Make Pan de Muerto at Home!

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Make Pan de Muerto at Home!

I wouldn’t be caught dead without Pan de Muerto during Day of the Dead.

One of the most meaningful, colorful and delicious of Mexican celebrations, Dí­a de Muertos has this bread as one of its trademark treats. It may sound strange to eat fluffy sugared up bread in the shape of bones, but then again, we also eat calaveritas, candies in the shape of skulls. This shows how crucial food is for Mexicans but also how it gets infused with our sarcastic sense of humor, generous spirit and gutsy attitude.

Not that Day of the Dead is such a big occasion here in the United States, but I notice an increased awareness. Teachers are starting to talk about it in schools, sugar skulls and decorations are popping up in stores…It’s becoming trendy. As it happens right on the tail of Halloween, elements from both celebrations seem to cross paths. They both include graveyards and a lot of eating, but they are quite different.

Day of the Dead, which is not one but two days, November 1st and 2nd, is when those departed have a license to come back and visit the ones they’ve left behind. And hey, if they are coming back from another world, it better be a feast worth the trip! Altars are decorated, filled with the visitor’s favorite foods and drinks, candles and flowers placed throughout, to help illuminate for a safe journey back home. There are visits to the cemetery, too, but of a different nature than Halloween: Day of the Dead is a bittersweet, sad and joyous time for gathering, feasting and remembering.

Pan de Muerto, has to be one of the sweetest sides of it, eagerly awaited by all.

Those who have tried it want it, as it is really irresistible. But there are not that many panaderí­as that make it outside of Mexico.

pati jinich pan de muerto first rise

Well, guess what? Wait no more, you can make your own.

It is simple to do; the only downside is, it takes time. The dough needs to rise…four times, and one of them is overnight in the fridge. So if you want your Pan de Muerto for Friday, start it on Thursday.

First make your starter: a small leavened mix. I make mine by mixing dry yeast (oldest versions of Pan de Muerto use Pulque, a fermented drink) with lukewarm milk, not too hot and not too cold, to make it easy for the yeast to react. Fully dissolve and add a bit of flour, to get the yeast going on stronger. When it puffs up and has bubbled on the surface, about 20 to 30 minutes later, you have your starter.

That’s the first rise.

pan de muerto first rise 2

Then make your dough in the mixer with butter, sugar and eggs. I add orange blossom water, as is traditional in many parts of Mexico and the old fashioned way. It makes it fragrant and light. I also add a bit of orange zest and anise seeds, which perfume it even more. Once mixed, beat in the starter. Cover it and place it in a bowl.

It’s better if you leave it in a warm area of your kitchen where there are no drafts, close to the oven or burners is a good idea, too. Leavened bread likes warmth and moisture, so much so, that I have gotten into the habit of placing a bowl with boiling water right next to the bowl with the dough and then cover it all together (in case you were wondering about the two bowls under the kitchen towel above).

Then leave it to rise.

pati jinich pan de muerto first rise done

See how it puffed up in photo above? Almost tripled its volume.

That’s the second rise.

Then punch it back down. Just like that, make some fists and punch it twice.

pan de muerto dough punched down

Cover it with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator so that it will slowly but surely rise again, overnight. While you sleep, that dough will be getting ready for you.

pan de muerto overnight rise in refridgerator

See below?? Look how it rose again!

This time it was even bubblier and a bit stringy.

This is the third rise. Next day, morning sun.

pan de muerto dough after overnight rise

Then as you gather it into a ball, it will deflate in size, but you can see below how the dough has transformed and strands of dough are trying to stick to the bowl.

pan de muerto dough after punching down again

The dough ends up being shinny, sticky, compact…

Grab two thirds to shape like a ball and place it over a buttered or oiled surface. I like using this pizza stone.

pan de muerto dough

You leave a third of the dough apart, to decorate the ball with a couple of ropes and a ball on top. And then.. you cover it and let it rise again under a towel.

pan de muerto dough with shaping

And so it rose, under the towel!

In the oven it goes.

shaped pan de muerto dough after rising

Lastly, when it comes out, it is entirely brushed with melted butter and covered in sugar. Some people add more complex decorations, like colored sugar or make intricate shapes. I like it straightforward with plain granulated white sugar and a round shape.

By mid morning the next day, you will have a Pan de Muerto ready to slice.

So, yes, it takes time, it has to rise many times, but every time it rises again you will feel a huge sense of accomplishment and satisfaction… And as you bake it, maybe you will find like me, that whoever is around in the house will start lurking in the kitchen to eat whatever it is that has such an irresistible aroma.

pan de muerto the finished product

Maybe you will find, also like me, that it was well worth the wait.

Pan de Muerto
Print Recipe
10 to 12 servings
Ingredients
  • 1/2 cup lukewarm whole milk
  • 2 packages active dry yeast (1/4 ounce each) or about 4 heaped teaspoons
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour plus 3 1/2 cups for later on
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter at room temp, plus more to grease the bowl
  • and 2 tablespoons to melt and brush on top
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar plus 1/2 cup for dusting the bread
  • 6 large eggs at room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons orange blossom water or plain water
  • 1 teaspoon anise seeds optional
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest optional
  • Pinch kosher or coarse sea salt
To Prepare
  • To make the starter: In a small bowl, pour the lukewarm milk - making sure that it is not hot nor cold or the yeast will not react - and stir in the dry yeast granules. Give the yeast a couple minutes to sit in the liquid, and stir with a spatula until it is thoroughly and evenly dissolved. Give it time: stir a little, pressing gently on the yeast that has not yet dissolved with the spatula, give it a bit more time to sit in the milk, stirring again, press again. Once it has completely and evenly dissolved, add ½ cup flour. Mix it combining thoroughly, until it has no lumps. It will be gooey, runny and sticky. Leave it in the warmest area of your kitchen, for about 20 to 30 minutes, until it puffs up (to about doubles or triples its volume) and has bubbled on top. I like to place a sauce pan or cup with boiling hot water right next to it, but it's not necessary.
  • In the bowl of a mixer, over medium low speed, beat the butter until soft. Add the sugar and beat until combined and fluffy. Add one egg at a time. Once eggs are incorporated, add the milk and yeast mixture. Then adding ½ cup at a time, add the rest of the flour (3 ½ cups). Stir in the orange blossom water if using and if not, add plain water. Also add the anise seeds and a pinch of salt. The dough will look wet, runny and sticky, but continue beating anywhere from 7 to 10 minutes, until all the dough comes off the sides of the mixing bowl. It will be elastic and sticky, but it will hold itself together.
  • Butter a large mixing bowl that can hold the dough, and will be able to hold it as it doubles or triples its volume. Place the dough in the bowl, cover it with a cloth or clean kitchen towel and leave it in the warmest area of your kitchen, that is draft free, making sure that it is not next to a window or door that gets opened. Leave it to rest and puff up anywhere from 2 to 3 hours, until it doubles its volume at least.
  • Punch the dough with your fist, flip it over, cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator over night. The next day, remove the plastic wrap, place a cloth or kitchen towel on top and let it to come to room temperature.
  • Take off a third of the dough to make the bread decorations: make a 1 to 2-inch ball and use the rest to make 2 ropes. They need not be smooth nor perfect, as the dough is quite sticky, and no need to worry they will look beautiful once the bread is baked (and covered with sugar).
  • Butter a baking sheet or a bread or pizza stone, and make a ball with the rest of the dough. Place it in the center of the baking sheet and flatten it a bit on top. Place the dough ropes making a criss-cross -Mexican bakers usually shape the ropes to resemble bones, having thicker and thinner parts- and the ball on the top, right where they cross. Cover the bread with a cloth or kitchen towel, and let it rise and puff up again, for 1 to 2 hours.
  • Preheat the oven to 350. Bake the bread for for about 35 minutes. Halfway through baking, after about 20 minutes, cover the loaf with parchment paper or aluminum foil to prevent it from browning too much.
  • When they are ready, they sound "huecas", or hollow, if you hit the bottom of the bread.
  • Melt the butter and brush all over the bread. Sprinkle sugar all over until completely covered.
Ingredients
  • 1/2 cup lukewarm whole milk
  • 2 packages active dry yeast (1/4 ounce each) or about 4 heaped teaspoons
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour plus 3 1/2 cups for later on
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter at room temp, plus more to grease the bowl
  • and 2 tablespoons to melt and brush on top
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar plus 1/2 cup for dusting the bread
  • 6 large eggs at room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons orange blossom water or plain water
  • 1 teaspoon anise seeds optional
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest optional
  • Pinch kosher or coarse sea salt
To Prepare
  • To make the starter: In a small bowl, pour the lukewarm milk - making sure that it is not hot nor cold or the yeast will not react - and stir in the dry yeast granules. Give the yeast a couple minutes to sit in the liquid, and stir with a spatula until it is thoroughly and evenly dissolved. Give it time: stir a little, pressing gently on the yeast that has not yet dissolved with the spatula, give it a bit more time to sit in the milk, stirring again, press again. Once it has completely and evenly dissolved, add ½ cup flour. Mix it combining thoroughly, until it has no lumps. It will be gooey, runny and sticky. Leave it in the warmest area of your kitchen, for about 20 to 30 minutes, until it puffs up (to about doubles or triples its volume) and has bubbled on top. I like to place a sauce pan or cup with boiling hot water right next to it, but it's not necessary.
  • In the bowl of a mixer, over medium low speed, beat the butter until soft. Add the sugar and beat until combined and fluffy. Add one egg at a time. Once eggs are incorporated, add the milk and yeast mixture. Then adding ½ cup at a time, add the rest of the flour (3 ½ cups). Stir in the orange blossom water if using and if not, add plain water. Also add the anise seeds and a pinch of salt. The dough will look wet, runny and sticky, but continue beating anywhere from 7 to 10 minutes, until all the dough comes off the sides of the mixing bowl. It will be elastic and sticky, but it will hold itself together.
  • Butter a large mixing bowl that can hold the dough, and will be able to hold it as it doubles or triples its volume. Place the dough in the bowl, cover it with a cloth or clean kitchen towel and leave it in the warmest area of your kitchen, that is draft free, making sure that it is not next to a window or door that gets opened. Leave it to rest and puff up anywhere from 2 to 3 hours, until it doubles its volume at least.
  • Punch the dough with your fist, flip it over, cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator over night. The next day, remove the plastic wrap, place a cloth or kitchen towel on top and let it to come to room temperature.
  • Take off a third of the dough to make the bread decorations: make a 1 to 2-inch ball and use the rest to make 2 ropes. They need not be smooth nor perfect, as the dough is quite sticky, and no need to worry they will look beautiful once the bread is baked (and covered with sugar).
  • Butter a baking sheet or a bread or pizza stone, and make a ball with the rest of the dough. Place it in the center of the baking sheet and flatten it a bit on top. Place the dough ropes making a criss-cross -Mexican bakers usually shape the ropes to resemble bones, having thicker and thinner parts- and the ball on the top, right where they cross. Cover the bread with a cloth or kitchen towel, and let it rise and puff up again, for 1 to 2 hours.
  • Preheat the oven to 350. Bake the bread for for about 35 minutes. Halfway through baking, after about 20 minutes, cover the loaf with parchment paper or aluminum foil to prevent it from browning too much.
  • When they are ready, they sound "huecas", or hollow, if you hit the bottom of the bread.
  • Melt the butter and brush all over the bread. Sprinkle sugar all over until completely covered.

68 comments on “Make Pan de Muerto at Home!

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  1. Dear Pati,

    Thank you so much for this simple yet detailed recipe! I made my first pan de Muertos today! I consider myself more of a cook then a baker and am easily intimidated by yeast bread making but I trust you so much with all the other recipes I’ve tried of yours, so gave it a shot. I thoroughly enjoyed the process and would definitely make it again. It came out beautifully! Thank you again for continually providing us with authentic yet very doable recipes ~ Especially those of us Mexican Americans who are using these recipes to build up our Cultural and Heritage presence in our homes. ❤️

  2. Pati Pati Pati. No se que hice pero me salió grandísima pieza de pan. Estaba entre la receta y una película que le gustaban a mi papá. Cuando mira la tremenda pieza empecé a reírme tan fuerte que hasta me salieron lagrimas. Me acorde de mi apá y como nos hacía burla porque siempre nos comíamos el pan dulce en tan solo minutos. El pan me salió un poco fodongo pero delicioso. Lol. Seriously though, thank you sharing the recipes of our Mexico querido ya que esas no hacen recordar esos lindos recuerdos de familia. Bravo!

  3. Hi Pati!

    I made your pan de muertos and followed the recipe as written. However, my bread came out tasting quite sour. Is this how it is supposed to taste? The proofing went very well, the color on the bread is lovely, but, well, the taste … surprised me.

    1. Oh no, I’m sorry to hear that it came out bitter, Helen. It might have been the yeast you used, sometimes the packages are very old.

  4. Hola Pati, I love your program on PBS and watch it here in Tijuana every Saturday. I am going to go look for the Orange Blossom water and Anise seeds here at the local market Hidalgo…how do I ask in Spanish for those two items? Thank you!

    1. Thank you so much, Robin! When you are at the market you can say: Estoy buscando agua de azahar y semillas de anís. Or you can ask ¿Tienes agua de azahar o semillas de anís?

  5. Thank you so much for this. I lost my father in 2014 and the funeral home I work at celebrates this. I always bring my dad in and set up an altar for him. I’m proud to celebrate this day with my children and my returning father, grandfather and friend.

  6. Hola Pati, when you say overnight, how many hours does that mean? Is there a minimum hours to leave the dough in the fridge? Also, is there any such thing as being too long in the fridge? This is my first try at baking pan de Muerto!

    1. Overnight is about 7-8 hours. You want to make sure it gets a nice slow rise in the fridge. You can do it, Maria! Good luck!

  7. Pati, por cierto, no recomiendo usar toalla para tapar. Mi masa se hincho tanto que quedó pegada en la toalla y fue difícil de quitar.

  8. Pati, acabo de hacer la primera tanda de pan y está horneado en este momento. Según yo, seguí tus instrucciones al pie de la letra, pero al final, salió muy pegajoso la masa y tuve que agregarle otra taza de harina para formar los panes. Es esto normal?

  9. Hola Pati!
    I started the bread on Monday and baked it last night (Tuesday) just in time for the holiday!
    It tastes delicious. I love the recipe, enjoyed all the steps and lessons in patience and science. My bread decorations kind of lost their shape when it baked and the dough expanded. Do you have any tips for getting the dough to keep its shape once in the oven? Love your recipes I cook them often and they have seriously impressed my mexican in-laws.
    Gracias!

  10. Pati, estaríamos felices de que publicaras tu blog también en Español. Tus recetas están exquisitas, es nuestra cocina 🙂

    Gracias.
    M. Hortensia Sanchez

  11. Do you know if I don’t use mixers will bread taste differently? This will be my first time making the bread. I’ve never had any type of mixers, perfer to manually mix. Love your show

  12. Thanks! I think I might have been missing more sugar at the top; I will also add nuts and dried fruits next time. Just received your cookbook today! Yay! Can’t wait to try new recipes.

  13. Thanks, great recipe, the bread rised beautifully. However, there is a slight bitter aftertaste… is it possible this is overfermented ? Could this be caused by “too much” rising time ? I let it rise for 3 hours on the second rise, it was probably 3 times the volume… have you had this problem ? Thanks!

    1. Not really, it may be the Orange Blossom Water. Otherwise, there is a kind of a bitter taste -that I really like_ that is common in yeast based breads.

  14. I just finished my bread but I think iit was not baked all the way through, I strictly followed the time and removed from the oven after 38 minutes. It sounded hollow at the bottom but when I served it doesn’t seem to be fluffy, it is somehow plastered. I believe that for the amount of dough ( which it incredibly rises and triple its size) I would increase baking time to at least 40 minutes. I am invited to bake it again next year, but I have already made my notes to adjust the baking time. Would it be a good idea to make two loaves instead of one with the same amount of dough? In that case I believe I would stick to the 35 minutes baking time. Overall it tastes good, kind of plain so I was wondering if I could also add some raisins next time? Thanks for the recipe !
    Best regards, Laura

    1. Yes, of course you can add anything you want, raisins, candied pineapple… You can increase the time a few minutes, or you can make it 2 or 4 loaves. You can also add more sugar to the coating ; )

  15. Just saw your program on PBS! Loved all your recipes you prepared. I have a home in Mexico and spend about 6 months of the year there. Love the cuisine of Jalisco and Nayarit where I live. Will be purchasing your cookbook and trying them out on my husband and visitors. Thank you.

    1. Hola Debbie, I love the food in Jalisco as well! Thank you for watching & for getting my cookbook!! You will have to let me know what your family & friends think of the recipes!

  16. Hola Pati,

    This is the second year I bake your Pan de Muerto. I was never very confident to bake yeast bread but I decided to give it a try after I heard your interview on NPR. It is wonderful to have “Mi pan de muerto” here in the US. My husband loves it too. He is so much looking forward to have it that he asks at every rise if it’s almost ready. My answer is, we are one step closer….
    Thank you so much for this recipe!

  17. Hi Pati

    Does this bread need any kneeding at all? I’m afraid my bread will be dense if I don’t kneed it…

    I am making this today for my Mexican husband and want to get it right for him 🙂

    Thanks
    Rachel

  18. Hola Pati,

    Can I use orange oil?

    I love everything you make, I am truly enjoying your cookbook and everyone I cook for loves it too.

    Thank you,

  19. Hi Pati,

    I have to tell you that my daughter Mia, who is 9 years old, and I love to watch your show ! We have made a few of your recipes and they never disappoint. Can’t wait to try this one ! It will be a treat for my daughter because November 2 is her birthday.

  20. Hola Pati, Could you recommend a source (website on online shop) for the little skeleton that one can bake inside the bread?
    Gracias,
    Chandra

  21. The recipe says to add the milk and yeast mixture and then later says to as the starter aren’t those the same thing? I’m confused.

  22. The wonderful recipes just keep coming. I am excited about your new season of Pati’s Mexican Table. I cherish my Pati’s cookbook. I have tried so many recipes and they are all wonderful. Thank you for sharing. I love visiting Mexico, the people and I love knowing more about your culture. I appreciate you.

  23. Hi Pati:

    I am going to make your Pan de Muerto and have a question. I have some Orange Flower Essence on hand. How much would I use to equal the 2 TBSP of Orange Flower Water? I understand that the essence is much stronger than the water. Thanks so much for your great recipes!

    1. Sorry I may have not gotten to your comment on time! If you don´t have orange blossom water you can sub for rose petal water though it tends to be stronger. If you don´t have either, just add water instead. It will be delicious as well.

  24. I fell in love with your TV show.. although the local channel I watched your TV show on was taken out of the TV, I still come to look for your recipes. Everything is so yummy. Can’t resist getting into the kitchen without making something that you posted. Thanks so much for all these great recipes.

  25. Gracias Pati for sharing this us. I just started to watch your program in PBS Create and it really a treat and mouth watering how you prepare thiose wonderful Mexican Dishes.

  26. A penas lo horneé hoy, en la noche haremosun chocolatito caliente para acompañarlo. Muy rica la receta, gracias por la explicación tan detallada, fue de mucha ayuda! No sabes la que pasé pues mi horno no prendió, tuve que cocinarlo en el horno tostador!! Jaja pero salió muy bien. Saludos!!