Q: What makes brioche dry and crumbly? I've tried at least three different recipes and three times produced a texture not unlike that of a dried dinner roll.
A: The dry, crumbly texture of brioche has less to do with recipe than with mixing and handling. Like any other bread, brioche relies on the gluten formed during mixing for structure and texture. In a brioche, gluten forms when flour, egg, water and/or milk are kneaded together to form an elastic, extensible network of protein strands. This network also encloses minute pools of fat (butter) and gas bubbles.
The gluten network is easily damaged by fat. Fat has shortening properties -- it inhibits the hydration of wheat proteins to form gluten and it also inhibits the cross-linking among gluten fibers to form the network. Since brioche is especially high in fat (butter), which in most formulas is 50 to 60 percent of the flour's weight, what happens between the fat and the gluten determines the volume and texture of the product.
Here are some pointers for avoiding a dry, crumbly brioche:
1. The dough must contain sufficient water. Yeast relies on water for its livelihood. A dry dough rises poorly and produces biscuit-like brioches. The dough must be soft and sticky even before you mix in the softened butter. It shouldn't be too soft, however, as the topknot will then flatten out.
2. Always mix the dough first, then mix in the butter. The long gluten strands that lead to a light, moist brioche must form first before you can mix in the butter.
3. Use only bread flour. It contains about 12 percent protein. All-purpose, on the other hand, is only about 10 or 11 percent protein, and pastry and cake flours contain even less. Rich brioche dough needs a good, strong gluten network to carry the fat.
4. Keep butter and dough cool. Butter begins to melt at about 65 degrees. When you start to mix the dough, remove butter from the refrigerator and let it soften. By the time you have finished kneading the dough, the butter will have softened enough to be kneadable. Squeeze it between your fingers until soft, then plop it on top of the dough and mix the butter into the dough.
5. Knead the dough long enough to make it smooth and shiny. Do this on a table or board without adding any additional flour. It will stick to everything. I say knead because there really is no other English word for smearing the dough around, picking up your hand to which the dough adheres and slamming it back on the table. Think of it as taffy that sticks to the table and you're pulling it with only one hand. Ten minutes of pulling and slamming is usually sufficient.
6. Avoid overmixing the dough once the butter is incorporated. Mixing more than 30 seconds by hand serves no useful purpose and risks damaging the gluten network.
7. Work in a cool kitchen, preferably at about 60 degrees. This dough should rise slowly. Then, during the final proof, which should be in a very warm, humid spot (90 degrees and more than 80 percent humidity), the yeast will begin to ferment sugar and produce carbon dioxide at an explosive rate.
8. Brioche can also be made in a food processor using the bread attachment. It's easy to overmix once the butter is added, however.
9. Don't use a mixer for bioche dough unless it has a paddle attachment. The whisk or beater attachments damage gluten. If you do use a mixer, the dough should come halfway up the bowl. Otherwise, the stirring action tears rather than stretches the gluten strands. BRIOCHE (Makes 10 2-ounce brioches)
1/2 envelope (1 1/2 teaspoons) active-dry yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1 pinch sugar plus 1 tablespoon
2 cups bread flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup milk
9 tablespoons lightly salted butter plus melted butter for greasing molds
1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Mix yeast, water and pinch of sugar in 1-cup measuring cup. Set on top of the stove where it's warm. Measure bread flour, eggs, 1 tablespoon sugar and salt into mixing bowl. Scald milk and add 1 tablespoon butter. Cool to lukewarm.
When the yeast foams, add it to the bowl along with the lukewarm milk. Mix liquid and dry ingredients using a wooden spoon. Turn out onto a clean surface and, using only one hand, lift part of the dough up and slap it back down. Turn the dough over and repeat. Continue using this lifting and slapping motion for about 10 minutes, at which point the dough starts to look much smoother and shiny.
Disentangle your hand from the sticky dough and begin to squeeze the remaining butter, which has slightly softened. Do this until the butter is uniformly soft, then place it on the dough and squeeze and smear the two together for about half a minute. Transfer back to the mixing bowl, set a plate on top and place the bowl in a cool spot -- preferably at about 55 degrees. Let the dough proof for 2 hours or until almost double in bulk. Place the bowl in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to firm the butter and make the dough easier to handle.
If there is no 55-degree spot in your home (hard to find if you've got double-pane windows or if it's summer), let the dough rise 30 minutes at room temperature and then refrigerate for an hour or two.
To form brioches, cut the dough into 10 equal pieces. Roll each around under your cupped palm to form a sphere (use little or no flour). Then, holding your hand as if it were a saw, move it back and forth to squeeze the sphere into what looks like a top-heavy bowling pin (the top portion will be the brioche's topknot). Push the squat end of the bowling pin down into the buttered brioche mold (these can be bought in a specialty equipment store, or use muffin tins). At the same time, create an indentation in the center of the squat end with the tips of your fingers. It now looks something like a doughnut forced into a brioche mold and attached to the topknot by its narrow strip of dough.
Now set the top portion of the bowling pin inside this indentation. What you have actually done, then, is to have set the top of the bowling pin inside the bottom of the bowling pin while keeping the entire piece of dough intact.
When all the brioches have been fashioned this way, set the brioches in a warm, humid spot (an empty cupboard warmed by a pan of steaming water) and let them rise to almost triple their original sizes. Brush lightly but thoroughly with beaten egg yolk and water, and bake in a 400-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes.