Pan de Muerto Traditional Recipe

Learn how to make Pan de Muerto, a traditional Mexican sweet bread. Soft and fragrant, this Bread of the Dead is perfect to enjoy with a cup of Mexican café de olla or hot chocolate.

Pan de Muerto decorated with sugar.

What is Pan de Muerto?

Pan de Muerto is a traditional Mexican sweet bread popular during the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico. It has a soft and spongy texture, with a buttery and sweet flavor, and an amazing orange blossom scent.

Bread of the Dead (as it’s known in English) is typically decorated with dough in the shape of bones and skulls, but, depending on the region it may also have a different appearance or can be made with other ingredients.

As Día de Muertos (November 1 & 2) approach, this sweet bread is sold at any panadería along with other types of pan dulce and is often eaten with Mexican hot chocolate or other traditional beverages.

The history of Pan de Muerto dates back to Colonial times when the pagan traditions of the Aztecs were mixed with the Catholic rites of the Spanish conquerors.

Pan de Muerto on a dark surface.

The Meaning Of Bread of The Dead

Pan de Muerto 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 Day of the Dead.

The bread might have different meanings which depend on the shape and ingredients used to make it. Various states have added their personal touch, depending on the traditional ingredients of their region.

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.

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

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.

Mexican pan de muerto displayed with various decorations.

Ingredients

I highly recommend measuring all ingredients using a kitchen scale, as doing it with cups may not be as accurate and possibly the results won’t be the same.

  • Flour: Use flour with at least 11% protein, some all-purpose flours are just too weak to make bread.
  • Sugar: Regular granulated sugar for the dough, plus more for dusting.
  • 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.
  • Milk: You can replace it with water, just make sure is lukewarm.
  • Orange: You will need the juice and zest of a large orange.
  • Orange blossom water: This ingredient is essential to make the authentic recipe, if you can’t find it, you can sub with rose water or as a last resource, with vanilla extract.
  • Salt: Just a pinch of fine salt.
Ingredients for Pan de Muerto displayed with names on a kitchen countertop.

Pan de Muerto Recipe

Make the dough:

To make Pan de Muerto at home start by preparing the pre-ferment (also known as poolish).

So, 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 pan de muerto 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!

Pan de muerto 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).

Pan de muerto 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 pan de muerto dough.

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

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 to a wire cooling rack and allow to reach room temperature before slicing.

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

Recipe 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 with sesame seeds.
  • 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.
A pan de muerto bread cut to see the soft texture inside.

How To Eat

Mexican pan de muerto can be eaten with chocolate caliente (hot cocoa), champurrado, coffee, or atole.

Is one of the most popular foods for Día de Muertos where other traditional dishes like tamales or mole are shared with the living and the dead.

How To Store

Like most soft bread, this Bread of The Dead keeps perfectly for up to a week in a container with a tight lid.

You can also wrap it tightly with cling film and freeze it for up to 3 months. To defrost it, just take it out of the freezer and let it thaw overnight on your kitchen countertop.

FAQ

Where can I place my dough to rise?

The best place is somewhere with a warm environment. I find it easier to place the bowl inside the oven with the lights on and a pot with hot water inside to create a humid and warm environment. Or you can also turn on a lamp and place the bowl under the bulb.

I can’t find orange blossom water, what can I use instead?

First, search for this ingredient also as jasmine blossom water, they are the same thing. If you can’t find it, replace it with rose water or leave out this ingredient and replace it with more orange zest.

When is Día de Muertos?

Day of the Dead, known in Spanish as Día de los Muertos, Día de Todos los Muertos, or Día de los Fieles Difuntos is officially celebrated on November 2. While November 1 is known as Día de Todos los Santos (All Saint’s Day)

Why do you put bread on an ofrenda?

Pan de Muerto is placed in an ofrenda to feed the loved ones in their travel from the world of the dead to the world of the living.

Even though, the bread of the dead has its root origin in pre-Hispanic times when human sacrifices were made in favor of the gods and eating a human heart coated in amaranth seeds was part of a traditional ritual.

More Día de Muertos Recipes

Day of the Dead is the perfect occasion to enjoy more traditional Mexican dishes. We’d like to share with you our favorites:

Let us know in the comments below if you have a favorite food for this event!

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

Pan de Muerto Tradicional Recipe

author Maricruz
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 (about 500g)
  • 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. *After resting, the dough will be more manageable, so don’t add more flour!
  • 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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We hope you enjoyed this Pan de Muerto recipe. Please don’t forget to rate it and leave us a comment below.

This pan de muertos recipe was originally published in Spanish in October 2015. This article has been edited to add more photos and useful info, but the recipe remains the same.

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Recipe Rating




5 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.