In our house, we pretty much make all our own bread at this point. As fluffy and delicious as store bread is, all the mysterious ingredients were starting to bother us, and since I love baking anyway, it was a fairly easy switch to make. In fact, in many cases, it was an improvement– homemade flatbread is way better and cheaper than in the store; homemade sourdough is tastier; homemade sweet breads are fantastic.
The one area, unfortunately, where your own bread has a hard time competing is in softness. Who knows what all those conditioners and emulsifiers in store bread are, but they are excellent at keeping bread soft and fluffy and wonderfully textured (for weeks and weeks without going stale…hence the suspicion). It is fairly difficult to get anything in your own kitchen to match the fluffiness of generic sandwich bread or hamburger rolls (although that won’t stop us from trying!)
So as a result, rolls have been one of the hardest things for me to get “perfect” when making them at home. I don’t think they have to be, but as someone who tends to be impatient and cut corners where possible, this has been an area where I’ve had to learn a few lessons about bread science in order to get the results I was looking for.
Two major factors contribute to making bread or rolls soft and chewy are enrichment and air. The first refers to ingredients you can add to the dough which tend to make it feel softer and richer when you eat it: fats, dairy, eggs. The air has to do with the leavening or rising that you give your dough, and how you allow it to develop so it’s as fluffy as possible once it gets out of the oven.
This second area is where I’ve made the most mistakes. Giving myself too little time, or just being to eager for a burger, I usually rush the final proofing/rise of the dough, and end up with fairly tough and dense rolls as a result. The best thing you can do for yourself in this area is to give the rolls a really full second rise before putting them in the oven. Also, unlike lean breads or hearth breads, which like fast, hot heat, soft breads like rolls and sandwich loaves do better with relatively lower and gentler temperatures.
I’m giving you a recipe to try out that’s really worked for me, but feel free to take the general principles and ratios and experiment. You can easily sub in more whole grain flour, or increase the fats and dairy for an even richer roll if you prefer. Let the rest of us know what you come up with, it’s fun to see what people discover.
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tsp yeast
1 tsp salt
1 tb brown sugar
1 tb melted butter (unsalted)
1 tb cider vinegar
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup bread flour
1 cup all-purpose flour (plus more if needed)
In a large bowl, stir your yeast into the warmish water while you get some of the other ingredients ready. This isn’t a necessary step, but it helps get the yeast woken up and gets them ready to be involved in the party. Add the buttermilk, sugar, salt, butter, and vinegar, and mix them together.
Add the flours 1/2 cup at a time and mix in thoroughly until you’re unable to stir the dough. Dump the dough onto a floured counter and knead like a champ until it’s smooth, elastic, but still a little sticky. Roll into a tight ball and place in a lightly oiled bowl, covered, to rise for about 45 minutes to 1 hour until doubled in size.
When the dough has risen, scoop it back out onto a lightly floured countertop. Handling it gently to preserve as much air as possible in the dough, divide it into 6 evenly sized pieces. (If you’re using this recipe for dinner rolls, you should divide the dough into something like 8-10 pieces and rise them in a deeper baking dish.)
Stretch the surfaces of the pieces into balls and pinch underneath to make the “skin” tight and smooth for the second rise. Space the balls out evenly on a lightly oiled pan, with about 2 inches space on all sides to spread and rise. Depress the balls slightly with your palm, cover with oiled plastic or a floured towel, and set aside to rise again for 30-45 minutes.
When the rolls are starting to look fairly roll-like in size and shape, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Meanwhile, uncover the rolls so the surfaces dry out slightly while you wait. Right before they go in the oven, take a very sharp or serrated knife and cut a large X in the top of the rolls. If desired, brush with melted butter or egg white, and sprinkle with seeds or another topping of your choice. In these pictures I picked oat bran to top the rolls.
Bake for 20-30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, or until the rolls are puffed and golden and toasty. Enjoy with your favorite sandwich and use the others within a couple of days.
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