St. Pierre Bakery designated May 14 National Brioche Day in the UK, but here in the US, where fast food reigns supreme and the Chicken Sandwich Wars are fought on the battleground of the brioche bun, every day feels like National Brioche Day. These days, it seems like every franchise, chain restaurant, and gastropub in town is shouting out “on a brioche bun” with excited smugness. But why? And moreover, if brioche is as gourmet as they say, are all these brioche buns the real deal?
Because let me tell you something: I’ve tried my share of supermarket and fast food “brioche” buns, and honey, it ain’t always it.
The “rise” of brioche
Unless you’ve been eating under a rock, you’ve likely noticed that brioche is now the reigning de facto bun for all fancy sandwich needs. It’s become a major selling point for the most popular chicken sandwich of all time, and many of its competitors have followed suit. Jack in the Box, Sonic, Pollo Campero, Jollibee, KFC, Church’s… need we go on? Even if a chain doesn’t outright call it brioche, there are allusions to it via marketing terms like “artisan style,” a la Wendy’s.
How ironic that our favorite redhead errs on the side of caution, since she was the first to have kicked off this bread craze. Back in 2013, brioche hit fast food menus for the first time with the Wendy’s Bacon Portabella Melt. This review predicted that brioche wouldn’t be as big of a drive-thru hit as the pretzel bun that was also released that year, making me lol in present day.
In 2016, the “bakery style” rendition became the Wendy’s standard, replacing the old cornmeal-dusted, warmed-not-toasted buns (RIP) in a massive premium sandwich revamp. That same year, McDonald’s followed suit in the overseas market. Then Popeyes kicked off the Chicken Sandwich Wars in 2019, and it’s been full steam ahead since then.
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Why brioche buns reign supreme
But why have all of these purveyors gone the brioche route?
“A real brioche bun is wonderful, for the right sandwich,” says Todd Ginsberg, Chef-Partner of Rye Restaurants and leading Atlanta wholesale bakery TGM Bread, a spin-off from The General Muir. “They tend to be a little more delicate and squishy, as well as a little bit sweeter than a regular bun.”
Eric Wolitzky, the executive pastry chef of Atlanta’s celebrated Fifth Group Restaurants, speculates on its practicality and marketability for quick-serve. “I think it has a lot to do with shelf life,” he says. “An enriched dough will last longer. It also sounds ‘fancy,’ even though the mass-produced kind is honestly just a step up from a hamburger bun.”
Ginsberg agrees. The buzz-wordiness of brioche is a tremendous draw for a generation of self-proclaimed foodies. “‘Brioche’ is one of those menu words, like ‘brown butter’ or even ‘bacon’ that—even without knowing exactly what it brings to the dish—you just feel compelled to order it,” he says. “I mean, just say it out loud: brioche. Don’t you want to order something on brioche instead of bread or a bun? It sounds luxurious!”
Another perk of brioche? It’s easier to get right than to screw up.
“It’s pretty versatile and delicious,” says Ron Hsu, chef/owner of the award-winning Lazy Betty and Juniper Café, one of Bon Appetit’s 50 Best New Restaurants of 2022. “Plus, it isn’t as time-consuming as making a pain au levain, and because of the amount of sugar and butter in it, it’s pretty forgiving, even if it’s not executed to 100%.”
Good margin for error, immense buzz, plus versatility? No wonder, as Ginsberg says, folks “can’t really blame someone for calling something ‘brioche’ even if it’s not.” Which it often isn’t.
Okay, so what is “real” brioche?
Well, it’s French, for one, and more closely related to rich, sugar-kissed viennoiserie than boulangerie, e.g. traditional bread-making. On its own, traditional brioche is a fluted-looking thing with a topknot kind of knob crowning it. However, as regional variations arise, it has taken on more of a regular bun-like shape, such as in St. Tropez, where it becomes essentially a lemon and vanilla pastry cream sandwich. In many parts of Italy, it’s the foundation for a literal ice cream sandwich, with gelato nestled between the top and heel. Otherwise, its dough is also used as a basis for treats like king cake and Danish-ish rings. Perhaps therein lies the confusion.
“There are many types of breads that get categorized as brioche, even if they aren’t technically brioche,” says Hsu. After all, leading brioche exporter St. Pierre Bakery keeps the definition incredibly loose, calling it “a soft, lightly sweet, rich bread that works in sweet and savory dishes alike… made with an enriched dough.”
Cool, but that doesn’t really tell us anything, right? French chef Joel Robuchon went on record to describe it as “light and slightly puffy, more or less fine, dark golden with a flaky crust,” which is a little more helpful. But the reason for the confusion is that brioche is immensely open to interpretation, even to experts like Hsu.
“For example, my bakers and I developed a pork bun at Juniper that is in composition a brioche, but in application, a Chinese pastry,” he says. To Hsu, there’s really only one thing that disqualifies a bread from being brioche: a lack of richness, “mainly from sugar, butter, and eggs.”
Per Wolitzky, “Brioche is yeasted, enriched dough,” which means it includes those three key components Hsu pointed out. But he was able to shed some light on technique as well. “After the initial dough is made, the butter has to be slowly kneaded in”—which is one of the defining traits of viennoiserie—“so the dough doesn’t become overwhelmed by fat, which would make it greasy. The amount of butter can vary from 15% for lean, 25% for medium, or up to 50% for a really rich product.”
Okay, now we’re talking. Ginsberg concurs and gives us the good stuff: “The higher amount of egg, butter, and sugar is what gives the bread its signature golden yellow color and a flavor that tends to be a touch sweeter.”
So, to recap: three key ingredients that enrich the dough, technique, butter percentages, flavor, and appearance. Got it.
But what makes a “good” brioche vs. a “bad” brioche?
As Hsu sees it, the key difference between good and bad brioche is the quality of ingredients, “as with everything food-related!” he adds with a laugh.
“Using high-quality eggs, butter, and flour will give you a much better product,” he says. For example, you’ll get different (better) results with authentic French butter, which comes in countless varieties like raw, PDO, and higher butterfat for subtle differences. “Couple that with proper technique, crafted with love and intention, keeping the integrity of the product and understanding the origins of it… that’s what makes it really special.”
This is the fine line between appreciation and appropriation, which Hsu is immensely aware of as a chef of color specializing in fusion cuisine. In his opinion, “The best brioche comes from neighborhood bakeries… not the supermarket ones, which tend to use bleached flour and preservatives. Some supermarket brands can be very good, but I still wouldn’t classify them as artisanal. However, they can get you most of the way there. Look for ones that are soft, pillowy, and rich.”
In a dose of real talk, Wolitzky cops that most of what you’ll find on your grocery store shelves and fast food joints aren’t the real deal.
“Most of it seems like a knock-off: quite lean, chemically soft, too much sugar added, and low on butter percentage,” he says. “Supermarket brands like Sara Lee will contain chemical ingredients, and Kroger’s Private Selection label brioche doesn’t even have butter! They actually add turmeric for food color.” Another cautionary tale about the importance of reading your labels.
Ginsberg take a more definitive tack: “It’s not so much good versus bad as it is brioche versus not really brioche,” he says. Shots fired, battleship down.
Brioche fraud, far and wide
Personally, I’m mad about all this. And it’s not just because one of my primary beats is dismantling food myths and lies intended to bamboozle consumers. This time, I’m mad because the fakers are ruining brioche for everybody.
With irresponsible nomenclature, brioche buns are already en route to falling into same trap American marketing has built around San Marzano tomatoes, which are mostly fraudulent yet increasingly venerated on television—most recently, on The Bear. This puts them on the same spiral of fallen standards as balsamic vinegar of Modena, parmesan (not Parmigianno) cheese, and those “pure” but cheap, diluted, even fake olive oils.
But among our expert panel, it’s a mixed bag of feelings.
“I mean, I get it,” Wolitzky says with a measure of fatigued empathy. “Most people are impressed by the sound of it, and they have an idea of what it is. Frankly, people can get away with calling something brioche by making a lean, enriched dough, even if it is laden with other ingredients.”
“I’ve admittedly called something brioche instead of Kuchen, for instance, or Baba au Rhum, because there is a greater chance that someone will order it and a server doesn’t have to spend as much time explaining,” he adds. However, in these loose translations, the butter is there and keeps him honest, because “Making brioche without butter is nuts!”
Ginsberg takes issue with knowingly deceptive makers, those who “put brioche on the menu knowing full well that it’s not a brioche dough.”
“They’d be fined in other countries!” he says. “Can you imagine what the French would say?”
Hsu finds a diplomatic middle ground. He takes offense but “only to a degree,” he says. “It really depends on how people are naming it. If you do it in a way that shows homage, respect, or understanding of the origins of brioche, then I think it’s fine. But calling sourdough brioche is blasphemy, since they’re different categories of French baking, and viennoiserie is so highly specialized because it’s in-depth and complex.” In this, he’s with me—to refer to something simpler as its more sophisticated branch is insulting to the craft.
The practice fast food restaurants and supermarket brands of calling things brioche willy-nilly just to capture a trend dilutes the value of this splendid bread. If it’s ubiquitous, people think there’s nothing special about it, that it’s not worth caring about.
Ginsberg, however, is more zen about it. “When someone finally has a real brioche, their heads will explode (in a good way),” he says.