Is Milk Better Than Water For Baking Bread?

Is Milk Better Than Water For Baking Bread?

Is Milk Better Than Water For Baking Bread?
Updated on
January 24, 2023
Gareth Busby
Gareth Busby

Imagine biting into a soft, creamy slice of bread. The outside is chewy with protruding bubbles, and the inside tastes so sweet that you can even smell it baking in the oven! This might sound too good to be true, but milk can be the solution to perfect bread, yet it can also be a problem. Let’s see how to use milk in bread and if milk is better than water when baking bread.

What does adding milk do to bread?

To reveal the impact of using milk as the primary liquid in bread making, it’s best to start off with what is in milk. Of course, the majority of milk is water (87%). This makes it a possible alternative to water to make bread dough. If converting a recipe from water to milk, the amount used should increase to prevent a dry dough.

Lactose, present in milk, is a sugar that does not break down during the fermentation process. It’s not sweet tasting either but what it does do is caramelise when baking. To compensate for this, the temperature of the oven should be reduced to prevent the bread from burning or the crumb from remaining raw.

The fat found in milk makes a big difference to the dough. They alter the crumb structure by shortening the gluten strands and binding the gluten bonds more securely. This produces bread with a smaller yet stronger crumb. Bread containing fat will also have a longer shelf life as moisture retention increases and starch retrogradation slows down.

Milk is more alkaline than water. Yeast fermentation prefers a slightly acidic environment. Therefore, milk’s higher pH value slows down the rate of fermentation. This can lead to an enhanced gluten structure due to a longer development time. It also means there is less organic acid activity which should produce a lighter-tasting loaf of bread.

Due to the slower rise, bread that contains milk usually requires sugar in the dough recipe. The sugar speeds up the action of the yeast to be more in line timewise with water-based doughs. It also adds a sweeter flavour that partners with the rich and creamy flavour notes of milk bread.

What does adding milk do to bread?

All in all, milk has several benefits when added to bread dough:

  • An even rise 
  • More uniform and fine soft crumb
  • Increased ability to retain gas produces a better rise
  • Longer shelf life
  • More caramelisation on the crust
  • Lighter and slightly richer-tasting bread

Water vs milk

Milk produces a softer loaf with a finer crumb due to its higher fat content. It also gives richer flavour and browns more easily than a water-based dough because of caramelizing lactose sugars. It also has a longer shelf life due to the fat it contains. 

Do I need to scald milk for baking?

Milk contains glutathione which is a tripeptideÂ. This softens the gluten, which will weaken the structure of the bread. By scalding the milk, glutathione is destroyed, which prevents any damage to the gluten. Scaled milk is the secret to making soft, airy bread. It has a firmer texture that will rise up better during baking for an attractive loaf with a softer crumb and higher volume.

How to scald milk for baking bread

At 180 degrees, milk becomes scalded. To do this, heat the milk in a pan when it reaches 180F (82C) for just a second, and remove it from the heat. This is just below boiling point, and you should see some steam while small bubbles will form at the edge of the pan. If this temperature is exceeded, milk can produce an unpleasant flavour which you will want to avoid! It’s important to keep a close eye on your milk to prevent it from boiling.

Scalding vs pasteurising milk

You might be thinking the milk is already heated in the pasteurising process, so do you really need to scald milk for baking? Pasturising removes a lot of the bacteria in the milk by heating it to 181F (82C). This prevents you from getting ill if bad bacteria are present, yet it also removes much of the good bacteria and flavour.

Coming from a farming family, the taste of fresh unpasteurised milk is far superior to the stuff you can buy in the shops – but it is not as safe to drink!

Scalding requires the milk to be heated to a higher point to remove the glutathione which is necessary when baking bread. It is also beneficial to cakes and other baked goods that contain wheat flour. But as cake recipes usually contain less milk, it is often deemed unnecessary to scald it. When baking in large quantities, it can sometimes be a worthwhile step.

Fresh milk vs milk powder

Instead of having to scald the milk, many bakeries will use milk powder. This is scaled in the production process, which is very challenging in a busy baking environment. Add 2% to 8% of milk powder per the dough’s total flour weight to see the benefit of using milk in your dough.

Skimmed, semi-skimmed or whole milk, which do I use for bread?

Semi-skimmed and skimmed milk have less fat than whole milk. Therefore, the benefits of the fat in the milk will be much less. Skimmed powdered milk is much more readily available than whole-fat milk powder. If you use skimmed milk powder, you may wish to add extra fat in another format, such as butter, cream or oil. 

Using milk in bread frequently asked questions

Can I use sour milk for baking?
Soured milk is ideal for making bread. Many bakers prefer it to standard milk as it doesn’t raise the pH value of the dough which will slow down the rise. Use a 50:50 ratio to water to avoid the dough becoming too sour.
Does using milk increase the oven spring of bread?
Milk increases the gas retention properties of the dough which can improve the rise of the bread in the oven. Though the dough must be well developed otherwise the extra weight of the fat in the milk will weigh the dough down to produce a denser loaf with less oven spring.

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Comments (16)

  • Thank you! You have a most educational website! What about buttermilk? Does that need to be scalded? Would it be better than whole milk?

    • Thank you! Buttermilk contains bacteria which can boost the rise when combined with something alkaline. Have a bit of fun and give it a go. I wouldn’t recommend scaling it as you would kill the active bacteria it contains.

  • Currently I am just heating milk to 80 degrees to add to dough and my bread is a bit more dense, but you are saying that scalding the milk to 180 will make the crumb of the bread softer and fluffier?

    • Yes, it should. You might not notice much of a difference depending on the recipe you are following, but scientifically it should. Let it cool before adding it to the other ingredients.

  • Is it more beneficial to the texture, rise and taste of a white yeast bread to use butter or oil in the baking, and should that choice be coupled with water, whole milk, or half and half as the wet ingredient? Also, is salt a necessary ingredient to the white yeast bread, or can it be left out to make it a salt free loaf? Thank you for this great learning experience in the real science of baking bread …🍞

    • Hi Carol. You can use some butter and/or oil to change the texture or flavour of bread, for sure! I don’t recommend that you switch a large quantity of water for fat in an established recipe. You’re better off finding one that’s written, such as a brioche recipe. You can, however, add up to 5% butter or oil to an existing recipe to make it different. This would mean you could add 50 grams of butter to a recipe that uses 1000 grams of flour. You will have to lower the water slightly to avoid it getting too wet and sticky. You can also use milk instead of water too.

      Regarding salt. yes, it is necessary in most types of bread. You can see an article that explains salt in bread baking here. I do have a saltless flat bread recipe, but without salt the gluten structure is too weak to rise properly. Hope this helps

  • Thank you so much
    It really worth it having read this article as a new person entering into bakery. I love you sir
    Could you recommend breads recipe for me

  • Hi Busby
    I enjoy you articles and they are more informative than most I come across and they are nicely written too.
    Do you have a maximum where adding milk above that leads to a poorer crumb and loaf volume please?
    Wishing you the best

    • Thanks Kevin, it’s not something I’ve thought of. It’s quite common to add sugar, butter and eggs when using milk in bread dough. Mainly because the classic recipes (brioche, pain vienna, pain de mie) all include combinations of these ingredients.

      I’ve never ran into problems using 100% milk instead of water, and if I have, I’ve reduced one of the other ingredients to improve the bread. There’s an experiment to do here!

  • My recipe calls for 3 cups of water at say 105, can I just use the same amount of whole milk?
    I use bread and wheat flour
    Thanks BC

    • Sure, just bare in mind milk is around 87% water, so you might want to add a little extra to get the consistency you desiere.

  • I want to use the whey from my homemade yogurt in my stoneground whole wheat bread. So far I am having trouble with the rise being less than optimal. Suggestions?

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