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Mixed Berry Trifle

The trifle, a British classic, is a decadent combination of wobbly fruit jelly, genoise sponge cake, crème légère, and whipped cream built in a sharing-size glass bowl.

Trifle on a white counter
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

The trifle was once considered an unfashionable cliché, but thanks to its irresistible retro charm, the dessert has firmly re-established its place as a party classic across the UK. I challenge anyone not to feel joy when presented with this unapologetically decadent combination of wobbly fruit jelly, genoise sponge cake, crème légère, and whipped cream. Bursting with nostalgia, a classic trifle is a feat to be admired, especially when it’s built in a sharing-size glass bowl to show off its distinct layers.

The trifle made its official debut in the 1585 cookbook, The Huswives Jewell. In its early days, the trifle was nothing more than a creamy dessert flavored with rose water and ginger. It was also interchangeable with a fool, another classic English dessert that combined fruit purées with thickened cream. In the 18th century, author Hannah Glasse added a layer of jelly to the trifle recipe in her book The Art of Cookery and the trifle as we know it today was born. By the 19th century, the trifle had fully become a part of English popular culture. It has even been immortalized by poet Oliver Wendell Holmes who wrote ofthat most wonderful object of domestic art called trifle…with its charming confusion of cream and cake and almonds and jam and jelly and wine and cinnamon and froth.” 

Side view of trifle

Every year at Christmas, or during a particularly festive holiday like the Royal Jubilee (the Queen’s birthday), online searches for trifle spike. Nothing says “party” like a trifle, especially one made in a gloriously immodest-sized bowl for sharing. You can also build it in miniature form, offering up the dessert to your guests in individual glasses. No matter the size, it’s the perfect blank canvas for dessert. Although this recipe is for a classic mixed berry trifle studded with strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, you should let your imagination run wild. Each layer of the trifle can be adapted to suit your taste or the season. 

Ripe juicy peaches poached in sweetened black tea in the summertime or pears simmered in spiced red wine for Christmas can easily be swapped in for the berries. You could also use store-bought fruit juice, like pomegranate or apple, as the base of your jelly if you don’t want to make your own poaching liquid. The custard, which should always complement the jelly or fruit, could be infused with cinnamon, or subbed in for chocolate pudding. You could even add a drizzle of salted caramel sauce when you build the layers up. Imagine roasting pineapples in rum and using the cooking liquor as the base for a boozy jelly and piling it up with coconut pastry cream for a pina colada trifle. You could suspend chocolate pound cake in espresso jelly, then finish it with mascarpone-infused cream for a trifled tiramisu. A trifle has no limits (although I haven't seen a savory one yet, I’m sure I could be convinced). 

Overhead view of trifle before creme patisserie and whipped cream
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Making a trifle starts with preparing the jelly by poaching the fruit gently until tender. After straining the fruit, you'll layer it in the serving bowl with cubes of genoise sponge cake. If you're in a pinch, you can use store-bought ladyfingers or pound cake, but homemade genoise absorbs the trifle's liquid elements the most effectively and produces a superior final texture. The poaching liquid then gets thickened with gelatin and poured on top for the cake to happily soak up. As the sponge sits, it expands pleasingly as the jelly sets into a jiggly, fruit-and-cake studded jello. Fresh fruit goes on top of that, along with an optional but highly encouraged drizzle of sherry.

The whole affair is covered in luxurious crème legere—a whipped cream lightened with pastry cream—and topped with a final layer of softly whipped cream that's garnished with toppings like toasted sliced almonds and sprinkles.

Side view of a trifle serving
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

When making a trifle, there is a degree of planning involved since the jelly has to set and the flavors need enough time to meld. But this also makes it a great dessert to assemble in advance, as it can sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours (any longer and the cream may begin to weep; you can always hold back that layer and add it at the last minute). A trifle is a show-stopping dessert that should always be presented to the table in all its glory. After the inevitable ooh-ing and ahh-ing subsides, dish it out directly into individual bowls with the largest spoon you can find.

Place a 2-quart glass trifle bowl in refrigerator to chill.

A trifle bowl chilling in a fridge
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

To Make the Jelly: In a 3-quart saucepan, combine sugar, lemon juice, and 1 1/2 cups (350ml) water (see note) and heat over medium heat until sugar is completely dissolved. Add berries and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook, skimming any foam that accumulates on the surface, until berries are tender and have released their water, about 10 minutes (skimming off foam produces a clear jelly).

Skimming foam off of cooked berries
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together gelatin and 3 1/2 tablespoons (50ml) water. Set aside to let gelatin bloom.

Whisking gelatin in a small glass bowl
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Strain berry mixture through a fine-mesh strainer set over a medium heatproof bowl, pressing gently on berries to extract as much poaching liquid as possible. Transfer poached berries to a medium bowl and set aside. Pour poaching liquid into a 1-quart measuring cup and add enough additional cold water to reach 2 1/4 cups (550ml). Taste and adjust with sugar if needed. 

Two Image Collage of straining berries and measuring cup full of liquid
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Pour 1/2 cup (120ml) of poaching liquid into now-empty saucepan and heat over low heat until steaming. Remove from heat and whisk in prepared gelatin mixture until homogenous and no gelatin lumps remain. 

Whisking sauce with more gelatin
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Whisk gelatin mixture into remaining poaching liquid, then transfer liquid to a medium bowl. Place bowl in an ice bath and chill, stirring occasionally, until jelly is slightly thickened and temperature reaches 60°F (16°C), 20 to 30 minutes.

Berry liquid in an ice bath
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

To Assemble the Trifle: Remove trifle bowl from refrigerator and set on work surface. Line bottom of bowl with genoise sponge cake, top with reserved poached berries, and drizzle with sherry (if using). Pour cooled jelly on top and return bowl to refrigerator until jelly is set, about 2 hours.

Side view of pouring jelly into trifle
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Arrange fresh berries in an even layer on top of jelly (if desired, you can place the berries around the inside perimeter of the bowl in a decorative pattern, then fill the middle space with the remaining berries). Spread crème légère evenly over berries. 

Two image collage of a trifle bowl lined with fresh food and creme patisserie being layered over the fruit.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk heavy cream and sugar (if using) on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. The whipped cream should be spoonable and not stiff. (Alternatively, in a medium mixing bowl, whisk heavy cream by hand until soft peaks form). 

Cream being whipped in a stand mixer
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Spoon whipped cream on top of crème légère and place trifle in refrigerator until cold, about 30 minutes. If desired, top whipped cream with additional berries, toasted almonds, or sprinkles. To serve, scoop generous portions into individual bowls and serve immediately.

Spooning whipped cream over creme patisserie in trifle
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

2-quart glass trifle bowl, 3-quart saucepan, 1-quart measuring cup, stand mixer (optional)

Notes

For the fruit, I highly recommend using what’s in season. Berries and stone fruit work best. If available, you can use a combination of berries, such as strawberries (halved if large), blueberries, and/or raspberries. For stone fruit, you can use pitted cherries; if using larger stone fruit, it’s best to keep the fruit in larger pieces: ripe peaches, nectarines, and plums should be pitted and cut into 2 to 3-inch cubes. Taste the fruit and add sugar if it needs sweetening.

For the poaching liquid, you can change this up to suit the fruit. For a berry trifle, a lot of flavor comes from the berries, so I recommend using water. Stone fruit, however, work well with a stronger poaching liquid like wine or tea. For example, poaching pears with the peel of one lemon, white wine and cardamom, or star anise and red wine, or poaching peaches in lemon verbena tea will result in a vibrant and flavourful jelly. If you are adding spices, like cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods or star anise, make sure to strain out and discard any aromatics before making the jelly.

You can use store-bought pound cake or ladyfingers in place of the genoise sponge cake. If using shop-bought pound cake, you will need around 3 1/2 to 5 1/4 ounces (about 100g to150g) pound cake. If using ladyfingers, you will need around 12 ladyfingers to fully line the bottom of the trifle bowl.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Trifle can be assembled 24 hours in advance with the whipped cream, or up to 48 hours in advance without the whipped cream (which can be added following Step 12).

Genoise Sponge

The best way to make a lighter-than-air genoise sponge cake, no double boiler needed.

Genoise Sponge cake
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

The genoise (pronounced gen-wahz) is possibly the most elegant of the air-leavened sponges, a type of cake that relies solely on air to rise. Essential for gossamer layer cakes and all matters of fine pâtissèrie, the genoise has a slightly richer and denser crumb than some of its air-leavened counterparts, like chiffon or angel food cake, making it light enough to disappear on the tongue, but stable enough to be soaked in syrup and act as a building block in multi-layered cakes. 

What is Genoise?

In its simplest form, genoise has just three ingredients: eggs, sugar, and flour. It may also be enriched with butter in a simple ratio of 1:2:2:4 (butter, sugar, flour, eggs by weight). Whilst you could seek out an ultra low-protein flour, you can approximate this by using a mixture of all-purpose flour and cornstarch in a 70:30 ratio. By reducing the available protein in the flour, we limit gluten development and will be rewarded with an ultra tender cake with a velvety crumb. 

Overhead view of genoise sponge cross section, showcasing the sponge
Serious Eats / Nicola Lamb

I’ve always considered the ever-popular chiffon as the genoise’s American counterpart. The two cakes share many similar attributes like a lighter-than-air texture, but the methods and ratio of ingredients differ. Both cakes rise in the same way: air bubbles are trapped in the batter and, when baked, the bubbles expand. It’s the manner of how the air is introduced that differs. For chiffon cakes, egg whites are whipped into a meringue and folded into the base, whereas genoise relies on whipping whole eggs to ribbon stage―the voluminous state in which the egg transforms into a foam that has enough body to hold its own weight and runs off the beaters in glossy ribbons when lifted.

The ultimate challenge of the genoise sponge is creating and maintaining air bubbles. If this structure is damaged during the mixing process, you can get into trouble and will likely end up with an uneven crumb, erratic air pockets or, even worse, a sponge that is completely flat and rubbery. Being the fussy cake that it is, there are hazards at each stage. Fortunately, each one of these threats can be neutralized with good technique.

Getting the Perfect Foam for Genoise

The key to a great genoise lies in the foam formed with the eggs. You may be familiar with the extraordinary ability of egg whites to capture air bubbles, which, when fully whisked, can increase by six to eight times their original volume, allowing for fluffy pie toppings and airy meringues.  But just because whole eggs can't expand as much, it doesn't mean they don't offer other significant benefits when beaten. Compared to egg whites, which are 90% water and 10% protein, whole eggs are 74% water, 13% protein, and 9.5% fat. Whisking whole eggs yields a shiny, flexible foam that can expand up to five times their original volume. This produces a foam that isn't as stiff as egg whites, but provides a stable and flavorful backbone to genoise, as well as other desserts like flourless chocolate cake. Whole eggs will effectively trap less air than egg whites since there is less protein available to make the protein mesh responsible for this aerated structure, so a whole egg foam will result in a richer crumb because of its fat. Plus, the lecithin in the yolk, which acts as a powerful emulsifier, stabilizes the foam and makes it virtually impossible to over-whisk.

Genoise is traditionally made by whisking eggs in a bowl over simmering water until around 149°F (65°C). This process of warming the mixture allows the foam to form more quickly since heat encourages the egg proteins to denature (meaning they unfold and create bonds with one another, trapping air in the network). I’ve found, though, that the effort required does not make a difference in the genoise’s final crumb. Instead, I recommend using either room temperature eggs or ones straight from the fridge (which just take longer to whip up) for the sake of expediency.

Eggs being whisked in a stand mixer
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Whisking whole eggs successfully, though, isn't as simple as simply beating them as one would egg whites. While it is possible to whip your whole eggs into a frenzy and achieve an extremely fluffed-up mass in a matter of minutes, the resulting foam will have a chunky texture with lots of visible, irregularly sized bubbles. In theory it will have reached the desired ribbon stage, but folding the flour into this erratically-structured egg foam is difficult. You run the risk of deflation, and are likely to see those defects carry over into your finished crumb. 

To produce a superior genoise, I like to instead mix the eggs in three stages. First, I whip the eggs at high speed to fully aerate them. After this initial step, I lower the mixing speed in two stages as I continue to whip the eggs. As they whip, the large unstable bubbles are split into smaller and smaller, more stable bubbles that are no longer visible. Taking the time to do so yields an incredibly smooth, pourable, and shiny foam. As a result, your egg foam will be easier to work with, and less at risk of collapsing during the folding stage, and your cake will have a more even expansion in the oven and an overall better crumb.

The Folding Technique

Incorporating the dry ingredients is a make-or-break moment for the genoise sponge and good folding technique is essential to maintain all those hard-earned air bubbles. Folding is the action used to incorporate flour, which consists of methodically and gently cutting through the egg foam while adding flour in several parts. I like to add the well-sifted flour in thirds and to use a capital ‘D’ motion, slicing through the centre of the foam and using the edge of the bowl to guide the spatula. Once a fold is complete, I turn the bowl 45 degrees and repeat. Poor folding technique is often the culprit in heavy or flat sponge cakes. Moving your egg foam to an extra-wide bowl (compared to a stand mixer bowl) and increasing the surface area can be really helpful in promoting good technique since you don’t have to dig deeply into the mixture to fold it, thus breaking less bubbles each time you fold.

Overhead of folding the flour in a D shape
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

The Best Way to Incorporate the Butter

Due to the radically different densities of the airy egg foam and heavy butter, it can be a challenge to incorporate the fat. If you add it all at once, it will sink to the bottom of the bowl and you will likely overmix the batter in an attempt to incorporate it, leading to deflation. To make the process seamless, I rely on what's called a liaison batter—made by whisking a bit of the flour-egg mixture into the melted butter, which results in a batter with a more similar density to the flour-egg mixture. Think of it like tempering the mixture, like you would eggs for custard. The liaison batter combines seamlessly with the foam, radically reducing the risk of overmixing and deflation.

Eliminating Large Air Bubbles

Now despite your best efforts to minimize unstable air pockets during the mixing stage, the folding process will likely introduce additional volatile pockets of air. The solution may seem a little unsophisticated, but it works. Lift your filled cake pan about eight inches above your kitchen counter and drop it. Dropping the cake helps burst any large, unstable air bubbles. 

You’ll perform the same action post-baking to prevent the delicate sponge from shrinking inwards as it cools. In The Science of Cooking, physicist Peter Barham theorizes that cakes collapse because all of the steam that helped expand the air bubbles to make the cake rise condenses during cooling, and new air cannot flow into the cake to replace it. As a result, the cake, lacking enough structure to fully resist this contracting force, shrinks. According to Barham, dropping the cake “passes a shock through the bubble walls and allows some of them to break, converting the cake from a closed to an open cell structure,” thus allowing air to make its way back in and prevent shrinking.

A two-tier Genoise sponge cake
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Once cooled, a genoise sponge is a versatile friend in the pastry kitchen. It can be soaked with a simple syrup then sandwiched with strawberries and cream for an elegant tea time slice, layered with mousses, jams, or creams for patisserie-style layer cakes, or formed into rolled cakes when baked in a sheet (this can be used in frozen layer cakes, like baked Alaska, since the aerated structure will never allow the cake to freeze rock hard). Similar to a ladyfinger, it’s also robust enough to soak up liquid in a tiramisu or trifle, both of which are perfect make-ahead dinner party desserts. 

Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Lightly grease an 8-inch anodized aluminum cake pan and line with parchment paper

Overhead view of pan lined with parchment paper
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour and cornstarch until thoroughly combined. Set a fine-mesh strainer over a medium bowl and sift flour mixture. Repeat to make sure there are no lumps and set aside.

Whisking together cornstarch and flour
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk eggs and sugar on high speed until mixture is a pale creamy color and has tripled in volume with lots of visible bubbles, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to medium and continue whisking until mixture is smoother and more velvety in texture (some of the larger bubbles will have disappeared), about 5 minutes. Reduce speed to low and whisk until an extremely silky, smooth, and pourable stable foam forms, about 10 minutes.

Overhead view of batter coming together in standmixer
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Pour egg-sugar foam into a large, extra-wide bowl and, using a fine-mesh strainer, sift one-third of the flour mixture on top and add salt. Using a large flat spatula or spoon, fold in the flour mixture using a capital D motion: slice the spatula down through the middle, then guide the spatula back to the top following the perimeter of the bowl. Use your other hand to rotate the bowl a quarter-turn between folds. Continue folding until only a few bits of flour remain, then repeat with the remaining flour mixture, one-third at a time.

Four image collage of flour being shifted into batter and then being folded into batter with a D motion
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the egg-flour mixture to the bowl with butter and whisk until mixture is homogeneous and emulsified, about 10 seconds; this is your liaison batter. Add half of the liaison batter to the egg-flour mixture and fold in, using motion described above, until thoroughly combined. Repeat with remaining liaison batter.

Two image collage of adding batter to butter and whisking it together
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Scrape batter into prepared pan, then lift pan about 8 inches above work surface and drop to break any large bubbles in the batter.

Two image collage of batter in pan and a chef about to drop the cake pan
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Bake until cake is puffed, golden, and pulling away from the sides slightly and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes (the cake will also bounce slightly when tapped with a finger). Do not open the oven before 20 minutes, or you risk the cake collapsing. Once removed from the oven, lift pan about 8 inches above work surface and drop pan; this helps prevent the cake from shrinking.

Dropping the cooked cake pan onto counter
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Invert cake onto a wire rack and let cool completely in pan, about 1 hour. Once cool, run a butter knife around the sides of the cake to loosen, remove pan and parchment paper, and place cake right side up. Serve as desired.

Cake resting on a cake rack
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

Kitchen scale, stand mixer with whisk attachment, fine-mesh strainer, 8-inch cake pan

Notes

This genoise recipe can also yield one 9-inch cake or two 6-inch cakes. Lightly grease a 9-inch anodized aluminum cake pan or two 6-inch anodized aluminum cake pans and line with parchment paper. If baking a 9-inch cake, bake for about 20 minutes. If baking two 6-inch cakes, bake for 25 to 30 minutes. 

The recipe can easily be halved and baked in a lightly greased 8 1/2- by 4 1/2–inch loaf pan lined with parchment paper. Bake cake for 20 to 25 minutes. 

Caster sugar will dissolve most easily into the egg foam but granulated sugar can be substituted. Powdered sugar should not be used because of its starch content, which will throw off the balance of the genoise.

If using the genoise sponge as cake layers, use about 4 tablespoons of your preferred soaking syrup per 8-inch cake layer.  

If doubling this recipe, do not use a stand mixer; it will not fit. Instead, I recommend making the recipe twice. You do not need to clean the stand mixer bowl in between batches.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Wrapped tightly in plastic, genoise sponge can be stored for 3 days at room temperature, for 1 week in the refrigerator, and for 1 month in the freezer. If frozen, transfer the genoise to the refrigerator and thaw overnight. 

Brioche

This classic brioche is airy and tender, with a deeply rich and buttery flavor thanks to a hands-off cold fermentation.

Overhead view of sliced brioche loaf on a cutting board next to jam
Serious Eats / Debbie Wei

Brioche is, without a doubt, the gold standard of enriched bread, the yardstick by which all others are measured. It is unashamedly rich with a melt-in-the-mouth quality and has a relatively soft, thin crust that can be squished without cracking. It has a tight, even crumb that, when baked correctly, can be torn apart like cotton candy into fluffy strips. Although brioche may sound complicated or fancy, it’s made from common pantry staples: flour, butter, eggs, salt, and sugar. In fact, its proportions of butter and sugar to flour are similar to pie dough. And much like pie dough, brioche is all about the butter, just expressed differently. Instead of being crisp and flaky, brioche is pillowy and soft, thanks to an almost three-fold increase in hydration (about 25% for pie dough versus 70% for brioche), mainly in the form of eggs and the addition of yeast.Remove the yeast from a list of brioche ingredients and one could mistake the ingredient list for cake, and they'd be right! Brioche is the original cake; consider the famous mistranslation of “Qu'ils mangent de la brioche!,” which may or may not have actually been said by Marie Antoinette, to “Let them eat cake.” After all, it was only with the introduction of chemical leaveners like baking soda in the mid-1800s that we began to disassociate cake with yeast. To boot, brioche has a much lower sugar content than the average modern cake, which makes it an incredibly versatile cake-like bread for both savory and sweet applications. It lends itself equally well to sandwiches and burgers as it does to being soaked with syrups, speckled with chocolate chips, or swirled with jam.

What is Brioche: A Look at Ingredients and Ratios

In the world of breads, there are two basic categories: lean and enriched. Lean doughs refer to your typical sandwich bread, pizza, or baguette and have little to no sugar or fat added. When a dough is enriched, it means it has been bolstered with sugar, eggs, or fat to create various textures and flavors. From Parker House rolls to challah, panettone to cinnamon buns, you’ve probably been enchanted by the softer and fluffier profile of enriched doughs.

When you slice open a loaf of well-made brioche, you’ll be greeted with an ultra fine crumb. This is partly thanks to the yeast which ferments the flour and produces bubbles of carbon dioxide that expand in the oven, causing the bread to rise. The rest can be attributed to the butter. As the bread bakes, the butter (which was dispersed throughout the dough during the mixing process) melts, lubricating the dough around it and leaving pockets of air bubbles in the gluten structure. Once it cools, all the melted fat re-solidifies in the crumb, yielding a springy yet delicate bread.

Whilst there is no strict formula for brioche, there are some commonalities we can rely on.

Cross-section of a brioche loaf
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

The Fat

First, there needs to be a significant proportion of fat in a brioche dough, which comes mostly in the form of butter. In baker’s percentages or baker’s math (where we calculate the percentage of an ingredient in proportion to the total weight of the flour), a true brioche should be well above 30% in fat, usually in the 45% to 80% range, though recipes may go all the way to 100%. Below 30%, you are getting into demi-brioche territory, a designation bakers use to refer to less buttery dough. Brioche with more butter will rise the least and is dense and rich. This is because fat inhibits gluten development and increasing the amount of butter in dough will ultimately limit the strength potential of the gluten network. Brioche made with less butter will sit taller but have a less tender, yet flavorful crumb. Although you wouldn’t think it with those percentages, a well-made brioche of any fat percentage will always be very light.

Three brioche loaves cut in half to show the difference between percentage of butter (25%, 60%, 100%)
Serious Eats / Nicola Lamb

The Eggs

Second, eggs are key. They work to bind the ingredients together, both as a hydrating agent and an emulsifier, while providing flavor, color, moisture, and structure in the final loaf. Yolks contain lecithin, an emulsifier that is both hydrophilic (water-loving) and lipophilic (fat-loving), meaning it binds the water and fat components in the brioche dough. The proportion of yolks and whites makes a big difference on the final loaf. Brioche made with whites alone produces a brioche that is more similar to sandwich bread, while brioche made only with yolks has a vibrant, tall, and rich crumb that towers over its white counterpart. This is because lecithin, with its emulsifying power, helps to retain bubble structures by stabilizing the interaction between the at-odds fat and water in the dough, thus improving extensibility and volume in the final loaf. Without the emulsifying power of the eggs, you are limited in how much fat you can incorporate into the dough successfully―anything above 50% will leave you with a greasy mess after baking, just like a broken mayonnaise. It may be helpful to consider brioche as an emulsion that can break under heat and stress. If it breaks, the final dough will have little solid beads of butterfat distributed throughout after chilling. Although you could bake it, the final texture would be subpar and somewhat greasy.

Cross section of two brioche loaves, showing the difference in texture between using just egg yolks and just egg whites
Serious Eats / Nicola Lamb

The Flour

Since brioche is a highly structured dough, with its interweaving web of fat, eggs, gluten and sugar, the use of strong bread flour, which has a protein content of 12.7% or above, is essential because fat, especially in high proportions, inhibits gluten development. When added to the dough, the fat coats the flour, preventing the proteins from forming long chains of gluten.

It’s possible to make brioche with all-purpose flour by reducing the hydration slightly, since lower protein flour can absorb less water (the proteins gliadin and glutenin, which form gluten, can absorb around twice their weight in water). But possible doesn't mean advisable. The seemingly minor protein difference between all-purpose flour (10-11%) and bread flour (12-13%) is enough to make a big difference in the quality of your brioche even after accounting for the necessary shift in hydration. In my experience, brioche made with all-purpose flour is more likely to produce a sad soupy dough instead of a happy springy one. And instead of brioche that's chewy and fluffy, loaves made with all-purpose flour tend to be spongier and more cake-like with a low, wide profile. There simply isn’t enough gluten produced from all-purpose flour to support the structure of the final baked product.

Overhead view of a cut brioche loaf made with plain flour
Serious Eats / Nicola Lamb

The Sugar, Water, Yeast, and More

While butter, eggs, and flour are the main building blocks of brioche, there are other essential supporting ingredients that help define its final characteristics. Sugar kickstarts fermentation and helps the dough retain moisture, as well as adding a pleasant but subtle sweetness. Salt strengthens the gluten structure and helps ensure a successful fermentation by inhibiting microbial activity. Yeast, which must be fresh or instant due to the mixing method, is at a slightly higher baker’s percentage of 1.8% compared to most yeasted breads (for reference, a typical loaf of white sandwich bread is 1.5%) to accommodate the enriching ingredients, namely sugar. Although sugar at first boosts the yeast, anything above 5% (this recipe is 14%) will ultimately slow down the fermentation process. Sugar, being highly hygroscopic, steals water from everything, including yeast cells. As a result, enriched doughs generally benefit from a slightly higher proportion of yeast. 

As always, water (in the form of eggs, milk, and butter) plays an important role in the character of the final loaf. When it comes to hydration level, brioche is generally in the range of 60% to 80%, depending on the desired final product. A 100% brioche is outrageously airy and soft but difficult to make and runs the risk of stressing your stand mixer beyond repair. Brioche made with lower hydration is better for shaped bread, like babka, as it is less sticky and easier to manipulate. In this recipe, I aim for just under 70%, which strikes a great balance between airy and robust.

Three brioche loaves cut in half to show the difference between 90% hydration, 75% hydration, and 50% hydration
Serious Eats / Nicola Lamb

The Mixing Process

The word brioche comes from the French verb, broyer, which means “to pound,” so you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that this dough needs a lot of mixing. Like, a lot.

Traditionally, brioche is made by mixing the flour, sugar, salt, yeast, eggs, and milk (often referred to as hydrating agents) in a bowl. When placing the ingredients in the bowl, I make sure to keep the yeast apart from the sugar and salt as an insurance policy since the two ingredients affect the performance of yeast by stealing all of its water. (Although it’s unlikely to do damage in such small quantities, it’s better to be safe than sorry). The ingredients are mixed until medium gluten development is reached, the point at which the dough can be stretched but will tear easily. After this, softened butter is added piece by piece, and the mixing continues until full gluten development is achieved, the point at which the dough can be easily stretched into a very thin sheet without tearing. This is also known as the windowpane test. During this mixing process, long chains of gluten are formed, which ensures lofty loaves. Once mixed, the dough undergoes a long, cold fermentation in the refrigerator where it develops flavor and, crucially, firms up as the butter chills, making it easy to work with. 

Although I’m sharing the most widely-accepted way to make brioche, there are plenty of other ways to force the butter into the dough. For starters, it is possible to ‘hyper mix’ brioche, a technique which involves throwing all the ingredients in the bowl and hammering the dough for up to 40 minutes in a mechanical mixer. I don’t recommend this due to the risk of overheating and damaging the dough (I’ll get into that shortly.)

On the other extreme, you can make brioche in a no-knead style, but it will never rise as tall as a mechanically-mixed brioche since the gluten chains are not as long. The same goes for brioche mixed in a food processor: it can be done incredibly quickly (5 minutes!), but the slicing action of the blades limits the long protein chains, and the result is a loaf with smaller volume, no matter how long you proof it. You can also make brioche by hand, but it is not advisable due to the warmth of your hands, which is likely to melt the butter over long periods.

This recipe employs the traditional mixing method, but I incorporate a few tactics to improve the process and final product.

Better Brioche Tactic 1: The Importance of Resting and Temperature Control

Temperature plays an important role in the success of brioche. When you mix the dough, you must balance gluten development with fermentation. These two processes are at odds with one another: Fat inhibits gluten development so a fat-containing dough needs to be worked more. However, working the dough results in a rise in temperature, which risks amping up the fermentation too much. If the yeast ferments the flour before a strong gluten network has been established, you will end up with a sticky dough that isn't strong enough to hold onto the little bubbles of carbon dioxide created during fermentation. 

As you mix the dough, the friction generated by the mixer turns to heat. This, alongside the warmth from the surrounding atmosphere, can mean a rapid climb in dough temperature (since the rate of fermentation and temperature are linked, it’s important to take steps to control this). Taking strategic rests during the mixing process can limit this heat transfer. These downtimes serve as mini autolyse periods. Gluten will happily develop on its own without any interference or mechanical kneading. All you need to do is introduce flour and water and leave them to it―this is known as autolyse. During these rest periods, the tightened gluten strands relax and the dough will show improved flexibility and elasticity. As a result, these rest periods result in a reduction of the overall and active mixing time. Don’t forget that when it comes to bread, doing nothing is something!

Better Brioche Tactic 2: Controlling Temperature

Brioche is a sensitive beast, and because we all live in different climates and keep our homes at different temperatures, not one method fits all. Given the prolonged mixing process and heat it creates, I recommend first chilling all the dry ingredients, a step worthwhile no matter what temperature your home is. 

Since air is being incorporated into the dough during the mixing process, the ambient temperature of the environment is crucial. I first tested this recipe in the summer and using both chilled flour and plasticised butter (cold butter that has been pounded until malleable without warming it up much; it will incorporate similarly to butter that's been softened by letting it warm slightly, but won’t raise the final dough temperature by as much) was essential to keeping the dough relatively cool. However, upon retesting in the winter in a much cooler home, I found that softened butter (65°F/18°C) incorporated more effectively.

After mixing, the dough should be around 77°F (25°C). If the dough is less than 77°F (25°C), I rely on a short ferment (about one hour) at room temperature to allow the yeast to establish before moving the dough into the refrigerator to cold proof. If your yeast is not properly established at this stage, the final proof will take around 50% longer. Although yeast should, in theory, come alive anytime, I often notice that enriched doughs performs poorly in the final proof if the dough hasn’t undergone fermentation and the yeast has clearly become active. For this recipe, you do not need the dough to double, you are just looking for visual puffiness.

Better Brioche Tactic 3: Holding Back the Sugar

Thought butter was gluten’s biggest enemy? Think again! Brioche dough is also under attack from the sugar. Sugar is highly hygroscopic, meaning it loves water. Sugar will do anything—beg, steal, or borrow—to get a hold of moisture. Because of this, it immediately begins to compete with the flour for water once added. To avoid this, I hold back the sugar until after I've added a portion of the butter. There are several benefits to this: The first lot of butter incorporates more easily into a denser sugarless dough―it’s almost like tempering, like you would egg yolks for custard, by adding a bit of butter in and preparing it for the next stage, allowing the dough to adjust to the fat. When you add the sugar, the dough will temporarily appear slacker and wetter as the sugar rapidly draws water from the gluten structure. However, since the dough is already well developed from the first stages of mixing, it will recover quickly. If you were to add the sugar at the beginning of the mixing process, the initial gluten development would take much longer (see Better Brioche Tactic 1).

Shaping, Proofing, and Baking Brioche

The final shaping of the brioche will impact the bread's crumb. I offer two ways to shape the dough in my recipe below. The first is what's called brioche Nanterre, in which a series of dough balls are proofed together in one loaf pan, giving you a highly tearable, pull-apart bread, and the other is a classic loaf, which is simply rolled up and proofed as one big piece of dough, that is great for slicing. Beware of dusting with too much flour during the final shaping stage as it can prevent the dough from fusing together.

The proofing and baking stages are the last chances for you to make a significant impact on your loaf: Slightly underproofing your dough will give you the largest oven spring but will likely result in a large rip in the crust as the under-fed yeasts have a maniacal last supper, and the heat of the oven causes a fermentation spike and a more erratic, slightly drier crumb. On the other hand, pushing the loaf to the other extreme by overproofing will result in a less dramatic spring but an airier crumb, though it may be at risk of deflation after baking. For brioche, I err on the side of being overproofed to achieve that light, fluffy crumb. Depending on the ambient room temperature, the refrigerator temperature, and the shaping of the dough, the proofing stage will take anywhere from 1 1/2 hours to 5 hours.

To promote oven spring, preheating the oven slightly hotter (400°F) than the baking temperature (350°F) will encourage an initial rapid rise. Although brioche has plenty of butter to effectively brown on its own, a slick of egg wash adds a luxurious shine befitting of such a decadent loaf. When fresh, there’s not much better than slicing your brioche and enjoying it slathered with jam. (There’s no need to add butter since brioche is its own source of fat and, when lightly toasted, those buttery flavors come through even more.) It also makes for an over-the-top grilled cheese, an indulgent breakfast sandwich, and serves as exemplary soldiers for dipping into soft boiled eggs and as the ultimate base for French toast.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, add flour, salt, and yeast, making sure to place yeast and salt apart from one another in the bowl. Add milk, 3 eggs, and egg yolk and mix on low speed until no dry flour remains, about 1 minute. Increase speed to medium and mix for 3 minutes, then let rest for 3 minutes. Repeat mixing on medium speed and resting dough, scraping down bowl and hook as needed, until dough is homogenous and somewhat elastic (you can stretch it but the dough will tear fairly easily).

Two Image collage. Top: dry ingredients for brioche dough. Bottom: Dough in stand mixer, with hand pulling a piece showing off elasticity
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

With the mixer running on medium speed, add one-third of the butter, one piece at a time, making sure to wait until each piece is mostly incorporated before adding the next, about 4 minutes. Add sugar and mix until fully incorporated, about 1 minute (the dough will slacken and look more wet). Repeat adding remaining butter, one piece at a time, and scraping down bowl and hook as needed, about 8 minutes. Let dough rest for 2 minutes. 

Four image collage of dough being mixed in a standmixer
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Increase speed to medium-high and mix until dough pulls away cleanly from sides of bowl and is able to be gently stretched into a thin sheet without tearing, about 8 minutes. 

Overhead image of dough formed into a rectangle
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Scrape dough onto a clean, un-floured work surface. Using clean hands, slide hands under left and right side of dough and lift it up from the middle until dough releases from work surface, then slap the bottom half of the dough down onto the work surface, quickly stretching the top half up and folding it over the bottom half (it will be sticky at first but don't worry, this process will reduce that as you work; do not add flour). Repeat this slap and fold motion, rotating dough as you work, until dough is smooth and less sticky, about 5 to 10 slaps. 

Overhead view of brioche dough getting folding
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Transfer dough to a greased parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and let dough proof at room temperature until dough is visibly puffed, about 1 hour. Press dough into a roughly 8- by 14-inch rectangle, cover tightly with plastic, and place in the refrigerator. Let dough proof and allow the butter to solidify for at least 4 hours or up to 24 hours.

Two image collage of dough before and after being proofed on baking sheet
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Grease an 8 1/2- by 4 1/2-inch aluminum loaf pan and line with a 7- by 13-inch sheet of parchment paper so that parchment hangs over the long sides of the pan to form a sling. Transfer chilled dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Using a rolling pin or your hands, stretch the dough into a 8- by 14-inch rectangle. Starting at the narrow end, roll dough to form a log, then transfer to the prepared loaf pan seam side down. Alternatively, for brioche Nanterre, divide dough into 8 equal portions (70g each), forming each into a smooth ball. Arrange dough in a single layer in prepared loaf pan; they can be slightly touching and will proof into each other.

Two image collage of rolling dough flat with a rolling pin and then rolling it up into a log
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Loosely drape plastic wrap over pan to prevent a crust from forming and let dough proof at room temperature, between 2 1/2 to 5 hours for a large loaf, or 1 1/2 to 3 hours for a Nanterre-style loaf. The loaf is ready to bake once the dough is peaking above the rim of the pan by 1 inch and looks very wobbly. When pressed with a lightly wet or oiled finger, your finger should leave a slight indentation and the dough should bounce back slowly.

Loaf of brioche in pan with fingerprint indent
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 400°F (204°C). In a small bowl, whisk remaining egg until homogenous, then using a pastry brush, gently brush all over loaf.

Overhead view of wiping brioche with egg wash
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Place loaf in the oven, reduce temperature to 350°F (180°C), and bake until deep golden brown and to an internal temperature of 190°F (88°C), about 35 minutes (if loaf is darkening too quickly, loosely cover with aluminum foil); if loaf has not reached desired internal temperature, continue to bake, checking temperature in 5-minute increments until desired final temperature is reached.

Overhead view of brioche loaf, golden brown, still in the pan, out of the oven
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Transfer pan to a wire rack and let cool for 10 minutes. Run a butter knife along edges to loosen, then lift loaf using overhanging parchment. Remove parchment, return loaf to wire rack, and let cool completely. Slice and serve as desired.

Overhead view of sliced brioche loaf
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Special Equipment

stand mixer with dough hook attachment, rolling pin (optional), digital thermometer, kitchen scale, bowl scraper, pastry brush, 8 1/2- by 4 1/2-inch aluminum loaf pan

Notes

The recipe can easily be doubled and will fit in a stand mixer bowl.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Brioche is best enjoyed on the day it’s baked. Leftover brioche can be wrapped tightly in plastic and kept at room temperature for up to 2 days, refrigerated for up to 7 days, and frozen for up to 1 month. To freeze, I recommend slicing your brioche first then defrost individual slices by toasting. If you prefer to freeze a whole loaf, defrost overnight in the refrigerator.