Getting to Know Brioche; Introducing a New Bread at Wheatsfield Co-op Bakery

Nate Kemperman
Wheatsfield Head Bread Baker

For years now, a regular Wheatsfield customer has requested that we make brioche bread in the bakery. Regrettably, I kept putting it off for later because it is more labor intensive, expensive and much different than our artisan bread. However, brioche is a wonderfully soft, versatile and flavorful bread that I was familiar with from my experience at a previous bakery. So, knowing that many of us could use a warm, buttery pick-me-up this winter, I started developing a version of brioche for our bakery’s bread shelves.

For those who are new to brioche, a French word pronounced like bree – oh-sh), here is a quick description. In his book Bread (an indispensable resource over many years), Master Vermont baker Jeffrey Hamelman describes brioche as “ethereal and light, feathery, delicate, subtle and delectable,” and seeming to “defy classification.” For this character, brioche contains high amounts of butter. While also having eggs and sweetener, lots of butter really makes brioche unique. According to the Wikipedia article on brioche, it developed from an increasingly popular use of butter and other enrichments in French breads from the 17th century, relating especially to “blessed bread” offered by the church. A quick reading of this article invites much more exploration, such as a re-interpretation of the French Revolution-era “let them eat cake,” meaning brioche actually, in protesting desires to limit enrichment of breads for the populace due to cost.

Developing a bread from an idea to a final shelf product usually necessitates many steps and this is certainly true for the new Wheatsfield brioche. The process involves research, deliberation, testing, tasting, pricing, presentation and marketing. Because many variations in brioche formulas exist, decisions needed to be made as to not only butter content and type (which varies from 20-50% of flour weight), but also egg amount, sweetener amount and type, milk or water, and type of flour.

Since butter can be challenging to mix into a dough, I started with just 20%. However, taste-testers strongly felt more butter would be better. After developing an effective mix-in method, going up to 40% was no problem, with ensuing approval from the testers. Our bakery’s butter, Amish from Ohio, provided great color and balanced flavor. Hamelman’s egg amount seemed about average and that worked out well, again choosing an egg rich in color and flavor. Desiring an aspect to the formula that would be unique, I decided to use honey instead of sugar and keep it moderate, allowing the butter flavor to stand out. Honey also increases shelf life as a natural preservative, is easier to mix into the dough than sugar and yields a good toasted look and flavor. I lucked out in the 1st test of honey amount, getting a good review. Some brioche uses whole milk for even more richness and flavor, but, due to concern about the total cost as well as the desire for more butter flavor, water seemed the better option. Finally, for the all-important flour type decision – traditionally, brioche uses white flour for a lighter softer texture and, despite an inclination to experiment with a more whole wheat version, I stuck with that approach. High-gluten flour also seemed important for holding up with all that butter, egg and honey, though a lower protein flour would’ve softened the texture even more. Flavor-wise with flour, the enrichments probably would cover any subtle differences. Additionally, overnight fermentation of the dough before shaping, proofing and baking proves to balance things out.

As you can see, a lot goes into developing a new bread like brioche just at formula level. We also had to decide loaf shapes (small pan and bun) connected to cost (affordable as possible but still recognizing the special nature of the bread and its ingredients), bagging and presentation (plastic, twist-tied) and then marketing in an era without sampling (flash sales, social media, person-to-person, an article!). We really hope you enjoy the brioche and will give the Wheatsfield version a try. It makes great small sandwiches, toast, French toast, soup rolls and more. If there’s any left after the first day, it also stores well, keeping fresh for up to a week or more

Brioche Available on Saturdays!