Everything You Need to Know About Panettone, the Classic Italian Christmas Bread

Those boxed breads that appear in grocery stores this time of year? They're one of the winter holiday's best baked goods.

The coming of winter holidays means the re-emergence of many great seasonal foods. Case in point: the delicious and misunderstood panettone. For those unfamiliar with these puffy, paper-wrapped loaves, panettone is an Italian Christmas bread studded with candied fruit and sometimes chocolate or nuts. Its round top is dark, and its interior is unlike that of any other bread: compact but light, deeply rich from butter and eggs, but airy and perfumed.

Many professional bakers appreciate the panettone, because this yeast-risen bread is one of the hardest things to bake.

Though panettone has a long tradition, it isn't ancient. It dates back a few centuries to northern Italy, specifically Milan—a part of the country that sees snow in the winter. Today you'll find panettone in grocery stores and specialty shops throughout the U.S.

The more widely available versions are made via modern, industrial methods; but there are still plenty of artisan bakers—here and overseas—who craft panettone in small batches. As you might expect, there are differences between the large-scale and artisan versions. But before we address those, let's cover the basics.


Panettone has many signatures, beginning with its uncommon texture. Wedge-like slices are soft with a bit of spongy pushback to the bite, but not too much. Its buttery richness is so intense that it almost spills over from a flavor into a texture. Beneath its baked-brown crust with a slightly firmer veneer, you'll find different bits of filling in every bite.


That diversity of fillings is another hallmark of panettone. Most loaves have two or three scattered through their yellowish middles, appearing as flecks suspended in the cooked dough. You're likely to find chocolate pieces, nuts like pistachio or almond, candied fruit like citron or lemon rind, and maybe even darker fruit like raisins, figs, or cherries. Panettone makers tend to focus on just a few fillings, keeping flavors on the simple side.


Panettone's distinctive shape features studs of filling peeking out from its domed top, which is shaped almost like the churches where the bread was born. Whether tall or short, thick or thin, a typical panettone rises in a papered cylinder shape topped with a dome that swells above the wrapping.


Panettone is a specialty food that varies greatly in price. A small loaf from a large producer may cost just a few dollars, while artisan-baked ones can run $25 to $50, and even higher.

Why so expensive? Because panettone is difficult to craft on an industrial scale. To save money, you might think to bake this bread yourself, but think again. Panettone is one of the few foods that, like pastrami, you should probably leave to the professionals.

Large-Scale Versus Artisan-Baked

Though a standard grocery store panettone usually flaunts the bread's signatures, especially the candied-fruit perfume and buttery dough, an artisan panettone takes these elements to another level. Small-batch panettone tends to be less spongy, more swirled inside, with a gentler, airier dissolve.

Carefully monitoring dough hydration, pH, and yeast activity, artisans practice for years to master the balances, so that their hard-won domed loaves don't, for instance, collapse on themselves like doomed soufflés. To set the bread, many artisans even hang it upside down.

Diverse and Versatile

Luckily, the world of panettone is richly diverse. Each loaf is different and you can eat them in different ways: in the morning or at midnight, a few days old and toasted, or even turned to French toast or bread pudding. It's a fun world to explore, one that can make the winter holidays even better.

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