to sick or busy friends and family all the time. Plus, then I don’t have to compete with all of those glamour shots of whole-grain sourdough over on thefreshloaf.com :).

    1. lol….you made my day, Catherine!

      The straight dough method is loved the world over for a reason: it seldom disappoints!

      I like crusty hearth breads as much anyone…but bread heads can be a little on the righteous side. Here’s to good ol’ white bread lightness!

      Cheers and thanks a million for that!

      – Joe

  11. I can attest with certainty that the Chinese and Japanese still love soft white bread. They have yet to make a reversal to chewy, coarse-grained thick-crusted peasant breads because they never had that in the first place. The imperial powers that marauded Asia in times past somehow didn’t saw fit to introduce their thick-crusted peasant breads to Asia. Perhaps the men sent to the Far East mostly came from the upper classes, so introduced only their luxurious white bread to the Asiatic natives. In the past decade or two, many contemporary bakeries have sprouted throughout the Far East to introduce thick-crusted peasant breads. But they are still a niche product, not having converted the majority of the population.

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