What Is Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead)? And the History Behind it

Learn the meaning of pan de muerto (bread of the dead), then use our recipe to make this tradition come to life for your family.

Did you know that in Mexico, there's a special bread for Day of the Dead, the November 1-2 holiday that celebrates the lives of our ancestors? Pan de muerto (Bread of the Dead) has been a tradition since shortly after the Spanish initially brought wheat to the new land known today as Mexico. What's the whole history of pan de muerto? When the Spanish arrived 500 years ago, they were horrified by the native tradition of human sacrifice to give thanks for a good harvest, and insisted that this new bread—a wheat bread with the top dyed red to represent the heart or blood—be made to represent that gruesome offering instead. Today, pan de muerto comes in many regional forms and is baked and eaten all over Mexico with no thought whatsoever of that dark history.

homemade pan de muerto traditionally made for Dia de Los Muertos
shustrilka/Getty Images

Forty years ago, when I was first living in Mexico, a new friend offered me my first slice of pan de muerto. Back then, I didn't know its original story, or the importance this bread continues to hold during the Day of the Dead—an overnight, two-day religious, spiritual, and secular celebration that the living offer in gratitude for the lives of relatives who have died. It's important to remember that the Day of the Dead isn't Mexico's Halloween. Halloween, which originated in Ireland and is still greatly celebrated, is a very different event—more costume party with revelry than a religious and spiritual celebration.

Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead)
Mike Dieter

This recipe for pan de muerto is very close to the traditional Mexican recipe. Pan de muerto is simple to make and is a wonderful addition to your table in mid-October through November, for breakfast or for dessert. The bread's flavors of orange and anise, its light, fluffy texture, and the symbolism of the crossed bones atop the individual loaves ensure that pan de muerto is a perfect reminder that life is sweet and meant to be shared, and death is not to be feared.

Don't let this yeast-based bread spook you. The dough is quite easy to put together and calls for very basic ingredients. (Be sure you have a kitchen thermometer before you start to ensure accurate temperatures that aren't too hot to kill the yeast.) The kneading can be a family activity and the rise and chill times will give you a while to rest in between active preparations. Making the "bones" that top the bread is a chance to create a style unique to your family. The pink or red sugar on top is meant to be symbolic of blood from the originating custom.

In our modern world, pan de muerto is included on an in-home ofrenda (a kind of memorial altar) that represents ancestors' favorite foods, drinks, and activities. The usual items on the altar include photos of the deceased, miniature plates of the deceased person's favorite foods, and even pan de muerto is occasionally miniaturized in clay! More frequently, the actual food and the bread itself are placed on the altar as a symbol of family memories, nostalgia for the loved one's presence, and a delicious treat to share while talking about those who have passed.

In Mexico, almost all pan de muerto is made in commercial or artisan bakeries; home ovens aren't as common here are they are in other countries. If you have an oven in your home kitchen, you can easily make this bread that's backed up by a 500-year-old tradition. Make your own pan de muerto, your own altar, and your own family traditions—these memories are what help to keep your beloved ancestors alive.

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