French Brioche: Short History of a Popular Sweet Bread

French brioche comes in numerous shapes, sizes and flavors.
French brioche comes in numerous shapes, sizes and flavors.

True, the baguette is the most familiar bread staple in French households. Bakeries reportedly produce some six billion elongated loaves each year, and it’s believed that citizens consume around half a baguette per day, on average. But what many don’t realize is that there’s another bread that competes for the title of most-ubiquitous-yeast-based-delight in France: the humble brioche.

The egg, sugar, and butter-enriched bread approaches the territory of viennoiserie: the French term for croissants, pain au chocolat, and other pastry-like breads. But unlike these other viennoiseries (which, believe it or not, most French people consider as morning treats rather than daily staples), brioche is consumed throughout the day, including as part of lunch or dinner.

{Related: The History of the French Croissant}

It’s also a popular standby in the after-school goûter (snack), which children are given by their parents or caretakers after school, often gobbled down in the streets on the way home.

Image by Les Caprices d’Esther

But how did brioche become such a familiar fixture of everyday life in France? Keep reading for a short history of the buttery, mildly sweet bread, including a bit of etymology and comparisons to similar treats from outside France. Finally, find a few suggestions for places to taste excellent brioche in Paris and around France, followed by links to good recipes.

A Bit of History

Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, Untitled, 1763. (Musée du Louvre, Paris.) Public domain.
Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, Untitled, 1763. (Musée du Louvre, Paris.) Public Domain.

As with several other French foods and drinks, including the croissant and champagne, the history of brioche is muddled by myth. In the case of the milk, egg, flour, sugar, and butter-enriched bread that is now so beloved in France, legend has it that Marie-Antoinette brought it there from her native Austria.

She is also widely rumored to have glibly said “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!” (Let them eat brioche/cake!) when told, at the outset of the French Revolution, that her poorer subjects were unable to afford bread.

The remark, which was only attributed to the ill-fated queen half a century later to prove her alleged frivolity (and indifference to the suffering of French peasants), most likely never came out of her mouth.

Moreover, brioche had been present in French baking for centuries, well before Marie-Antoinette’s reign in the late 18th century. According to numerous sources, it is first mentioned in a text dating to the early 15th century (around 1404), and probably originated somewhere in Normandy.

It first appeared in a French-English dictionary dating to 1611, Cotgrave’s A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues; the entry described the delicacy as “a rowle, or bunne, of spiced bread”.

Later, it spread to other regions around France as a specialty prepared around Easter, and sometimes for other religious or familial occasions. In Normandy, they were often referred to as gâches; while in the southern French Vendée region, they were sometimes called galettes pacaudes or pains de Pâques (Easter breads).

At first, they were mostly formed into simple, compact rounds or loaves, with a dense, firm crumb that was different from the flakier, more buttery brioches of the present day. According to some sources, these early brioches were typically made with sourdough starter, rather than yeast. They also did not typically contain sugar, gaining sweetness only later, when sugar became more widely available.

During the reign of Louis XIV, bakers began producing brioches with a greater ratio of butter to flour, yielding a much richer, more indulgent bread. Butter was a luxury item at the time, so this adaptation was no accident amid rising aristocratic demand for gourmet baked goods.

{Related: Why is Brittany Butter Salted, & So Coveted?}

The “brioche parisienne” (Parisian brioche) was popularized sometime in the 18th century, with a first recipe appearing in around 1742. One source says the Parisian version yielded a lighter, fluffier brioche, owing to the use of yeast in lieu of sourdough starter. It’s often called “brioche à tête” (head-shaped brioche), alluding to its form.

Brioche parisienne or brioche à tête/see recipe at Del’s Cooking Twist

It was only during the 19th century, with the rise of the métier (profession) of the boulanger (baker) and the opening of scores of new bakeries, that the brioche spread throughout the country– and became available in numerous flavors, shapes, and bakes.

In the south of France, it is often flavored with orange-blossom essence and vanilla, formed into a braided loaf or smaller rounds. and referred to as brioche vendéenne or gâche vendéenne. It continues to feature in festivities during the Easter season, as well as serving as wedding cakes or bases for said cakes.

Where Does the Word “Brioche” Come From?

The etymology for “brioche” is rather uncertain, but most believe it derives from an old Norman French verb, brier, which is related to the modern French verb broyer (to grind or crush). This probably refers more specifically to the act of kneading dough with the aid of a rolling pin in wood (broye or brie in Old French). The suffix -‘oche‘ only appeared later, to designate the finished bread.

Another theory (likely less credible) holds that brioche may have been named after the town of Brie (famous for its cheese), or even laced with the cheese at one point, while still another speculates that it may originate in Saint-Brieuc, a town in Brittany.

Similar European Treats (and Their Differences)

While I’ve talked a lot about brioche specifically as relates to France and its traditions, similar egg, milk, and butter-enriched yeasted breads are popular elsewhere in Europe, especially in Germany, Austria, and Eastern Europe.

In Germany, bakers often make golden, braided loaves called Hefezopf or Hefekranz, which literally mean “yeast wreath” and “yeast braid”. Raisins, almonds, bits of sugar or other sweet ingredients are often added.

And at Christmas, Kugelhopf– yeasted cakes made with dried fruit and sometimes liqueur are a typical festive treat in both Germany and Alsace (the latter in northeastern France).

An Alsatian-style Kugelhopf, or yeasted Christmas cake

{Related: Typical French Christmas Desserts & Recipes}

Eastern European babka (traditional among Jewish communities) are also close in composition and bake to brioche, although babkas tend to contain more eggs.

Meanwhile, Sweden, Switzerland, and Slavic countries have their own versions of sweet, egg and butter-enriched breads. Some might argue these are only nominally different from French brioches.

What’s the Difference Between Brioche & Challah?
Brioche or challah? Bet you can’t tell the difference… “Braided Brioche” by Sharon Mollerus is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Those familiar with the delightfully golden, mildly sweet, egg-based challah bread– a staple in many Jewish households and kosher bakeries– may notice its similarities to brioche (especially the braided version, which appears nearly identical).

Both are yeasted, sweet breads made with eggs. Both make excellent candidates for dishes like French toast and bread pudding.

But there’s one crucial difference. Challah, as a kosher food, does not traditionally include butter. This does change the texture, giving challah a slightly firmer, drier crumb.

And while challah is enjoyed both as a sweet treat and torn off to enjoy alongside stews and other savory dishes, French brioche has less typically been served this way (although some would disagree in the 21st century, with many now using it for sandwiches, burger buns, or to accompany soup and salads).

In short, brioche and challah have a lot in common. But they’re far from being “yeasty twins”, if you’ll forgive my coining such a silly term.

Common Brioche Varieties & Where to Taste

Brioches in different varieties from the Eric Kayser bakery

Most bakeries in France will sell at least one– if not several– varieties of brioche. You can also find it in supermarkets, but the industrial varieties aren’t ones I’d recommend, laced as they tend to be with preservatives, vegetables oils, and/or several unhealthy sugars. Go for the good stuff.

These days, you can find an eclectic array of brioches and brioche-based treats in boulangeries around Paris and elsewhere. From nature (plain) to chocolate-laced or topped ; brioche aux pralines roses (pink-praline brioche) to brioche delicately flavored with fleur d’oranger (orange blossom essence) or topped with crunchy bits of sugar, there’s so much variety that one could easily attempt an afternoon of bakery-hopping. That is, if your stomach can handle all that sugar and butter.

Where to find the aforementioned good ones? Start with a tasting at La Patisserie des Rêves, widely thought to have some of the best brioche in Paris.

Next, try the flaky, intensely buttery brioches at Yann Couvreur, a relative newcomer to the French capital who also produces “special editions” like the decadent caramel-vanilla brioche with orange blossom essence and vanilla cream.

{Related: Some of My Favorite Pastries in Paris, & Where to Find Them}

Recently, Paris’ first-ever “brioche bar” opened in Paris’ 8th arrondissement, at a new concept bakery called Bab. Sweet and savory brioches sit side-by-side in the display windows in the shop opened by pastry chef Margaux Aycard. Why not try a cinnamon roll-style brioche, or a brioche-based sandwich laced with truffles and ham? If chocolate babka is something you just can’t resist, try the house version of it.

For more suggestions on where to taste top-rate brioche in France, including regional varieties from Nanterre and Saint-Génix, see here and here.

A Couple of Good Base Recipes for French Brioche

There are countless recipes for brioche out there, including on the “interwebs”. But how to know (especially if you don’t speak French) that the one/s you happen upon are reasonably authentic, and will yield brioche as delicious as befits the term?

For a basic, small-format brioche that requires simple ingredients and little technical fuss, try this recipe from French food writer and cookbook author Clotilde Dusoulier (at Chocolate & Zucchini).

If chocolate is a must for you, this recipe for chocolate-chip brioche from the same writer is a fantastic example. And in this video, Eric Kayser (of the excellent boulangerie that bears his name) offers a tutorial on brioche-baking, including a variety laced with pink pralines.

This recipe for Parisian-style brioche from Del’s Cooking Twist looks both authentic and relatively easy to achieve. Finally, if you’re looking for a good braided brioche recipe in English, try your hand at this one from Chef Philippe at Meilleur du Chef.

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The history of brioche is a fascinating one/Pinterest image by Paris Unlocked/Courtney Traub

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