What Does Butter Do to Bread Dough?

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If you’ve ripped into a soft loaf of bread to find it tear off in pillowy shreds, you’ve likely encountered a bread dough that includes butter. Butter, technically a dough enrichment, tenderizes bread dough and limits gluten development, yielding a softer, more tender crumb and a richer flavor.

In this guide, we’ll look at

  • What butter does to gluten development in bread
  • What exactly is an “enriched” dough
  • The best temperature butter to incorporate into bread dough 
  • How much and at which stage of the recipe it’s best to add butter into bread dough
  • The difference between lean dough and enriched dough
Sourdough babka crumb.
The butter in this sourdough babka dough makes the interior tender—and delicious. Photo by Maurizio Leo.

What Does Butter Do To Bread Dough?

Butter in bread dough tenderizes the dough, making the soft, pull-apart texture of bakes like brioche, dinner rolls, and Pullman loaves. Standard bread dough (also called a “lean dough”)—just flour, water, salt, and natural or added yeast—relies on a strong, stiff gluten network to yield a chewy loaf. The elusive “shreddy” texture of doughs enriched with butter (and/or other fats like oil, milk, and egg yolk) is a result of limited gluten development by the fat. 

In a bread recipe, gluten is formed when wheat’s glutenin and gliadin proteins come into contact with water. The proteins multiply and lengthen as dough is kneaded, making it increasingly extensible and elastic. As bread dough proofs, the gluten network is strengthened, and dough will hold its shape. Once a fat like butter is added to bread dough in large quantities, it coats those glutenin and gliadin proteins, resulting in shorter gluten chains. 

As fat coats those proteins, it can also delay yeast’s consumption of sugar, making for a slower rising dough; but this also makes for a more robust flavor. The exterior crust on such a dough will bake up relatively soft, and the crumb of the loaf will be plush. (You’ll often find sugar added to doughs that call for butter; not just for flavor, but also to further inhibit gluten development and tenderize the texture of a loaf. Sometimes, these doughs are even further tenderized with the addition of a pre-cooked flour and water or milk mix-in known as tangzhong, yudane, or water roux.)   

Butter (or another fat) can also be added to a bread dough in smaller quantities to aid in extensibility, yielding a larger volume, not to mention more richness, than a lean dough. As fat inhibits starch recrystallization, bread that includes butter will stay soft longer, increasing the loaf’s shelf life.

Consider adding butter to bread dough when:

  • Craving a richer bread
  • You want a dough with a shreddy, plush crumb
  • Making a tender sandwich bread
  • Hoping to extend bread’s shelf life
  • Looking for a chewy loaf with a higher rise (Note: for these attributes, butter is best added in small quantities.)
Sourdough rolls on table
Butter in bread dough can do some magical things, like making these ultra-soft sourdough rolls even softer. Photo by Maurizio Leo.

What is Enriched Dough?

Enriched dough is made with butter and/or oil, eggs, milk, and/or sugar in addition to flour, water, salt, and yeast. These additions make for a dough that’s richer in flavor, and softer and more billowy in texture. The term can also be applied to Danish or croissant pastries, where the butter is laminated, not kneaded in.

What Are Some Examples of Enriched Bread Dough?

Naturally leavened bomboloni.
Naturally leavened bomboloni.

Brioche, challah, milk bread, pain de mie, dinner rolls, babka, hot cross buns, and cinnamon rolls, among others, are bread doughs enriched with high percentages of butter, oil, milk, egg, and/or sugar. They have the shreddy, plush crumb that’s typically associated with enriched breads.

It’s rare to see a bread enriched with just a fat like butter or oil (and no other enrichments), but one commonly known example is focaccia. Focaccia is typically enriched with a small percentage of olive oil to aid in extensibility—typically about 3%, but the ratio can be pushed a bit higher to add richness and moisture to the bake. That said, you can experiment with adding a small amount of any enriching ingredient to a bread recipe and see how it affects the loaf.

Should I Use Unsalted or Salted Butter in Bread Dough? 

It’s always best to use unsalted butter when baking, be it for bread, cookies, or pie dough. Using unsalted butter allows you control over the salt amount in your end result, and as each brand of salted butter is a bit different, it can be hard to know exactly how salty the bake will turn out. A good rule of thumb is if using salted butter instead of unsalted, to reduce the called-for amount of salt by ÂĽ teaspoon per stick of butter. 

Additionally, salted butter tends to have a slightly higher water content, which can affect a recipe that was developed intentionally with unsalted butter. That said, using salted butter when enriching a bread dough shouldn’t affect the quality of the loaf, so if it’s all you have, it should work in a pinch (just be sure to reduce the additional salt in the recipe). 

How Much Butter Should Be Used in Bread Dough?

The amount of butter used in bread dough ultimately depends on what kind of bread you’re making, as well as how many additional enrichments are added. Baker’s percentages can help dictate how much butter (and other additions) to start with. For example, Maurizio’s pain de mie is a soft sandwich bread, containing 12% butter (along with 22% milk and 7% honey); the naturally leavened brioche in his cookbook, which yields an extremely tender and rich loaf, is 42% butter (with 42% egg, 21% superfine sugar, and 16% milk). The less fat in the dough, the less rich and tender the bake. 

It is possible to add too much butter to bread dough. Too much butter will result in a very soft, sticky dough that’s difficult to shape, and bakes up greasy and dense.

Should Butter in Bread Dough Be a Specific Temperature?

Butter is best incorporated into bread dough at room temperature: it will still be solid, but you should be able to easily press your finger in. Too cold, and the butter will clump around as it’s kneaded instead of actually incorporating into the dough. 

Warming butter for mixing on my espresso machine.
Often, to make incorporating butter easier into a dough, I warm it on top of my espresso machine. Photo by Maurizio Leo.

Melted butter would need to be added to the dough along with water at the beginning of the dough mix, and could result in an unnecessarily sticky or greasy dough (especially if the dough also contains other fat like milk and egg). It will also likely need more mixing to achieve the smooth, elastic texture you’re looking for, which can excessively warm the dough and result in a high final dough temperature.

How to Add Butter to Bread Dough

When adding butter (or any fat) to bread dough in small quantities, it should be fine to add it along with the other ingredients in the initial dough mix. When adding butter to bread dough in large quantities, it’s best to add it last, after kneading the other ingredients (flour, water, salt, potentially sugar and/or milk) a bit. In fact, the dough should be strengthened enough to pass the windowpane test before butter is added. Once added, butterfat will coat the gluten proteins in the dough, preventing them from bonding to each other as the dough rises.

This will ultimately yield the desired tender, pull-apart texture of an enriched dough; but it’s still important to develop some gluten first to structure the loaf. To ensure it incorporates fully, butter should be added to dough slowly, each small amount mixed in entirely before moving onto the next piece.

Sliced butter for bread dough.
Small pats of butter are incorporated more easily when mixing bread dough. Photo by Maurizio Leo.

As established earlier, room temperature (or “softened”) butter will easily incorporate with the powerful dough hook of a stand mixer. If kneading by hand, Maurizio recommends slightly warming the water in the dough mix, as the temperature of the dough won’t rise as much as it would when using a machine, which helps the fat incorporate. When actually adding the butter, smear it onto the dough, one pat a time, using the slap and fold kneading method

You’ll know the butter has been properly mixed in when the dough is smooth, elastic, and a bit shiny (like the image at the top of this page).

What Is The Difference Between Lean Dough and Enriched Dough? 

A lean dough is just flour, water, salt, and natural or added yeast, whereas an enriched dough also includes additions like butter, oil, milk, egg, and sugar.

Adding just a bit of fat to a lean dough, like 3% olive oil in Maurizio’s sourdough ciabatta, can help increase the dough’s extensibility, leading to a loaf with a higher rise.

Can I substitute butter for another fat in bread dough?

It’s possible to swap in other fats (plant- or animal-based, such as olive or vegetable oils, lard, or shortening) for butter in bread dough, but it’s best to keep that experimentation for recipes that call for smaller percentages of butter to begin with, as their chemical makeups and flavors are different.

Oils, lard, and shortening are 100% fat, whereas butterfat content can vary, but is about 80%. Most oils are also liquid at room temperature, and coconut oil and lard (which are soft solids at room temperature) have a lower melting point than butter. Both of these factors can make for a stickier dough that’s harder to work with, but this ultimately matters more as the amount of fat used increases.

What Does Butter Do To Bread Dough.
Early sourdough shokupan trials with butter added to the dough.

What Does Butter Do To Bread Dough FAQs

What is the best style or brand of butter to use in bread dough?

While any supermarket brand of unsalted butter will suffice, for the best quality bread, try a butter with a high fat content, such as European-style (Kerrygold and Straus Family Creamery are excellent brands to try). Because it has a lower water content than American butter, it’s less likely to break up during kneading. 

Can I swap in vegan butter for regular butter in bread dough?

Yes! Though it may not taste exactly the same, you should be able to substitute unsalted vegan butter for regular unsalted butter, as its chemical makeup is relatively similar (it’s solid at room temperature, ideal for mixing into dough; compared to oil, which is liquid at room temperature). In his recipe for super-soft sourdough rolls, Maurizio recommends swapping in Earth Balance vegan butter or something similar.

What’s Next?

Check out the Enriched Dough Archive, where you’ll find plenty of butter-enriched doughs to explore.

Rebecca Firkser
Rebecca Firkser
Rebecca Firkser is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, recipe developer, and food stylist. Most of her work consists of translating professional cooking into content that’s digestible—figuratively and literally—to home cooks. You can find her work at Epicurious, Bon Appetit, NYT Cooking, Food52, Serious Eats, Kitchn, and TASTE, among others. She's currently working on her first cookbook, a deep-dive into galettes. Once upon a time, she studied theater design and art history at Smith College, so if you want to talk about Wayne Thiebaud's cakes, she's your girl.
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