Is Milk Better Than Water For Baking Bread?

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 milk can be the solution to perfect bread, but 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.

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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 remaining raw.

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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 bonds of the gluten more securely. This produces bread with a smaller, yet stronger crumb. A bread that contains fat will also have a longer shelf life as it increases moisture retained and starch retrogradation slows down.

Milk is more alkaline than water. Yeast fermentation prefers a slightly alkaline environment, therefore milks 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-tasing 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 creaminess 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 the higher fat content. It also gives richer flavour and browns more easily than a water-based dough does 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, 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 161F (72C). This is to prevent you from getting ill if there is bad bacteria present yet 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 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 to do in a busy baking environment. Add 2% to 8% of milk powder per the total weight of flour used 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 using skimmed milk powder you may wish to add some 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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