The amazing Greek sweet bread ("tsoureki" in Greek) is one of these treats that you don’t easily forget. Maybe the name sounds funny and it is difficult to recall but you will definitely remember the distinctive and complex flavor combined with the irresistibly soft and stringy texture. My tsoureki recipe is a labor of love and effort. After 5 years of searching and testing in quest of the perfect loaf, I proudly present you the ultimate authentic Greek sweet bread.
Even though Greek sweet bread is traditionally served at Easter, it is quite popular all year long. It is a staple in Greek bakeries, pastry shops, and, of course, Greek homes. We serve it as breakfast along with honey, butter, jam, etc (it makes excellent out-of-this-world French toast), it is one of the best and most convenient mid-day snacks and it serves its purpose as a dessert.
GREEK SWEET BREAD: THE TASTE
Oh, boy! It is so rich and complex that it is almost impossible to describe. Imagine a sharp and distinctive mix of buttery, earthy, floral, sweet, and slightly bitter taste along with an incredible aroma that enhances the experience. It’s an explosion of so many flavors in one bite.
I did my best to describe it. Now, you have to make it to see for yourself.
Nowadays, there are several variations and additions to the basic recipe. The most popular is stuffed with chocolate hazelnut spread, chestnut spread, and all kinds of jams, and nuts. Already drooling? There is more! Imagine a tsoureki stuffed with chestnut cream spread and covered with white chocolate. My favorite tsoureki variation treat!
GREEK SWEET BREAD: THE TEXTURE
In a few words, soft, and fluffy, with a brown semi-soft crust.
BUT the unique aspect (and challenge) of tsoureki is the string-like texture when the sweet bread is pulled apart. The strings are produced by the braiding technique, which creates long strands of dough that are then woven together. When the bread is baked, these strands expand and separate slightly, resulting in tsoureki’s distinct string-like appearance.
It may sound complicated but it is quite simple. See below.
Tsoureki’s rich flavor comes from three aromatic spices: mastic, mahlab, and cardamon. You may find them in Greek and Middle Eastern delis or order them online.
I can almost hear you wondering: “May I omit any of them?” Of course, you can skip some of them. You won’t get the distinctive taste though and I really (really) believe that you should make it the traditional way, at least once.
For those who aren’t familiar with those spices, let me introduce them to you below:
Mastic (pronounced mastiha): Mastic is a POD product of the island of Chios located in the northeast of Greece. It is actually a resin obtained from beautiful trees that are native to Chios (I love this island and you shouldn’t miss the chance to visit it. It isn’t among the most tourist islands and that’s why it is almost unspoiled. Anyway, back to the spice).
Even though it’s difficult to describe such a complex flavor, let’s try to give you a hint: mild, earthy sweet, and floral notes with a hint of bitterness. Told you. Too complex to describe!
Mahlab (or mahleb or mahlepi): Another unique and distinctive flavored spice made from the ground seeds of the St. Lucie cherry, a tree native to the Middle East. It tastes like cherry and almond, it has a sweet, nutty flavor and a slightly floral aroma.
Cardamom (named also kakoule): It has a warm, aromatic, and slightly sweet flavor with a hint of a spicy and citrusy taste. It is known for its unique and distinct taste, which is often described as a combination of herbal, floral, and minty flavors.
GREEK TSOUREKI: HISTORY AND TRADITION
Tsoureki isn’t just a delicious dessert/treat. Its origins are lost in time and its historical background is very interesting. Not interested in food history? Jump to Recipe
Our journey begins way back in ancient Greece where bread was a symbol of wealth and prosperity. Over the centuries, bread in various shapes and flavors reflects the opulence and abundance of pagan feasts.
Fast forward a few centuries later, festive bread has several symbolic meanings for Christian Greek culture and tradition.
The Greek word “tsoureki” was borrowed from the Turkish word “çörek” during Ottoman (Turkish) occupation. Corek is a general term including a wide variety of baked goods, including sweet or savory bread, buns, and pastries. So when Greeks began to modify the traditional Easter bread (λαμπρόψωμο) with an Easter sweet bread (made of milk, butter, and eggs) the word corek was a convenient name for this new kind of sweet bread.
Consequently, there are multiple symbolisms behind Greek tsoureki. The most common derives from the rising dough that "comes alive" and transforms into bread. It symbolizes the resurrection of Christ and spring (nature's rebirth).
The shape of Easter bread comes in a wide variety and is determined by local customs and traditions. The braided shape of tsoureki is believed to bring good luck, as it represents the intertwining of fate and the interconnectedness of people. Furthermore, the bread's round shape and the red-dyed eggs on top symbolize the rebirth and renewal of life and the three braids symbolize the Holy Trinity.
TSOUREKI RECIPE SEP BY STEP – TIPS FOR SUCCESS
To tell you the truth, that recipe has been my nemesis for years. I had been finding my family’s recipe unsatisfying, texture-wise. I mean excellent flavor but too dense and not stringy enough for my taste (sorry Mom). So I’ve been testing several recipes for the last 5 years of being a food blogger with epic catastrophic consequences. I mean major failures, one after another for years. But I didn’t give up. I accepted the challenge and keep testing again and again.
So, ladies and gentlemen, this year, I am extremely proud to share the best tsoureki recipe you can find online. This recipe has been tested several times to perfection. I wanted to be 100% sure that it represents adequately the authentic Greek tsoureki. Guess, what! It does.
Making tsoureki isn’t rocket science BUT you have to know the secrets for success. Besides, baking isn’t just throwing and mixing ingredients. It needs the right ingredients, measurements, temperature, and lots of love… Right?
Let’s make Greek sweet bread together. Follow the steps and take into serious consideration the tips for success.
STEP#1 – PURCHASE THE RIGHT TYPE OF FLOUR
Flour is one of the most important elements for obtaining the perfect tsoureki texture: full of strings, light as a feather, and soft like velvet. To get there, you need high-gluten flour containing 13.5% to 14.5% protein. In order to purchase the right flour, search for strong (also called hard) flour but still you have to read the label in order to verify protein levels.
Hard/strong flour has the ability to form all the strings we like so much on tsoureki.
However, if it is difficult to find either high-gluten flour or strong/hard flour, use bread flour at least. It won’t give you the ultimate perfect texture but it’ll be close enough. Your chances to make the traditional tsoureki are even lower with all-purpose flour. Again, they will be delicious but the texture will be dense more like regular bread and not stringy enough.
STEP#2 TSOUREKI STARTER
In a small saucepan or skillet mix the ingredients for the starter and simmer until you have a smooth cream, not very thick. Let it aside to cool well enough.
Tip for success: This is an additional step that takes no more than 10 minutes. It is worth the trouble because it will add an extra kick of moisture resulting in a super soft texture for longer.
STEP#3 THE YEAST MIXTURE
Important! Active dry yeast is needed here. No active yeast, no fluffy tsoureki, as simple as that!
For those who are new to baking, flour, and sugar will feed the yeast and lukewarm milk will activate it. We need slightly warm milk, not hot because it will kill the yeast. Test the milk’s temperature by diving a finger for a few seconds. You should feel it comfortably warm.
Tip for success: Don’t even consider continuing if the yeast mixture won’t double its size and form bubbles at the top in about 10 minutes. Even though I hate food-wasting, this time you have to start over with a new yeast mixture.
STEP#4 THE RIGHT FLOUR QUANTITY
This step is easy. You just mix all the ingredients using a stand mixer or your hands.
First the egg and sugar.
Now, the rest of the ingredients
Important! You need to be careful with flour quantity.
Tip for success: When the dough is sticky, you usually add more flour, right? Well, yes for the majority of baking goods but it's a "no-no" for tsoureki recipe. Because the more flour you add, your sweet bread will get the texture of regular bread and it won’t be soft and fluffy.
Follow my instructions and don’t add more flour than the quantity I give you in the recipe. The dough will seem kind of runny but once proofed it will be relatively easy to handle (coating your hands with butter will help you).
In the end, you add butter and the dough is ready. See how elastic it is below:
STEP#5 – THE RIGHT PROOFING
It’s proofing time. This recipe calls for two rises. The first (bulk rise) is when the dough rises in the bowl, while the second rise comes after the dough has been shaped and the shaped loaves rise in the baking sheet.
The first proof takes time from 3-4 hours and the second about 1 hour.
Tip for success: Once the dough has risen to double its size, it is ready to press down to prevent it from over-proofing. Because over-proofed dough can be the reason to have a very dense tsoureki. That’s why I don’t let the dough overnight or in the fridge for hours. I need to hit the proofing sweet spot.
STEP#6 - THE RIGHT SHAPING
Your dough has risen to double its size. Perfect. It’s so soothing to punch down the dough. DON’T (LOL). Press gently and deflate it.
Tip for success: Treat the dough like it is a delicate, fragile, and precious item. You devote your time waiting for the dough to double. So, now be gentle: use your fingertips to lightly press and stretch it. Don’t knead, just fold it: stretch the bottom of the dough and fold it up to the center, then repeat with the left side, right side, and top.
Finally, press and stretch to shape the ropes, and then shape them into braids. The braids should be loose in order to have room to rise again. Place the tsoureki loaves into a baking sheet and let them rise again. Second proofing lasts about 1 hour.
STEP#7 - GARNISH & BAKE
Make the egg wash and coat generously. Then sprinkle almond silvers or sesame seeds. Baking time is relatively short (30 minutes until deep golden brown). If they are getting brown too quickly cover with parchment paper so that to continue baking.
Let them cool for half an hour (if you can resist)
Tip for success: Once cooled wrap the loaves with plastic wrap to keep them soft for at least 5 days.
CAN I KNEAD BY HAND?
Of course, you can and, between us, that’s the traditional way. No stand mixers back in time to save trouble and time. It will be more tiring than using a mixer but it is worth spending an additional 10-15 minutes on kneading time.
WHAT ABOUT STORAGE AND FREEZING?
Your tsoureki should last about 5 to 6 days in its top softness. Just make sure you cover it tightly in cling film. After that, it will start becoming stiff and stale.
If you are making a large batch, you can bake them and then freeze the loaves wrapped in cling film. They will last for up to 2 months. Defrost them by letting them sit at room temperature. They will be fresh and tasteful as when they came out of the oven!
THE FESTIVE GREEK EASTER TABLE
As mentioned above, tsoureki is part of the Greek Easter celebration. Greeks traditionally enjoy a feast after a 46-day fast. Well, I am not sure the word "feast" can even begin to describe the abundance of food, drinks, and social interaction.
Imagine a huge table outdoors surrounded by nature at its best. Spring is so beautiful and enhances all the senses. The weather is usually comfortably warm and sunny.
Just to give you an idea of the most traditional dishes and delicacies on the Greek Easter table, take a look below:
Lamb is traditionally the king of the table. Slowly roasted whole lambs on a spit along with kokoretsi (lamb intestines wrapped around seasoned offal) and kontosouvli (BBQ pork) are the basic meat dishes that you find on the majority of the traditional Greek Easter table.
Red-dyed Easter eggs, sweet bread (tsoureki), and Easter butter cookies (koulourakia) are already placed on the table.
If you have already made my tsoureki recipe, I would be super grateful to leave a comment and/or give this recipe a rating or take a photo and tag me on Instagram with #30daysofgreekfood and Facebook with @30daysofgreekfood! Above all, I absolutely love your feedback. This is a huge motivation for me and it keeps 30daysofgreekfood’s kitchen alive. Thank you so much!!!
Greek sweet bread - Tsoureki recipe
- 6 cups (800g) hard or strong or bread flour (high-protein flour more than13%)
FOR THE STARTER
- ¼ cup (40g) flour from the quantity already measured
- ¾ cup (190ml) full-fat milk
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon ground mastic
- 1 tablespoon ground mahlap
FOR YEAST MIXTURE
- 2 tablespoons active dry yeast
- ¾ cup (190ml) full-fat lukewarm milk (hot milk about 104°F/40°C)*
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 4 tablespoons flour from the quantity already measured
THE REST INGREDIENTS FOR THE DOUGH
- 3 medium eggs
- 1 cup (250g) granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 pinch of salt
- Zest from 1 orange
- The rest of the flour
- ⅓ cup (50g) unsalted butter, cubed at room temperature
- ⅓ cup (50g) unsalted butter, melted (to handle the dough)
- 1 egg
- 1 tablespoon full-fat milk
- Almond slivers or/and sesame seeds
- In a large bowl sift the flour and set aside.
- In a small saucepan or skillet mix the ingredients for the starter. Simmer and stir for about 10 minutes until you have a smooth cream, not too thick. Let it aside to cool.
THE YEAST MIXTURE
- Check out the milk’s temperature (see note#1). In a medium bowl combine all the ingredients for the yeast mixture. Whisk gently.
- Cover with a towel or plastic wrap and set aside for 10 minutes until it doubles its size and becomes bubbly.
ASSEMBLE THE DOUGH
- Use the flat beater attachment (also known as the paddle attachment) of your stand mixer. In case you knead by hand, you need almost double the time to prepare the dough.
- Beat the eggs with sugar on high speed for about 4 minutes until the mixture is fluffy, thick, and lightened in color.
- Replace the paddle attachment with the dough hook. Add all the remaining ingredients (baking powder, ground cardamom, salt, orange zest), the starter mixture, the yeast mixture, and ⅓ of the remaining flour.
- Beat on slow-medium speed until the ingredients are incorporated. Add gradually the rest of the flour. Increase speed to medium-high for 10 minutes.
- While the dough hook is stirring, add the softened butter cubes. When incorporated, beat to high speed for 5 more minutes. The dough is ready when it pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Even though the dough seems sticky, don’t add more flour.
- Cover the dough with a towel, and place it in a warm environment, until it doubles its size (about 3-4 hours). Alternatively, you may cut rise time in half (about 2 hours) if you place the dough (covered) in a preheated oven to the lowest temperature (make sure the oven is off before placing the covered dough in).
SHAPE THE LOAVES
- In a small bowl, pour in the melted butter. Use a kitchen brush to coat a surface with a generous amount of butter (instead of flour). Coat your hands with butter as well. Repeat if the dough is sticky while handled.
- Use your hands to gently deflate the dough and transfer to the working surface. Don’t knead the dough but gently fold it: stretch the bottom of the dough and fold it up to the center, then repeat with the left side, right side, and top. Repeat until you shape a dough ball.
- Preferably use a kitchen scale to measure (optional) and separate the dough ball into 3 equal parts (about 3300 pounds (1500g). These 3 smaller balls will make 3 loaves about 1 pound (500g) each.
- Divide 1 ball into 2 equal parts. Gently roll and stretch them to form 2 long ropes.
- Lay the 2 ropes side by side, pinching them together at one end, and braid quite loosely. Pinch together at the other end as well in order to hold the ropes together.
- Repeat the procedure to make 2 more loaves.
- Place the loaves onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and cover them with a clean towel. Transfer back to a warm space to rise again for 1-1 ½ hours until the loaves puff up (they don't have to double their size).
GARNISH AND BAKE
- Heat oven to 338°F (170°C).
- In a small bowl mix the egg and the milk and whisk with a fork. Brush the loaves with the egg wash and sprinkle with almond silvers or/and sesame seeds.
- Bake in the center rack of the oven for 30 minutes until deep golden brown. If they are getting brown too quickly cover with parchment paper.
- Let them cool for half an hour (if you can resist). Once cooled wrap them with plastic wrap to keep them soft for at least 5 days.