Butter is an amazing ingredient. It makes bread soft, and it gives it a wonderful flavour and aroma. The mouthfeel of bread made with butter is smooth and pleasant. But what is the best way to incorporate butter into bread dough?
The three states of butter.
It can be cold and hard when kept in the fridge. It can be soft when kept at room temperature. Or it can be liquid when melted.
Whenever I have made bread, I have always stuck to either softened butter or cold butter. With cold butter only being used when making brioche where temperature control is critical. Softened butter is my go-to for most other bread dough types.
Melted butter is something I have always avoided because it would need to be added at the beginning of mixing unlike the softened or cold butter. My reasoning is that butter should be incorporated into the dough after it has been kneaded for a while and gained sufficient gluten development.
But I had never compared the three methods side by side and now is the time to do so.
The three methods.
Starting with the most common one – adding softened butter to a dough that has been kneaded for a while. For this method butter is left at room temperature to soften. The dough is kneaded for 3 – 4 minutes depending on the amount of dough and other ingredients in it. After the initial kneading the softened butter is added and ‘torn in’.
It is slightly messy to begin with as you must squeeze the dough and butter together until they are combined. Then the kneading continues until sufficient gluten development. Quite often from the point of adding the butter onwards you must switch to the ‘slap & fold’ kneading method as the dough can become quite loose. This will depend on the type of dough and the amount of butter that is added to it.
From a shaggy and sticky mass, it soon turns into a silky smooth and cohesive dough ball. While this method is a little messy for a few minutes, it works well and has never failed me.
Moving on to the second method – adding cold butter. This method works almost exactly like the first one. The main difference is that another step is added.
Since the butter is a cold and solid block, it would be impossible to incorporate it into the dough. So, it is pressed between sheets of non-stick paper to make it pliable. This way it stays cold, but it becomes soft enough that it can be easily worked into the dough.
The main advantage of this method is temperature control. If your kitchen is warm or if you are making a dough that requires a lot of kneading, then the cold butter will keep the temperature down. I use this method every time I make brioche. It works the same way when using a mixer too.
Finally, the liquid butter method. This changes the process since adding liquid butter to a dough that has already been mixed would turn into a disaster. So, the liquid butter is added at the beginning with all other ingredients.
I have always steered clear of this method because it seemed like it would make the dough too runny, and it would take a lot longer to knead to sufficient gluten development. But to my surprise it worked well. I could not believe it to be honest.
Have I been wrong the whole time?
The results of the three methods were pretty much the same. They all worked well and there were no issues. So, the conclusion would be that it is ok to add butter right at the beginning of the mix; and it could be softened, cold, or melted.
I have been warning people not to add too much butter from the get-go to avoid any errors. I have always told everyone that anything over 10% would prevent good gluten development and that butter should ideally be added once the dough has been kneaded for a while.
But then I thought – how often do you make bread with nothing but butter added to it? For me this was the first time, I think. Usually, bread that contains butter also has other enrichments like sugar, eggs, etc.
There is another thing to consider – the flour. I used strong bread flour which is by far the easiest to work with. If I had used all purpose or any weaker flour, then the liquid butter dough may have taken longer.
The final test.
This time I made a dough containing sugar, egg, and melted butter. All ingredients were mixed from the get-go. It was kind of like a light brioche dough when it comes to the ingredients.
And of course, it was super sticky, messy, and it took way longer to knead than the others. I gave it 10 minutes to match the other doughs, but it would need at least 5 more minutes or even more to be fully kneaded.
Which method should you use?
I am still going to stick to my softened or cold butter methods because they work for every bread that I will ever make. And if I will be adding less than 10% butter at the beginning of the mix, then I will still stick to softened instead of melted because that just makes more sense, and it is easier too since I don’t have to melt it to use it.
Saying that, I was very surprised at how well the melted butter worked especially because it was a relatively high percentage (24%).
I would love to hear from you and find out which method you prefer and why.
The recipe formulas.
For the first three tests I used 250g (8.8oz) white bread flour, 60g (2.1oz) butter, 5g (0.17oz) salt, 3g (0.1oz) yeast, 150g (5.3oz) water.
The final one was made with 250g (8.8oz) white bread flour, 55g (1.95oz) butter, 5g (0.17oz) salt, 3g (0.1oz) yeast, 110g (3.9oz) water, 25g (0.9oz) sugar, 50g (1.75oz) egg. I adjusted the amount of fat and water to account for the fat and water contained in the egg.
Watch the video here