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?
Here are all the ingredients I used to make my pan de muerto, prepped and ready to go.
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.
Photos: Emilly and Karen