This pan de muerto features citrusy and buttery flavors. Combined with the sugary crunch on top, it makes an irresistible treat. Bake it during the Day of the Dead festivities to fill your home with love and remembrance.

Pan de Muerto or Bread of The Dead, is a pillowy sweet bread with citrusy flavors. It is traditionally prepared only in the weeks prior to the Day of the Dead and is often enjoyed with chocolate caliente (hot chocolate) or café de olla.

As a Mexican, this is one of my favorite fall recipes. There’s just something comforting, nostalgic, and heartwarming when I make this recipe every year and my kitchen fills with all those familiar aromas.

This delicious treat truly captures the spirit of the season and the essence of Día de los Muertos.

What is Pan de Muerto?

Pan de Muerto is a traditional Mexican sweet bread that is closely associated with the celebration of Día de los Muertos. In English, this sweet treat is known as Bread of The Dead.

The Bread of the Dead is made with a brioche-like dough enriched with butter and eggs, resulting in a delectably buttery yet light and airy crumb. Infused with the essence of orange zest and blossom water, it has a delicious citrusy and earthy aroma and flavor.

Once baked to a delightful golden hue, the bread is tenderly brushed with melted butter while still warm, imparting a velvety exterior. To add a delightful touch, the buns are generously sprinkled with sugar on top, leading to an experience of crunchy sweetness with every bite.

A pan de muerto bread cut to see the soft texture inside.

Bread of The Dead Meaning

Bread of the Dead is an essential part of the Ofrenda de Muertos, a home altar made with various foods and items to honor the deceased family members during the Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) on November 2.

This pan dulce might have different meanings which depend on the shape and ingredients used to make it. Various regions have added their personal touch, depending on the traditional ingredients of that particular state in Mexico.

The most popular is characterized by being circular in shape, which represents the cycle of life and death, with a small circle at the top simulating the skull, and four dough figures in the shape of “bones”, precisely to represent death.

However, in other regions of the country, the meaning of Pan de Muerto can vary and the small round shape on top represents the tears for the loss of a loved one, while the crossed bones represent the four cardinal points and the four pre-Hispanic gods (Quetzalcóatl, Tláloc, Xipe Tútec, and Tezcatlipoca).

Is also believed that the wonderful smells of orange zest and orange blossom have the purpose to evoke the memory of the deceased.

A ofrenda for Dia de Muertos.
Altar (ofrenda) for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

Recipe Ingredients

  • Flour: Use all-purpose flour but make sure it has at least 11% protein. Bread flour is a good substitute.
  • Sugar: Regular granulated sugar for the dough, plus more for dusting.
  • Yeast: Use active dry yeast.
  • Eggs: You will need 2 medium eggs.
  • Unsalted butter: Butter should be softened. You will need some for the dough and some for brushing the baked bread of the dead.
  • Milk: Use whole milk.
  • Orange: You will need the juice and zest of one large orange.
  • Orange blossom water: This ingredient is essential to make the authentic pan de muerto recipe, if you can’t find it, you can substitute it with rose water or vanilla extract in a pinch.
  • Salt: Just a pinch of table salt.
Ingredients for Pan de Muerto displayed on a kitchen countertop with names written overlay.

How To Make Pan de Muerto

Make the dough

Place lukewarm milk, yeast, 1 tablespoon of sugar, and 3 tablespoons of flour in a bowl. Stir well to combine the ingredients until it forms a runny paste without lumps.

Mixing the pre-ferment ingredients in a small bowl.

Cover with cling film and set aside until the mixture is foamy and bubbly (about 15-20 minutes).

The foamy pre-ferment dough in a bowl.

Sift the flour in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add salt and the remaining sugar.

Use the hook attachment and mix for half a minute to combine the ingredients.

Bread flour in a mixer bowl.

Place orange juice, orange blossom water, eggs, and orange zest in a small mixing bowl. Whisk for 1 minute or until combined.

Mixing orange juice, eggs, orange blossom water, and orange zest in a bowl.

Make a well in the flour and pour in the egg mixture, then mix for 1 minute at the lowest speed.

Orange juice and egg mixture mixed in the center of the flour on a bowl.

Add the softened butter and knead at medium speed until it forms a rough dough that doesn’t stick to the bowl (about 3-4 minutes).

A collage with two photos of the preparation of the dough for pan de muerto.

Now add the pre-ferment (poolish) to the bowl and knead at medium-low speed for 5 minutes.

You will notice the dough is now a bit sticky. Here’s how it looks after 5 minutes:

The sticky dough in a mixer bowl.

Increase the speed of your mixer to medium-high and knead for about 15 minutes or until the dough will be nicely smooth but still a bit sticky.

Don’t worry, after resting, the dough will be more manageable, so don’t add more flour!

The dough after 15 minutes of kneading.

Form a ball with the dough and place it in a greased container. I used the bowl of my mixer which I first coated with butter.

A large ball of dough placed on a buttered bowl.

Cover with a clean cloth or cling film and leave it to proof in a warm place until the dough has doubled in volume (about 2 hours if the room temperature is about 75°F/24°C).

The dough after 2 hours of proofing and doubled in size.

Make the loaves

Slightly butter a working surface and place the dough on it, then divide it into 6 portions the same size; use a kitchen scale for this purpose.

The dough divided in 6 pieces.

Now, cut a small part of the dough from each portion, they will be needed to make the bones decorations.

The 6 pieces of dough with a small portion cut.

With the larger portions, form small balls using your hands. Make sure your hands are also slightly oiled.

Shaping a ball with hands.

Place the dough balls in a large baking tray lined with parchment paper or lightly buttered.

All six balls of dough placed on a baking tray.

Now, divide the 6 small portions of dough you took before into 3 pieces each, so you’ll end with 18 pieces the size of a hazelnut.

18 small pieces of dough on a kitchen countertop.

Clean well your working surface from the remaining butter and then generously flour it. Flour also your hands so it will be easier to shape the decorations.

Now, one by one, stretch 12 pieces into a tube, rolling the dough with your fingers and pressing so that some sort of “bones” form as you see in the picture below:

Shaping the

Top tip: It is important to add a little more flour to these small portions of dough so they become more compact, making them easier to work with and preventing them from deforming during the baking.

Next, take two “bones” and place them crossed on top of each dough ball. With the remaining small portion, form a small ball and place it on top of the cross on each big ball.

Placing a small ball of dough on top of a pan de muerto loaf.

Cover the small loaves with a clean kitchen cloth and allow them to proof in a warm place for as long as it takes to almost double in volume (about 30 minutes in a warm environment).

Pan de muerto loaves proofed on a baking tray.

Bake

Preheat your oven to 360°F/180°C and bake the bread loaves for about 16-18 minutes. Or until the top is golden brown.

Pan de muerto just baked on a baking tray.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool down for 15 minutes. Then brush them with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar.

A collage with two photos decorating pan de muerto with butter and sugar.

Transfer pan de muerto to a wire cooling rack and allow to reach room temperature before slicing.

Pan de muerto coated with white sugar on a cooling rack.

Expert Tips & Notes

  • If you want your Bread of the Dead to have a shiny and slightly crisp outside texture, make sure you brush them before baking with an egg wash made with 1 egg + 2 tablespoons water. You can also sprinkle it with sesame seeds.
  • The proofing time can vary depending on the temperature in your kitchen. My recommendation is to place the dough to proof inside the oven with the lights on to create a warmer environment.
  • With the ingredients listed in the recipe card below, you can make 6 medium buns. If you want larger loaves you can divide the dough into 3 portions instead, just remember that depending on the size, the proofing and baking times for this bread of the dead can increase.

How to Eat

Pan de Muerto can be enjoyed for la merienda (afternoon snack) or for breakfast.

The most common way to eat it is with Mexican hot chocolate or champurrado. Dunking a piece of Pan de Muerto into a mug of creamy chocolate is one of the most authentic Mexican eating experiences.

Here are my favorite hot drinks to enjoy with this delicious bread of the dead:

Pan de Muerto on a dark surface.

Storage Suggestions

Pan de muerto last up to 4-5 days if stored properly. Allow the bread to cool down completely then transfer to an airtight container. Leave the container on your kitchen countertop away from direct sunlight and heat.

Freeze

  • Want to freeze this bread of the dead? Easy-peasy! Wrap each bun with plastic wrap.
  • Place 3-4 buns in resealable bags and close them removing as much air as possible.
  • Store in the freezer for up to 2-3 months.

Reheat

When ready to eat, just take the buns you intend to consume and let them thaw overnight on your kitchen countertop.

Lightly spritz them with water and pop them into your oven at low temperature until nicely heated through.

FAQ

Why are pan de muertos used for day of the dead?

Pan de Muerto is used for Day of the Dead celebrations because it holds significant cultural and spiritual symbolism in Mexican traditions. It becomes a way for the living to connect with the departed, as they partake in a meal together, symbolically bridging the gap between the living and the dead.

Why is pan de muerto important?

The tradition of making and consuming Pan de Muerto is deeply rooted in Mexican culture and history. It dates back to pre-Hispanic times when indigenous communities had their rituals and beliefs surrounding death and the afterlife. This bread-making tradition has been preserved and passed down through generations, making it an integral part of the Mexican cultural heritage.

More Pan Dulce Recipes

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Pan de Muerto, aka bread of the dead. Recipe cover.

Pan de Muerto

6 loaves
Learn how to make Pan de Muerto, a traditional Mexican sweet bread deliciously soft and fragrant. Our recipe will guide you step by step to make this treat at home.
prep 30 minutes
cook 18 minutes
Resting time 3 hours
total 3 hours 48 minutes

Ingredients 

  • 4 cups bread flour
  • 5 oz butter (cut into small pieces )
  • ¼ cup lukewarm milk (or water)
  • ¼ cup orange juice
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1 ½ tsp yeast
  • 2 medium eggs
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp orange blossom water (or vanilla extract)
  • 1 tsp orange zest

for decorating

  • white sugar
  • melted butter

Instructions
 

Make the dough

  • Place milk, yeast, 1 tablespoon of sugar, and 3 tablespoons of flour in a bowl.
  • Stir well to combine the ingredients until a runny paste without lumps forms.
  • Cover with cling film and set aside until the mixture is foamy and bubbly (about 15-20 minutes).
  • Sift the flour in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add salt and the remaining sugar. Use the hook attachment and mix for half a minute to combine the ingredients.
  • Whisk the eggs with orange juice, orange blossom water, and orange zest in a small mixing bowl.
  • Make a well in the flour and pour in the egg mixture, then mix for 1 minute at the lowest speed.
  • Add the softened butter and knead at medium speed until it forms a rough dough that doesn’t stick to the bowl (about 3-4 minutes).
  • Now add the pre-ferment yeast mixture to the bowl and knead at medium-low speed for 5 minutes.
  • Increase the speed of your mixer to medium-high and knead for about 15 minutes or until the dough will be nicely smooth but still a bit sticky.
  • Form a ball with the dough and place it in a buttered container.
  • Cover with a clean cloth or cling film and leave it to proof in a warm place until the dough has doubled in volume (about 2 hours).

Make the loaves

  • Slightly butter a working surface and place the dough on it, then divide it into 6 portions the same size.
  • Now, cut a small part of the dough from each portion, they will be needed to make the decorations.
  • Form small balls with the larger portions using your hands. Make sure your hands are also slightly oiled.
  • Place the dough balls in a large baking tray lined with parchment paper or lightly buttered.
  • Divide the 6 small portions of dough you took before into 3 pieces each, so you’ll end with 18 pieces the size of a hazelnut.
  • Clean well your working surface from the remaining butter and then generously flour it. Flour also your hands so it will be easier to shape the decorations.
  • One by one, stretch 12 pieces into a rope, rolling the dough with your fingers and pressing so that some sort of “bones” form.
  • Take two “bones” and place them crossed on top of each dough ball.
  • Make 6 smalls balls with the remaining portions and place them on top of each loaf.
  • Cover the loaves with a clean kitchen cloth and allow them to proof in a warm place for as long as it takes to almost double in volume (about 30 minutes in a warm environment).

Bake

  • Preheat your oven to 360°F/180°C.
  • Bake the bread loaves for about 16-18 minutes. Or until the top is golden brown.
  • Remove from the oven and allow to cool down for 15 minutes.
  • Brush them with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar.
  • Transfer to a wire cooling rack and allow to reach room temperature before slicing.

Notes

  • If you want your Bread of the Dead to have a shiny and slightly crisp outside texture, make sure you brush them before baking with an egg wash made with 1 egg + 2 tablespoons water.
  • I normally use Manitoba flour to make this recipe, which is very easy to find in the many supermarkets where I live.
  • The entire process of making the dough can also be done by hand, but it will take about 30 minutes of hand-kneading, which can be a little exhausting.
  • The proofing time can vary depending on the temperature in your kitchen. My recommendation is to place the dough to proof inside the oven with the lights on to create a warmer environment.
  • With the ingredients listed in the recipe card below, you can make 6 medium buns. If you want larger loaves you can divide the dough into 3 portions instead, just remember that depending on the size the proofing and baking times can increase.
Nutrition Information
Serving: 1loaf | Calories: 608kcal | Carbohydrates: 88g | Protein: 14g | Fat: 23g | Saturated Fat: 13g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 2g | Monounsaturated Fat: 6g | Trans Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 107mg | Sodium: 374mg | Potassium: 175mg | Fiber: 3g | Sugar: 27g | Vitamin A: 710IU | Vitamin C: 6mg | Calcium: 42mg | Iron: 1mg
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Maricruz Avalos Flores is a Mexican cook and photographer living in Italy where she shares authentic Mexican & Italian recipes that can be easily made at home using easy-to-find ingredients.

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Recipe Rating




8 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    This pan de muerto is my fall favorite! The citrusy, buttery goodness and sugary crunch make it irresistible. It’s buttery and light!

  2. 5 stars
    This was so GOOD! I made a batch as test so I could make it for day of the dead season and bring to the office and now I am ready because it came ou perfect- Soft, orang-y, not overly sweet.

  3. 5 stars
    Thank you for sharing this authentic recipe and its history! My family and I just got back from Spain for my youngest son’s surgery. My older kids have been showing a much bigger interest in Spanish, Mexican, and Hispanic culture since we got back, and were just asking about Day of the Dead this week. I know they’ll enjoy helping me make some Bread of the Dead.

  4. 5 stars
    This sounds absolutely amazing! I had pan de muerto for the first time a couple of years ago, and I’ve been wanting to try making it ever since.