Want to step up your homemade burger game without having to compromise on fluffy bread? This recipe is for you

These delicious soft cocoa burgers buns will easily become one of your favourite baking projects.

Working with new ingredients and different cooking techniques is part of my everyday job and something I love doing because allows me to put my chemistry hat on in order to find out what is really going on in a recipe. That’s why doing all the testing (and taste-testing) required for these cocoa brioche buns has been quite an enjoyable experience for me. It all started a couple of years ago while I was working on my recipe for classic soft burger buns: I wanted to create something different for some photos I was working on, so I tried to add cocoa to my existing bread recipe. After a couple of attempts, I had a recipe that worked well but I knew it was far away from being what I wanted. Due to lack of interest and being busy with work, I ended up forgetting about it.

A few weeks ago, I made a deliciously decadent chocolate cake for my boyfriend’s birthday and the idea of cocoa bread popped right back into my mind. I found my old notes forgotten in the middle of a notebook and started planning a route to develop my recipe for the most delicious fluffy cocoa burger buns.

The previous buns were a bit dry, couldn’t hold their texture for longer than a day and, in terms of flavour, they were closer to rye bread than cocoa buns. They also didn’t have the right texture for getting that perfect burger bite. I know you can use many kinds of bread for burgers but here we are talking about soft brioche-style buns, so they had to tick all the boxes.

Thankfully, there is a kind of bread that I learned to master in the past couple of years: Japanese milk bread (also known as Hokkaido milk bread or Shokupan). This bread is famous for its softness and pillowy texture and it’s made using the Yudane method. The secret behind this soft bread is called Tangzhong: a simple roux-like paste made using a combination of water or milk and flour cooked until the starches in the flour gelatinize and the paste thickens. In this way, you are adding a gel into the dough that helps to retain moisture inside the cooked bread but you are also inhibiting some of the gluten from forming: the result is a bread that is extremely soft and lasts for longer compared to regular loaves.

Introducing the use of Tangzhong into my recipe for cocoa burger buns has been the first change I made (having already tried this technique for the classic buns). Then I worked on both ingredients and raising/baking times to get a final result I was happy with. All this recipe development work now allows me to share with you some useful details about substitutions and consequent changes in texture and flavour profile.

Here’s the ingredients list for these delicious soft cocoa burger buns:

bread flour
cocoa powder
dry yeast
olive oil
sesame seeds

As you can see, this recipe calls for both milk and water but there are some substitutions you can make on this point and they all work well.

Using milk and water is the best choice in terms of texture. Milk is the liquid part in the roux-like paste mentioned before, while water is one of the liquid ingredients used in the dough. These buns tend to last longer comparer to others.
You can substitute water in the dough with stout beer to get a more flavourful result. These buns have a slightly bitter finish and they are fluffy and moist but the texture tends to change after a day. They also tend to turn out a bit more flat than the others.
Another good alternative for water in this recipe is non-dairy milk (hazelnut, almond or cashew milk are the best choices). In this case, you can use a plant-based drink to substitute both water and milk. This new ingredient affects the flavour profile of the buns giving them a delicate nutty finish. The texture is a bit more dry compared to buns made with water and milk.

These might seems small details to you but it’s just another proof of how each ingredient has a different effect on the final result and this is due to their chemical composition and role in the recipe. You can find more information about baking and food chemistry in my recipe for classic burger buns.

Soft cocoa burger buns

Ingredients – dough:

180 g strong bread flour
1 large egg (approx. 50-55 g)*
35 g plain unsweetened yogurt
20 g butter, softened
20 ml water (or stout beer/non-dairy milk)
15 g granulated sugar
15 g unsweetened cocoa powder
10 ml coffee (espresso or coffee made with a Moka pot)
1 tbsp milk (for the final egg wash)
2 tsp sesame seeds (optional)
8 ml olive oil
4 g quick dry yeast (instant)
3 g salt

*I separate from this amount approx. 1 tsp of egg and keep it in the fridge for the final egg wash.

Ingredients – Tangzhong:

50 ml milk (or non-dairy milk/water)
15 g strong bread flour


To make the Tangzhong, combine milk and flour together in a small pot over medium-low heat. Whisk constantly until the mix becomes a paste; you’ll easily notice this change. Use a hand whisk to avoid lumps. Allow the paste to cool down: combine it with the other ingredients when it will be at room temperature.

Place the yeast and warm coffee in a large bowl (the coffee should be slightly warm not hot). Mix and set aside for 5 minutes.
Add half of the total amount of water (or stout beer/non-dairy milk, as suggested in the introduction written above), the yogurt, sugar, egg, softened butter (at room temperature) and cocoa powder. Mix well with a hand whisk.
Now you can add the Tangzhong to the same bowl. Mix well then start adding the flour. Towards the end, check your dough and add the remaining amount of water. Use a bit of olive oil to help you knead the dough. The exact amount of flour and water you need depends on the kind of flour, temperature and experience you have in kneading a dough by hand. You can totally make these buns using a stand mixer or food processor, too.
Knead the mixture for approx. 5 minutes until you get a soft and smooth dough. Drizzle a bit of olive oil all over the dough and allow it to rise in a bowl covered with a clean kitchen towel or a reusable wrap. This step will take approx. 1-1.5 hours, depending on the temperature of the room.
Once the dough has doubled in size, divide it into 4-5 equal pieces. Each bun could weigh around 90-105 g but you can adjust the size according to your preferences. Roll each piece of dough with your hands to get a perfectly round ball. Ensuring the bottom of your buns is shaped properly will help you in getting a better looking cooked bread. Place the buns on a baking tray lined with a reusable mat or parchment paper and ensure there’s enough room between them. Gently press down a little the top of each bun (skip this step if you are using beer in the dough).
Cover the buns with a clean kitchen towel, then let them rise for approx. 45 minutes, until doubled in size. Gently brush the buns with the egg wash (approx. 1 teaspoon of egg + 1 tablespoon of milk), sprinkle some sesame seeds on top and bake in a preheated oven at 180°C for approx. 16-18 minutes.
These burger buns will keep well for up to 3 days but you could also freeze them.

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