Toward a More Perfect Sandwich Roll

One of my more ‘constructive’ jobs during my adolescence was as a short-order cook at a very popular local hamburger restaurant – although the restaurant didn’t open until 9am, I arrived at 6 to get started on the day’s prep work, which in a restaurant is significant.  One of my responsibilities was to accept the delivery of the bread truck, and to move the various baked goods to their proper place.  A life long memory from that experience was of the ‘freshness’ of the hamburger and hot dog rolls – I marveled at their soft, pillowy lightness, while at the same time having a delightful chewy exterior that literally fought you for possession of every bite.  And I swear those rolls still held the warmth of the ovens, from which they had so recently emerged.

Alas, those rolls are just a memory now – I’m not even sure that the commercial bakeries of today are willing to try to get their product to market in such a timely manner – at least, I’ve not experienced such a phenomenon – as a tradeoff, I’m convinced that we’ve developed a culture of diminished expectations, and in the case of the freshness of baked goods, our current society is quite willing to accept ‘stale’ bakery goods as the norm!

Add to that thought the fact that commercial bakeries utilize machinery, ovens, chemicals and processes that we -as home bakers- can not, or at least, have chosen not to use – and I may never again experience the hamburger roll of my memory – for sure, I’ll not be able to duplicate that roll -notwithstanding my efforts- in my own kitchen.  But that is not to say that the sandwich roll of my memory cannot be improved.

Such improvement has to begin with a recognition that the memory of my adolescent experiences fails on at least two critical counts – #1 being the psychological reality that over time, the memory has a habit of embellishing reality.  This is why men ALWAYS remember the excellence of their mothers’ cooking (well, most men anyway) – regardless; and #2, that the adolescent sense of taste has never been one of sophistication.  So, better we simply occupy ourselves with a real-time effort to make a superior sandwich roll.  Agreed?

Let’s begin instead by looking at what’s wrong with the average commercial sandwich roll.  It’s my opinion that in general they lack taste, richness, and in most cases -as stated above- they are not fresh.  This last element is frankly the only one which even begins to make up for the commercial roll’s other failings, but as noted above, only a small contingent of the public cares enough to insist on even that!  But lucky for we bakers, these are exactly the criteria on which we can improve in our kitchens.

And while most would agree that softness is an important element of the interior of a sandwich roll, the commercial variety generally fail because their softness tends to turn to ‘fragileness’ the wetter the burger gets – and good burgers are inherently wet!  They simply lack substance and break down.  This trait seems to get worse the less fresh the roll is – therefore, the general public has become accustomed to dealing with a disintegrating roll the juicier their burger is.  I can only guess that this characteristic of the commercial burger roll is a chemical thing – god knows there is a price to pay for using so many of those chemicals – but again, this is something that we home bakers can improve on.

There’s a wonderful discussion of the hamburger roll in Nancy Silverton‘s epic, ‘Breads from the La Brea Bakery’, where she admits to her love for the ‘junk food hamburgers’ of her youth.  I get the sense that in that narrative is the recognition that a good deal of that recalled excellence is mental enhancement – but still our real time taste buds must be sated – so what does Silverton suggest to fill that need?  Interestingly, a brioche style roll.

I’ve now made this roll three times using her formula, and it makes a magnificent roll.  Silverton’s La Brea book is 100% sourdough based, and I wanted my roll to be yeast based, so I made a few adaptions – that is not so difficult to do, ingredient wise – there were a few changes process wise, but all rather flexible.  I’ve retained the overnight sponge here, even though this is now a yeast dough (hey, it’s a special roll!) because doing so develops a depth of flavor, and even with yeast, it goes all out in its efforts.  I’ve also added a few dough enhancement ingredients which will work with the yeast during our production (ascorbic acid; ginger; and cardamom), but only tiny amounts – however, the two spices do combine to create an almost undetectable delightful ‘under-taste’ that I loved.  So, let’s do it, shall we?

Nancy Silverton’s Brioche Sandwich Roll
(adapted from, Breads from the La Brea Bakery)

Sponge Day One-

  • 9 oz cool water
  • 2 tsp instant yeast
  • 1 pinch of powdered ascorbic acid (or crushed vitamin C tab)
  • 1/4 tsp of powdered ginger
  • 1/4 tsp of powdered cardamom
  • 6 oz buttermilk
  • 13 oz bread flour

Mix all well and put into a closed or well covered oiled container (I use old well oiled grocery bags – turned inside-out) and refrigerate overnight or for 8-12 hours.  It should be very active when you take it out of the fridge!

Final Dough Day Two-

  • 5 lg eggs @ room temp
  • all sponge from fridge
  • 16 oz bread flour
  • 3 oz sugar
  • 1 Tbs kosher salt
  • 9 oz butter @ room temp (very soft is better) in 1 Tbs pieces


  • Beat eggs in separate bowl until just broken up – set aside
  • Mix the refrigerated sponge, the flour and 1/2 of the eggs on a stand mixer with the dough hook on a medium speed for 2 minutes – the dough will be wet and sticky
  • Turn mixer to low speed and add salt and sugar – continue mixing for another 2 minutes while scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula
  • While still on low, pour a little more of the eggs into the mixer bowl, making sure they are well incorporated into the dough before adding a little more egg into the bowl – do this in 3 or 4 increments, always mixing the eggs in well between each addition – when all eggs are well incorporated into the dough, turn the mixer to its highest speed and continue mixing until the dough is smooth and satiny (about 8 minutes).  Silverton suggests that you hold your mixer at this point, since it will be moving around a bit (Yes!).  She also suggests that the dough will begin to pull away from the sides of the bowl at this point – mine did not!  Continue mixing for the full 8 minutes anyway.
  • Turn the mixer down to medium speed and add the butter one piece at a time, making sure each piece is almost completely incorporated until adding the next piece (ideally, the butter needs to be very soft, but still holding its shape – if it’s too cold, it’ll take forever to incorporate here).  When all the butter has been added, and you no longer see any more in your dough, turn the mixer back up to high and let the dough mix until it is very shiny and satiny – if it is not pulling away from the sides of your mixer bowl, add just a few Tbs of flour to help it do so, but resist adding more than a few Tbs in this effort.  Continue mixing on high for another for 3 or 4 minutes.  Now take the temperature of the dough – if it has reached 76 degrees F, move the dough to a board for a few minutes of hand kneading – if it has not reached 76 F, continue mixing on high until it does.
  • Once the dough is finished mixing, move it to a board for a short hand kneading – a characteristic of an enriched dough is that it becomes quite easy to handle – and you may well find that the dough is no longer sticky, and that you do not even have to lightly dust the board.  If this is not the case, and it is still a bit sticky, try using a little oil on your board instead of flour (the less flour you have to add at this point, the better your rolls will be!).  In any case, only knead the dough for 1 or 2 minutes, and move it to a large oiled bowl – cover and allow the dough to sit at room temp until it has tripled in volume – it shouldn’t take too long!
  • Move the dough to a board for shaping and forming – again, do not dust the board if you can handle the dough without doing so.  I always weigh each piece of dough – I think 3 oz pieces make a nice size roll, but a large burger roll is about 4 oz – the choice is yours, but consistency is nice.  Take each piece of dough in the palm of one hand, and begin to turn the smoother outside of the dough over onto and under the stickier sides of your piece – keep turning and tucking the dough, stretching and tightening the top of the piece until it is nice and round and tight – now turn it over and pinch any places where the piece is not smooth.  This is where you’ll appreciate a wetter dough; if your dough is too dry, the seams will come apart during the final proof.
  • Move each shaped roll to a parchment covered or well oiled sheet pan – leave about an inch and a half between each roll – they will rise well, and it’s OK if they touch while baking, but you don’t want them to crowd each other either.  Push down on each to flatten them a bit.  Now cover them with a towel and let them proof for about 45 minutes to an hour.
  • Turn on the oven to 500 degrees F – use convection of you have it, but if so, back the temp down 25 degrees.  You’ll need two shelves for this, ideally one at 1/3rd from bottom, and the other at 1/3rd from the top.
  • Once your oven reaches 500F, get the rolls ready – uncover and paint each one with either an egg wash (1 egg well whisked with a little water), or a milk wash – the egg will make a more intense lacquer finish, but the milk is nice too.  Silverton suggests just painting them with water, and my poppy seed rolls use just water, but I think the egg or milk is much nicer.  Of course, once your rolls are wet, you may sprinkle on whatever you wish to fancy them up.
  • Now, reduce the oven temperature to 400F (375, convection).  Using a sprayer, open the oven door and quickly mist the inside well – close the oven door.  Now get your sheet pans with rolls close enough to the oven so that you can quickly open the oven door and slip each pan into it – close the door again.  Wait 1 minute and quickly open the oven door and give it a good misting – do this twice more during the first five minutes of baking.
  • Now, do not open the oven door again for the next 10 minutes – at 10 minutes, open the door and rotate the pans, and turning each from front to back.  Close the oven door and continue to bake for an additional 10 minutes until rolls are golden brown.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool on racks for at least 15 minutes.

What I did wrong today:
Since every baking session should be a learning experience, I thought I’d begin adding a piece on the end of each recipe discussing the mistakes of that session – I think this will be more helpful to those who choose to also try this recipe than to simply ignore it, as I suspect most blogging bakers would do.

  • This dough actually underwent two overnight fermentations – once as the sponge, and once again as the final dough (as Silverton’s sourdough version called for) – it is testament to the true ability of chilled yeast dough, and the added enhancers, that the dough was able to endure those fermentations and still proof up and bake into quite nice rolls.  I cut back to only one refrigerated fermentation in the recipe above for a more aggressive proof , but if you too want play with some additional flavor development, have at it!
  • My butter was at room temp when I added it to the dough, but here in Oregon, room temp -even in summer- is more like 70 degrees, or even less – that is not ideal for this process!  It took forever for my butter to be incorporated into the dough, and then only because I think the constant mixing was increasing the dough’s temperature and speeding the softening of the butter itself.  Butter begins to lose its shape at about 82 degrees, which is also not ideal for this process.  I’d suggest a perfect temp to be about 75-78 degrees.

A single razor thin slice of Serrano ham makes an extraordinary eating experience

These are special rolls, not particularly easy rolls!  On the other hand, they may just ruin it for you as you compare them to less worthy imitations.  The crumb is silky soft but able to absorb any amount of juice while still remaining stable – and the crust is thin but tenderly crisp and chewy too – but it’s the rich taste which sets it apart from all other rolls and buns.  In a smaller guise, they’d make superior dinner rolls, or even as the base of a sticky bun or other type of sweet roll.  Silverton suggests adding a pound of golden raisins to this dough and baking it off in loaf pans (2) or as a boule.  But, as a practical matter, I’ll take the rolls any day.



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.
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13 Responses to Toward a More Perfect Sandwich Roll

  1. Shel says:

    I love the smell of fresh bread, its so inviting.
    I’m still learning how to make my own bread properly though.

  2. mydearbakes says:

    Loved your recipe, its very detailed! =)

  3. Glenda says:

    Lovely buns Doc, you sure as hell can bake bread!!

  4. Sandee says:

    They are fantastic!! Even if bakeries were around our part of the world, these would be superior! I do love being the guinea pig to your trials – even the mistakes are amazing! I love the rich dough used in these rolls. Yumm!

    • drfugawe says:

      Maybe it’s better that we’re not thrust into competition with all kinds of grand and wonderful bakeries! You do know that I only do this to please your sensitivities – right, sweet one?

  5. “…a culture of diminished expectations”
    Yes indeed. Food wise that could be used to describe so many things Doc. Incredibly disappointing I think. Bread can be such a wonderful thing to eat, I really don’t know how so much truly horrible bread can be passed off as meal worthy. (Clearly not yours!)

    • drfugawe says:

      I would hope that your culture is not suffering quite the severe ‘dumbing down’ that ours is currently, but I’m convinced that there are very real and strategic efforts under way in the US to shift our population from a middle class standard of living to something far less modest – sadly, what we choose to eat is only one tiny part of that, but for those of us who love food, still a significant part. Yes, the reason why I began baking at my retirement was because I knew one day not too far into the future, real bread would only be a memory. Sad!

      Sorry, Brydie, but sometimes we forget just why we blog. Thanks for your insight.

      • Doc, I whole heartedly agree unfortunately. Our culture is very similar and the constant “dumbing down” in this country is truly questionable. Why do people do it? Why not educate and rule the world that way? Our food, our conversations, our schooling, our healthcare, our entertainment, all watered down for the general masses until you get a generic blandness that makes me want to jump up and down with frustration. Why are so many people content with this and why should I care when so many people don’t? But I do! And I don’t want things to be so!

        …*and exhale* Apologies. I hadn’t realised there was a frustrated rant inside just skulking about waiting to surface.

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