Toward a More Perfect Union: Yeast, Flour, & Potato

We make a lot of rolls around here, because they are very practical, and we use a lot of them.  If I had a perfect roll recipe, I’d use it every time, and I’d post it here with the heading, The Perfect Roll.  But there’s no such thing, if only because we need different rolls for different purposes – add to that the fact that we tire of just one kind (at least I do), and you need several variations, if not completely different recipes.

Whenever I make sandwich rolls, I always think of Nancy Silverton in her excellent book, “Breads of the La Brea Bakery” and her discussion of hamburger buns – essentially she says that when she eats a hamburger, she doesn’t want to fight the roll in the process – I wholeheartedly agree, and in fact, regardless of how many artificial and chemical additives the commercial bakeries use, I just really like the soft, nothingness of a fresh, packaged roll sometimes.  Actually, if I could just get a little softness into my hamburger bun crust, I’d be a lot happier than I am now!

So, I’ve been thinking about this recently, and trying various things – my basic roll dough, although not quite as sumptuous as Nancy’s -she uses a brioche dough- is a simple egg and butter fortified milk dough.  I still came out with a thicker, crunchy crust rather than the soft one I desired.  And then I remembered potato.  Many dinner roll recipes, especially those from the 30s and 40s, included a little potato, or just potato water to soften the exterior.  So I did a few test bakings.

My first attempts were just OK – I used 1 cup of thick potato water with 5 cups of flour – the softer crust was there, but the buns were heavier than I wanted.  But my next try used only 1/2 cup thick potato water, and the texture was much lighter, with the same good taste.

There’s a trade-off with these kinds of doughs – you’ll never get a completely soft crust as in a commercial roll, (god only knows what they do to the dough!) because no matter how low protein your flour is, it still must be kneaded to achieve the desired light, silky texture that all good rolls have – and that means that gluten will do its thing, and so your rolls will be somewhat chewy.  Actually, I like a minimal chew in my rolls, and that’s what you’ll get, even if you use the softest flours out there.  For maximum softness, paint the rolls before and after baking with butter, and lower the oven to 325F during the bake.

One final suggestion – if you want consistent sized rolls, you have to weigh your dough pieces (another reason to get a scale).  I like 4 oz rolls, Nancy suggests 4.5 oz, which probably is closer to the norm “measured” size – but 4 oz is still twice as heavy as a commercial hamburger bun, and the larger the diameter, the more stuff you’re going to load on it!  Do yourself a favor and train your senses to smaller, not bigger.  How about 3 oz?

Sourdough Potato Sandwich Rolls

1/2 cup sourdough starter @100% hydration
1 1/2 cups milk, scalded
1/4 lb. butter
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup thick potato water
2 eggs, well beaten
1 tsp salt, or to taste
1/4 tsp dry instant yeast
5 cups AP flour

*  Cut a medium potato in half, then into smaller pieces – cover with about a cup and 1/2 of water – bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer until potato is soft (Be careful the water does not cook away – a half-cup left is good) – cool and put potato and about a half-cup of cooking water in a blender – I use the skin too, that’s where all the good stuff is – blend for a minute until all is a thick smooth mixture.

*  Place milk into a medium saucepan and turn heat on high – watching closely, heat until smoke is beginning to rise from the edges of the pan – if you see bubbles forming at the pan’s edge, remove the pan from the heat (You don’t want the milk to boil.) – Pour the hot milk into your mixing bowl – add the butter and sugar, and stir until the butter has totally melted – allow the milk to cool until you can keep a finger submerged comfortably – add the beaten eggs and salt.  Let the mixture sit for another 10 minutes or so, or until the mixture is just lukewarm.

*  Add the thick potato water, the yeast, and the sourdough starter – using the paddle of the mixer (or a sturdy wooden spoon instead), mix all at lowest speed for a minute – add 1 cup of the flour, and mix well until it’s fully incorporated.  Add the rest of the flour, again only 1 cup at a time, until it’s fully incorporated – keep the mixer at low speed.

*  Once you have finished adding all the flour, shut off the mixer, cover the bowl with a towel, and let it all rest for 15 minutes, while the flour totally absorbs all of the liquids.

*  After the dough has rested, replace the paddle with the dough hook, and run the mixer on low speed for 2 or 3 minutes.  The dough will be  wet and may not pull away from the bowl – move the mixer to the next speed setting and run it for another 2 or 3 minutes – now move the mixer speed up one more notch, and run the mixer for 4 or 5 minutes – the dough should be more elastic feeling and becoming smoother.  You may think it’s too wet, but don’t add more flour yet – if it actually is too wet, we can fix it later – but its probably fine.

*  Get your largest bowl, grease or oil it, and move the dough into it.  Cover it with plastic wrap or a towel and leave it for 30 minutes – at the end of 30 minutes, remove the cover and grab the dough and lift it straight up so that it stretches – drop it back into the bowl, folding it over on itself in the process – grab it by the other end and repeat the lifting and stretching, and finish by folding it over – if it is dry and reluctant to stretch, you may encourage it to do so by grabbing it with both hands and pulling.  You don’t need to do this more that two or three times, the idea is just to let the mass of dough stretch and fold while it is proofing.

*  Repeat this stretching and folding every 30 minutes for 2 hours (Yup, that’s 4 times).  Your dough should now be quite different than it was right after mixing – it should be easier to handle and be very elastic – if it still seems too wet, you can add a bit more flour by moving the dough to a floured board, sprinkling it with a Tbs or two of flour, and kneading briefly until you think it is feeling better – but I hope you don’t have to do this – there are many more bad dry breads than there are bad wet breads!

*  Now, although you can immediately move your dough to its final proofing, I encourage you to give it an overnight rest, so it can develop lots more flavor – I simply move my dough to an oiled grocery bag and slip it into the fridge, and pull it out in the morning and let it come to room temp, about 2 hours – Your call.

*  Whatever route you choose above, you need to put the dough back in a greased or oiled bowl, place it in a warm spot, and let it slowly proof as a sourdough must – mine takes from 5-7 hours to fully proof – use the finger poke test (poke the dough, if it springs back, it’s not ready – if it stays fully indented, it’s ready).

*  When the dough is fully proofed, grease a sheet pan (or use parchment), portion your dough, and shape into balls – I do this by placing the dough ball in one palm, and with the other hand, pull the skin of the dough over the ball and tuck it in on the bottom – do this until you have a nice, smooth surface on one side – now turn the ball over and tuck and pinch all the excess pulled dough together – this is much easier to do with a wet dough than with a dry one – place the balls, pinched side down, on your pan – space them about an inch apart.  I like them to just barely touch after they’re baked.  Squish them down a little with your fingers – you want them a little bit flat, not like balls – cover them with plastic or a wet towel.

*  An hour before bake time, turn your oven on to 400F (this temp will give you a crispier crust – if you wish a softer exterior, begin at 350F, and lower to 325F when rolls go in) – move your covered pan of rolls (I get them all on one tray) back to your warm spot for their final rise.  Wait the full hour (your oven should certainly be at 400F by then!), and get your rolls ready for the bake – if you are going to cover them with sesame or poppy seeds, you should paint them with well beaten egg, warm milk, or butter – actually butter will assist in keeping the tops as soft as possible too, as well as providing something for the seeds to stick to.  But egg or milk makes the best shine.

*  Slip the rolls into the middle of the oven, lower the temp to 350F (325F for softer crust), and set the timer for 10 minutes – at 10 minutes, pull the rolls, turn the pan  around, and replace it into the oven – set the timer for an additional 10 minutes.  At the end of the time, if they are nice and brown on top, take one and look at the bottom – it should also be well browned – if you think it necessary, you may give them another 5 minutes.

*  When you are satisfied, remove them to a cooling rack – brushing on melted butter will give even more softness to the top – give them at least 15 minutes before using them.


As I said above, this is not a perfect roll, but it’s a damn good one – if you’re not a sourdough baker, just leave the sourdough out, but make sure you use the “long” version, or you’ll have to increase the amount of yeast here.  I’d advise against that because one thing that makes this a better roll is that you don’t have an overbearing “yeasty” taste, as most 2 hour yeast rolls do!

Also let me comment on the flour used – I suspect, although I don’t know, that we can soften this roll even more if we use a softer flour (one with lower protein, like pastry, biscuit, or cake flour, maybe mixed with AP).  But I haven’t tried this yet, so I’m not going to add it until I do.  BTW, Nancy Silverton uses bread flour in her brioche recipe – ???  So, there must be more to this than I’m seeing right now.

Hope you get a chance to try this if you too do lots of rolls – yes, it’s not a quickee, but if you fool with sourdough, you’re used to waiting them out.  My old mother used to say, “God rewards those who wait.”  And all I can say in response is, “If that’s true, why then did He not make our lives a little longer?”

If she’ll suffer me just one more inclusion in her fine weekly collective, YeastSpotting, I’d love to send this one along to Susan at Wild Yeast – I just wish she’d tell us what she’s going to do with all that new found baking education!

About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
This entry was posted in Baking, Food and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Toward a More Perfect Union: Yeast, Flour, & Potato

  1. Mimi says:

    Great looking rolls!

    I don’t make rolls very often, but I was sure glad you told us to weigh them out in a previous post. It really helped me the last time I had to make smaller breads, great tip!!

  2. Tupper Cooks says:

    Hey Doc- Your rolls look great- and I bet they’d make great (big) burger rolls. I love rolls.

    As far as the great ciabatta experiment went, I was happy with the result, but didn’t get any pics of the crumb (guess I’m crumb dumb-Ha!). Next time I’ll be sure to.

    My patience is growing, as is my breaducation. The only problem, (which isn’t a problem) is that with the warm weather coming, I’ll bake a whole lot less, spending as much time outside and at camp as possible. So summer will see a slight pause in the action.

    I’ve got a kid getting married in June and I’m going to make baguettes to be one of the apps at the reception-figured I’d slice ’em up and put out some olive oil for folks to dip in. So tonight I’m going to start playing with baguettes- we’ll see how that goes.


  3. drfugawe says:

    Well, I guess congrats are in order – although, as the father of the bride, you may not feel the same! I too am the father of two girls, and I’ve managed to convince both of them on the joys of elopement.

  4. Pingback: YeastSpotting April 23, 2010 | Wild Yeast

  5. MC says:

    These rolls look tremendously appealing. Thanks for this great recipe!

  6. drfugawe says:

    Thanks for stopping by – Happy baking to y’all!

  7. Kathleen says:

    Thanks for this recipe..The latest Cookwise has a great recipe for that super soft and eggy hamburer bun..its great, but I really want a recipe that includes retarding so that I can acheve the easily digestible component I love in naturally levened breads.. I will defiantley try this recipe, thanks for posting it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s