I considered calling this story “The Conversion of a Former Bread Snob.” That’s because I’ve spent the past two years focusing my recreational baking efforts on free-form sourdough boules with crunchy exteriors and holey interiors studded with nubbly whole grains and seeds. If it didn’t require a frisky starter and at least 8 hours of engagement to make (and a powerful jaw to chew), I wasn’t interested. But I was misguided, and shokupan—Japan’s soft, white, feather bed of a loaf—was the source of my enlightenment.
Shokupan is baked in a long, narrow, lidded Pullman pan to create a uniform rectangular shape, all visually crisp edges and smooth, broad planes. The golden crust is thin and pliable, and the interior is plush, though not without resilience, a duality that’s described in Japanese as “mochimochi.” Shokupan’s flavor is mild, so squares of it can be filled with any kind of savory sandwich fixings or decoratively stuffed with fruit and lightly sweetened whipped cream to make the popular Japanese snack known as a fruit sando. Sliced thick, it makes stellar toast.
Don’t Fall into a Slump
Dough that’s simply rolled into a single cylinder (as for a sandwich loaf) and baked in a Pullman pan will cave in on itself as it cools. That’s why the shaping method for shokupan prescribes four spiraled bundles that press against each other as they rise, creating a taut, structurally sound loaf.
My first taste at a Japanese bakery threw all my snooty bread notions into question, and I knew I wouldn’t fully understand shokupan until I made it myself. Producing an ethereally soft and perfectly rectangular loaf became my baking fixation.
Knowing the Angles
The ingredients are simple: bread flour, a bit of sugar, yeast, and salt. Some bakers use water, while others choose milk, sometimes in the form of reconstituted nonfat dry milk powder. A small amount of butter, lard, or shortening adds a touch of richness, but despite its velvety crumb, shokupan is essentially a lean bread.
A portion of the flour is often combined with an equal weight of boiling liquid to make a doughy mixture called yudane, which is cooled and then combined with the other ingredients. This pregelatinized flour, which is similar to a Chinese tangzhong (also sometimes used to make shokupan), allows the baker to add more liquid: Because the extra moisture is bound up in a gel, the dough doesn’t feel wet and is easy to handle.
After a primary rise comes an unusual shaping method (I’ll explain in a moment). When the dough has risen nearly to the top of the pan, you slide the lid closed and bake. Honestly, letting the warm, soft loaf cool before slicing seemed like the most challenging part of all.
The Benefits of Yudane
Though not all shokupan recipes call for pregelatinized flour, I wanted to use yudane in mine because the supplementary moisture would help the bread stay softer for longer—a natural preservative of sorts. Extra moisture would also produce more steam-powered lift in the oven for an exceptionally fluffy loaf.
Many recipes call for cooling the yudane for a few hours or even overnight, presumably because a hot yudane endangers the yeast, but I simply tore the mixture into pieces and combined them with the milk for my dough. This had the twin benefits of cooling the yudane and warming the fridge-cold milk, making both tepid and yeast friendly.
Those who say that shokupan must contain milk may be confusing it with Hokkaido milk bread, a type of shokupan that is more milk forward, acting as a showcase for the premium dairy that’s produced in Japan’s Hokkaido prefecture. Made exclusively with milk, Hokkaido milk bread tends to be sweeter; richer; and, well, milkier than shokupan, which limits its utility. But many shokupan recipes call for some amount of milk, and I wanted to know what worked best.
Without the browning power of lactose, an all‑water loaf was pale and flat-tasting. On the other hand, an all-milk version turned the requisite “fox brown,” as described by Hiroyuki Horie on a call from his bakery Oyatsupan Bakers in Beaverton, Oregon—but the dairy notes dominated. I compromised, using water in the yudane and milk in the dough, for a tawny crust and unobtrusive dairy flavor.
Caramelly Brown Sugar Toast
A fluffy slice of shokupan is a pleasure in its own right, but if you want to amp it up, try this crisp, caramelly toast.
Here’s how: Mix together 1 tablespoon softened salted butter and 1 tablespoon packed dark brown sugar; evenly spread half of mixture on 1 side of 1-inch-thick slice of shokupan and place bread butter side down in small nonstick skillet; spread remaining butter mixture on top of bread. Cook over medium heat until browned and crisp on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes per side, watching carefully and adjusting heat to prevent burning. Transfer to wire rack to crisp and cool slightly before serving.
Back to the shaping procedure: Divide the dough into equal pieces, flatten each one, fold it into thirds, and roll it into a spiral before loading the bundles into the long pan for a second rise. It wasn’t difficult, and it left charming swirls imprinted on the sides of the bread. But was it necessary?
I tried simply patting the dough into a large rectangle and rolling it into a single cylinder before baking it. When I turned the bread onto a rack, it looked almost like my previous loaves, without side swirls. But as it cooled, the walls contracted, leaving them concave instead of straight and blocky. I’d stick with the established method. Not only was it fun but also the four tight spirals pushed against each other as they rose, creating tension that led to a more stately loaf.
When it comes to soft, pillowy white loaves, consider me a convert.