Share

How to Make Pan de Muerto—My Day of the Dead Sweet Ofrenda

Dia del Muerto Day of the Dead 1

Pan de muerto is a confection prepared for Día de Los Muertos in Mexico and Mexican households around the world. This traditional bread is baked and presented as an ofrenda for our loved ones who have departed this world. The sweet bread is also enjoyed by the living as they honor and celebrate their dead every November 1 and November 2, usually accompanied by a hot champurrado or chocolate caliente to keep warm through the night.

The history of pan de muerto reflects the fusion of Aztec ritual and colonial Catholicism. The bread is linked to the prehispanic era, when Aztec traditions included human sacrifice. As part of the ceremony, the heart of a woman (!) was placed in a dish filled with amaranto or amaranth. Once her corazón was coated in its seeds, the Aztec leader would bite into the heart to signal gratitude to the gods. Other Aztec rituals included making special bread and other food to honor both their deities and dead.

The arriving Spaniards rejected these traditions and sought to replace them with Catholic equivalents. They introduced making bread with flour to use in their sacraments and even baked a special pan sprinkled with red sugar to represent the blood sacrifice in the ancient Aztec ritual.

Early Versions of Pan de Muerto 

One of the earliest versions of pan de muerto is called papalotlaxcalli. This tortilla-like bread shaped like a butterfly was made for offerings celebrating the departed. Another early version of this traditional bread was made to honor the Aztec sun and war god Huitzilopochtli. Called tzoalli, this treat was made with honey and amaranth, again in the form of a heart.

Today, Día de Los Muertos tradition calls for Mexicans to prepare shrines for loved ones and fill them with ofrendas to those we have lost. Favorite food and drink like tamales, tequila and pan de muerto are placed on the altar and taken to gravesites where the departed lie. Lore has it that the aroma of the orange blossom water used to make the pan helps guide the spirits of the deceased home. This is how we nourish and honor our dead. 

The Variations of Pan de Muerto 

Pan de muerto has taken on different forms depending on the household, region and local tradition. It is said that more than 800 varieties of pan de muerto can be found across Mexico! Different recipes call for a range of ingredients and shapes for the bread, with much ritual and symbolism. For example, the color of the sugar: if it is white, it is meant for a lost child, and if it’s red or pink it represents a lost adult life.

Here are some of the commonly recognized versions of pan de muerto:

Traditional Pan de Muerto with Skull and Bones

The most traditional and widely sold pan de muerto is round—the shape symbolizes the cycle of life and death. This pan has strands draping over the top that symbolize the bones of the deceased. A ball at its center symbolizes the skull. According to lore, the crossed bones or huesos are tears meant to represent either: the lágrimas cried for those lost or the four cardinal points where the four Aztec gods—Xipe Tótec, Tlaloc, Tezcatlipoca, and Quetzalcóatl—are positioned. 

In cities like Mexico City and Oaxaca, this traditional version of pan de muerto is offered relleno or stuffed with an array of treats, including: cajeta, nutella, chocolate, jam, ice cream, fruits, and muchos más sweet options!

Oaxaca’s Pan De Zaachila or Pan de Yema—With Flowers

Found in the state of Oaxaca, another type of pan de muerto is colorful and intricately decorated with beautiful flower designs that look like traditional patterns of embroidery, local to the region. On one end of the bread you might see a small alfeñique, a confection made from sugar cane molded to resemble a face or skull.

Pan de Muerto Shaped Like Animals and People

Some regions in Mexico offer pan de muerto molded into animals: sheep, horses, cats and more! There are also many variations of a bread shaped like a dead or sleeping person that can be found in some parts of Morelos, Chiapas, Guanajuato, Puebla and Oaxaca. Depending on where you are, you may find the pan sprinkled with sugar, sesame seeds or a white frosting sprinkled with red sugar to represent ghosts or spirits.

Also baked for Día de Los Muertos ofrendas: cookies in the shape of a person, and golletes—ring-like sweets coated in pink sugar meant to represent a skull.You’ll fund these in Puebla, the state of Mexico, and Oaxaca.

This year, I set out for the first time to make pan de muerto for Día de Los Muertos and hunted down a traditional recipe. Most of the ones I’ve seen call for large batches. Of course there has to be enough to go around for all the mournful living and lost loved ones! I narrowed the recipe ingredients down to produce just three breads to make it more manageable.

Ready to try your hand at this traditional confection? Our ancestors and loved ones who are eternally sleeping get hungry, too. Make them some pan de muerto!

Ready to Bake Pan de Muerto With Me?

How to Make Pan de Muerto, a Day of the Dead Traditional Ofrenda

5 from 1 vote
Recipe by Emilly Olivares Cuisine: Mexican
Servings

3

servings
Prep time

3

hours 
Cooking time

35

minutes

Ingredients

  • To Make the Bread
  • 4 cups 4 flour

  • 1 1/2 packets 1 1/2 yeast (each packet is 3/4 oz.)

  • 3/4 cup 3/4 sugar

  • 3/4 tsp 3/4 salt

  • 3 3 eggs

  • 10 Tbsp 10 butter, room temperature

  • 1/2 cup 1/2 milk, warmed

  • 1 1/2 1 1/2 orange peel, zested

  • 3 to 4 tsp 3 to 4 orange blossom water OR vanilla extract

  • To Garnish the Bread
  • 3 to 4 Tbsp 3 to 4 vegetable oil

  • 2 to 3 Tbsp 2 to 3 butter, melted

  • 1 cup 1 flour

  • 1/2 cup 1/2 red, pink or regular white sugar—or all three!

  • 1 1 egg

  • 2 Tbsp 2 sesame seeds

Directions

  • Make the Bread
  • In a large bowl, place the the yeast, 2 to 3 Tbsp of flour, 1 Tbsp of sugar, and the warm milk. Whisk together and cover with a towel or cling wrap. Let the covered bowl sit in a warm area of your kitchen for 10 to 15 minutes or until it thickens and rises.
  • Pour the remaining flour on your clean work surface. Use a small bowl or your hand to create a dip in the center resembling a volcano opening.
  • Pour the rest of the sugar and salt on the outer edges of the flour.
  • Begin to fold the sugar and salt into the flour mixture with your fingers.
  • In the center, place the eggs and yeast mixture (when ready). Slowly work them into the flour.
  • After about 15 minutes of working the dough, it will become sticky. Add the room temperature butter and work it into the dough.
  • Add the orange zest and knead it in.
  • Continue to work the dough for another 30 minutes or so, until it no longer sticks to the surface or your hands. If it still feels too sticky, sprinkle a bit of flour on your surface and continue to knead the dough. (Yes, I know: I wanted to go old-school with my pan de muerto so I kneaded the bread by hand. Alternatively, you can use the dough hook in your food processor and get the job done in about 5 to 10 minutes. Up to you!)
    Work the dough into an oval-shaped ball—here is mine!
  • When the dough no longer sticks to your hands, rub vegetable oil on the inside of a clean bowl. Place your dough inside the bowl and coat it lightly with vegetable oil. These steps prevent the dough from sticking or crusting. Place the bowl in a warm place in your kitchen. Let it sit for about an hour or until the dough doubles in size.
  • Once the dough has risen, take it out and flatten it to release any air inside. Roll into a long thick baguette-like shape. Cut it into four even parts. Three will be to make the breads and one section is for 6 “bones” and 3 “skulls.”
  • Garnish the Bread: Let’s Make Skulls and Bones
  • Time to make huesitos! Using one of your divided parts of dough, cut it into 9 pieces. Turn three of them into little balls and the others into long strands or bones by working the dough using three fingers to create little dents, like Karen is doing, below. Sprinkle a little flour on these pieces to firm them up and give them a crispier consistency.
  • Once your bones and skulls are prepped, start working three of the dough pieces into rounded mounds and place them on your baking sheet when ready. Flatten them slightly with your hand.
  • Rub water over the dough mounds where you plan to stick your huesitos and skulls. Make a cross-like shape using two strands of huesitos and place the little ball at the intersection point. Like this, below.
  • Once ready, let the prepared dough sit for about an hour or until each mound doubles in size. While waiting, preheat the oven to 340°.
  • If you are making pan de muerto with sesame seeds, brush a beaten egg on the surface and sprinkle the seeds on the top.
  • Ready, Set, Bake!
  • The dough is ready to put in the preheated oven. Bake at 340° for 20 to 35 minutes or until golden brown.
  • Let the bread cool. Rub melted butter over each bread’s surface and sprinkle with the sugar color of your choice. Your bread is ready for Día de Los Muertos ofrenda making. Your loved dead ones are sure to appreciate your effort—and their aroma.

Notes

  • Set aside enough time when making pan to muerto to account for the half hour or so to knead the dough and the full hour to let the dough rise before putting the panes in the oven to bake for 25 to 30 minutes.

Here are all the ingredients I used to make my pan de muerto, prepped and ready to go.

Work in all of your ingredients, little by little, until the right consistency of dough is achieved: not sticky, but not too hard and inflexible.
Dia del Muerto Day of the Dead 1
When the dough is ready, flatten it out to let it breathe and shape it into a baguette-like form. Section off four same-size pieces. Three will be turned into breads, and one will be used to make the huesitos and calavera—the bones and skull.

Here I am forming the shape of my bread, twisting softly and using extra flour as needed.

Karen helps me shape the bones. It helps to start with a dent in the center and then work it up and down between your fingers to create the distinct bone shapes.

Assemble the bread and let it sit until the dough rises, while you preheat the oven.

Looking nice and golden! Brush each bread with melted butter before sprinkling them with sugar so it sticks.

Dia del Muerto Day of the Dead 1
Here are the three Día de Los Muertos breads I made: decorated with red sugar, white sugar, and sesame seeds
My pan de muerto treats are ready to serve as ancestral ofrendas at our Día de Los Muertos altar.
Day of the Dead
Here I am enjoying mi pan de muerto with a hot cup of champurrado!

Photos: Emilly and Karen

Got a question or suggestion?

Please rate this recipe and leave any tips, substitutions, or questions you have!

Share Your Thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *