Let’s make Japanese Milk Buns! Also known as Japanese Milk Rolls or Hokkaido Milk Bread, these yeasted buns are as soft, tender and pillowy as they come. I can’t say enough about them. With a golden brown exterior and fluffy white interior, these buns are perfect for any family gathering or Sunday night dinner. Even better—they keep well and make a delicious breakfast topped with some butter and jam. 

Side angle image of a milk roll topped with butter set on a plate

What is Japanese Milk Bread 

Japanese milk bread, also called tangzhong milk bread and hokkaido milk bread, is a light and tender yeasted bread made with bread flour, milk and dry milk powder. Japanese milk bread has a golden exterior with a creamy bright white interior. Fluffy and slightly sweet from the milk and sugar, milk bread can be used for sandwiches, toast, or made into milk buns like we did here.

About the Recipe

Milk buns don’t have too long of an ingredient list, and much of those ingredients are non-negotiables. But, around here we like to bake with whole-wheat flour. So we did our due diligence and created a partially whole-wheat version.

In addition to adding whole-wheat flour, we also decreased the amount of sugar traditionally used in these buns. If you want a Hawaiian-style buns, consider doubling the sugar.

Ingredient Notes

Like we mentioned, the ingredient list for Milk Buns is pretty straight forward (aside from the salt and sugar, you need just 7 ingredients). The one thing that may throw you for a loop would be the dry milk powder. You can find dry milk powder in the baking aisle.

Other than that, the ingredients are fairly standard: bread flour, whole-wheat flour, milk, sugar, instant yeast, melted butter and an egg.

bread, melted butter, yeast, milk, and salt on a counter

The Importance of Tangzhong

Baking with tangzhong is a Japanese baking technique used to create softer, fluffier yeast breads. Tangzhong is essentially a starter for yeast breads and consists of cooking a small portion of flour and liquid (most often water or milk) together to create a thick, gluey mixture that is then combined with the other ingredients. 

And there’s good reason to use a tangzhong, or starter, in yeast breads. It pre-gelatinizes the starches in flour which allows them to absorb more water throughout the kneading and baking process. 

Using a starter also helps the dough to create structure and hold on to liquid throughout the proofing and baking process. All of this helps to create a dough that’s less sticky (aka easier to knead), create more steam in the dough which means the buns get more lift during baking, and create buns that are more moist in general (they will last longer because of this). 

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Make the tangzhong (starter) by cooking milk, water and flour together. 
  2. Combine the tangzhong with the remaining ingredients in a stand mixer.
  3. Mix and knead the dough until a smooth, elastic dough forms.
  4. Let the dough proof for 1½ hours. 
  5. Gently punch the dough down, divide into 8 equal pieces and form into smooth buns. 
  6. Let the buns proof for 50 minutes. 
  7. Brush buns with milk and bake. 
  8. Let cool slightly, then brush with butter and sprinkle with sea salt. 
Overhead image of someone puling rolls apart over a cake pan

What Kind of Milk to Use

For the best results, you’ll need two types of milk. The first, dry milk powder. The second, whole milk. We don’t recommend using low-fat milk or skim milks.

It’s important to use high-quality milk for these buns, which is why I’m using Anderson Erickson whole milk. AE Dairy, an Iowa-based dairy company, is known around Iowa for its dedication to creating high quality dairy products through innovation. 

Side angle of rolls stacked in a white dish with a napkin

FAQs

How should I store milk buns?

We recommend storing them wrapped in plastic wrap and foil at room temperature for up to 2 days. (We actually like to store them in the microwave.) You can refrigerate them for up to 4 days, but their texture will slightly dry out over that length of time.

Can I use condensed milk for the buns?

We developed this recipe using dry milk powder and whole milk. Because of that, we do not recommend you use condensed milk.

Can I use half-and-half or heavy cream?

You can, but you will need to dilute it a bit. Dilute half-and-half just slightly, like a couple tablespoons. If you’re using whole milk, dilute it with 1 tablespoon.

Can I make a Japanese milk bread loaf instead?

Absolutely! After the first rise, divide dough into four equal pieces. Flatten each piece into a rectangle, then fold the short ends in towards one another like a letter. Flatten the folded pieces into rectangles again and, starting with a short end, roll them each into a log. Place the logs, seams side down, in a row of four in a generously greased 9×5-inch loaf pan. Cover the pan with a kitchen towel or loosely with plastic and let it rest until puffy, 45–50 minutes. Brush the loaf with milk and bake at 350°F until golden brown on top and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center registers 190°F, about 30 minutes. Transfer pan to a rack and let cool at least 30 minutes.

Should I egg wash the buns?

We recommend brushed the buns with milk. The proteins and sugars in milk will help the buns brown nicely while baking. We also find milk to be easier and more convenient. No need to waste an egg for an egg wash. However, if you want to use an egg wash you can—dilute it slightly with a splash of water.

Watch How to Make It

Japanese Milk Buns (Hokkaido Milk Bread)

Print Recipe
5 from 12 votes
Prep Time 5 mins
Cook Time 40 mins
Resting Time 2 hrs 20 mins
Total Time 3 hrs 5 mins
Yield 8 buns
Category Baking / Side Dish
Cuisine Japanese
Author Lauren

Description

These milk buns are tender, fluffy, and perfectly moist.

Ingredients

Tangzhong (starter)

  • 3 tablespoons (43g) water
  • 3 tablespoons (43g) whole Milk, such as AE Dairy
  • 2 tablespoons (14g) unbleached bread flour

Dough

  • 2 cups (244g) unbleached bread flour
  • ½ cup (61g) white whole-wheat flour
  • 2 tablespoons (11g) nonfat dry milk powder
  • 2 tablespoons (25g) sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon instant yeast
  • ½ cup (113g) whole milk + more for brushing on buns
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 4 tablespoons (57g) unsalted butter, melted + more for brushing on buns
  • Flaky sea salt

Instructions

Tangzhong

  • Vigorously whisk together 3 tablespoons water, 3 tablespoons whole milk, and 2 tablespoons bread flour in a small saucepan until thoroughly combined and no lumps remain.
  • Cook Tangzhong over low heat, whisking constantly, until thickened and whisk leaves a trail on bottom of pan, 3–5 minutes.
    dough starter in a small saucepan with a whisk set next to it
  • Transfer Tangzhong to the bowl of a stand mixer (or large bowl is mixing by hand) and let cool to room temperature.

Dough

  • Combine bread flour, whole-wheat flour, milk powder, sugar, salt and yeast in a medium bowl; set aside.
  • Add ½ cup whole milk, egg and melted butter to stand mixer with Tangzhong; stir to combine.
    melted butter in a stand mixer with a fork set in it
  • Add flour mixture to stand mixer, attach dough hook to mixer and turn mixer to low speed. Mix and knead until a smooth, elastic dough forms, 8–9 minutes.
    dough ball in a stand mixer bowl
  • Remove dough from mixer, briefly knead a couple of times by hand then transfer to a large greased bowl.
  • Cover bowl with a kitchen towel or loosely with plastic and let rest until puffy but not quite doubled in size, 75–90 minutes.
    puffed dough in a medium sized bowl
  • Gently punch down dough.
    hand punching down dough
  • Divide it into 8 equal pieces.
    dough cut into 8 pieces
  • Form dough pieces into smooth, taut rounds (see recipe note below). Then place rounds in a generously greased 9-inch cake pan (round or square).
    dough balls in a round cake pan
  • Cover Pan with a kitchen towel or loosely with plastic and let rounds rest until puffy, 45–50 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, heat the oven to 350°F (176ºC) with rack set in middle position.
  • Using a pastry brush, lightly brush rounds with milk. Bake buns until tops are golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center registers 190ºF (87ºC), 25–28 minutes.
    puffed rolls in a cake pan getting brushed with milk
  • Transfer pan to a wire rack; let buns cool in pan for 10–25 minutes. Run a butter knife around edges of pan and gently lift buns out of pan; transfer to wire rack.
  • Brush tops of buns with melted butter and sprinkle with sea salt.
    Overhead image of milk rolls in a round cake pan set on a white table

Notes

To form smooth, taut dough balls, set a piece of dough on your countertop (unfloured). Loosely cup your hand around the dough and, without applying pressure to dough, rapidly move your hand in a circular motion. The tackiness of the dough, the bare work surface, and the rapid motion should naturally create a smooth even ball. If by chance the dough sticks to the counter or your hands, very lightly dust your hands with flour.
To make a loaf of bread instead of buns: After the first rise, divide dough into four equal pieces. Flatten each piece into a rectangle, then fold the short ends in towards one another like a letter. Flatten the folded pieces into rectangles again and, starting with a short end, roll them each into a log. Place the logs, seams side down, in a row of four in a generously greased 9×5-inch loaf pan. Cover the pan with a kitchen towel or loosely with plastic and let it rest until puffy, 45–50 minutes. Brush the loaf with milk and bake at 350°F until golden brown on top and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center registers 190°F, about 30 minutes. Transfer pan to a rack and let cool at least 30 minutes.

Nutrition

Serving: 1bunCalories: 237kcalCarbohydrates: 34gProtein: 7gFat: 8gSaturated Fat: 4gCholesterol: 41mgSodium: 319mgFiber: 2gSugar: 5g
Keywords Japanese milk bread, Japanese milk bread rolls, milk bread, milk bread rolls, milk buns
Did you make this recipe?Leave a comment below and tag @ZestfulKitchen on Instagram and hashtag it #zestfulkitchen!
Overhead image of milk rolls in a round cake pan set on a white table

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This post was sponsored by AE Dairy. As always all thoughts, opinions, and recipes are my own. Thanks for supporting all things ZK!

This recipe article was originally written on April 14, 2020.

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About The Author

Lauren Grant is a professional culinary food scientist, food writer, recipe developer, and food photographer. Lauren is a previous magazine editor and test kitchen developer and has had work published in major national publications including Diabetic Living Magazine, Midwest Living Magazine, Cuisine at Home Magazine, EatingWell.com, AmericasTestKitchen.com, and more.

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Comments

  1. 5 stars
    We’ve been on a bread making kick over here and these have hands down, been our favorite recipe! Thank you!

  2. 5 stars
    I cannot even tell you how amazing these rolls are!!!!! They are perfectly soft and tender on the inside and golden on the outside. My family LOVED them. This is now my go-to roll recipe.

  3. Hi! Wonderful recipe I want to try. However, I don’t have dry milk powder… is there anything I can substitute it with to minimise the effects on my end product? Thanks 🙂

    1. Hi Dana! Do you by chance have dried buttermilk powder or powdered coffee creamer (unflavored)? If so, you can use those. Otherwise, you can leave it out altogether and the buns should come out beautifully. Dry milk powder adds conditioning to the dough and helps to create a really tender crumb. The end result shouldn’t be too different without it!

      1. Hi. I would love to try this recipe but cannot get some of the ingredients because of the lockdown in our place. I have powdered milk but do not have dairy whole milk can i substitute it in this recipe? If so, how? Thanks and hope to hear from you.

        1. Hi Lorna! Thanks for reaching out—such a great question! Do you have access to soy milk? If so, I would substitute the dairy milk with unsweetened soy milk. Any unsweetened nut milk will work, but soy is best as it’s the most similar to dairy milk.

          If you ave access to other dairy products, you can make whole milk with these combinations:
          2 tbsp. cream + 7/8 cup skim milk
          6 Tbsp. half-and-half + 10 Tbsp. skim milk
          1/3 cup half-and-half + 2/3 cup 1% milk
          1/4 cup half-and-half + 3/4 cup 2% milk

          Let me know if you have any other questions!

    1. Hi Hazel! Great question, yes you can! I recommend going through that first 75-90 minutes proof, then forming the dough into balls and placing then in the pan according to the directions. Instead of proofing on the counter for another 45-50 minutes, cover the pan loosely with plastic and place it in the refrigerator. The next day, pull the pan out and let it rest at room temperature for 20–30 minutes prior to baking according to the directions. Let me know how it turns out!

  4. Hi there, I don’t have bread flour, can I substitute regular all purpose flour for that? My kids are going to love these!

    1. Hi Ruth!
      The rolls will have the best texture (and rise) if bread flour is used, but in a pinch you can use all-purpose flour. The rolls likely won’t rise quite as much, and you may need a bit additional flour if the dough is super sticky. Otherwise, swapping the flour should work fine!

  5. Thinking about making for Thanksgiving…is it possible to make ahead? Should I bake and freeze or put dough in freezer overnight?

    1. Hi Devon, I would recommend baking the rolls then, once cooled, wrapping them tightly in plastic wrap and foil and freezing. Let the bread thaw on the counter for a few hours prior to serving. If you want to serve them warm, reheat them in a 350°F oven until warm.

      I hope that helps!