I would be remiss during the Thanksgiving season if I didn’t talk about rolls, which are my “thing”, and the first bread I baked often. To me, a Thanksgiving dinner isn’t complete without fresh, hot yeast rolls.
When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, I was initially very excited to see that there were little bakeries all over, especially in the Sierra, where I lived, though they generally sold a pretty limited number of breads. Then I tasted the bread. I don’t know what they did to it, but while it looked okay, it was nearly always light and tasteless.
That’s why I started baking my own bread. Although I had occasionally made homemade bread in high school, this was the first time I was really flying solo. One of my friends had an old Better Homes and Gardens cookbook that focused exclusively on breads, which she loaned me.
Her house was a sort of gathering spot for the volunteers in the area, and my first batch of rolls was immediately devoured, and praised. So I made rolls a lot at her house, and when Thanksgiving came and we were getting together a Thanksgiving meal, I was in charge of the rolls. Not the pie, luckily.
Anyway, that dinner roll recipe is still my go-to roll recipe. If you don’t have a mixer, don’t despair. You can use a wooden spoon for the mixer parts just fine.
Tips and Tricks for the Best Dinner Rolls:
- Use bread flour to get the best rise. It really does make a difference.
- If you have put them in an aluminum pan, the bottoms will brown more slowly than the tops, and you could end up with rolls that look great but aren’t quite done in the middle and are too soft on the bottom. When the tops get browned, cover them with foil and continue baking until the bottoms are also golden brown. The foil keeps the tops from getting too brown.
- To be really sure, use a probe thermometer (the kind usually used for meat) to test the temperature of the rolls. When they’re done they’ll be at least 190 degrees F in the center. But I did it for years without a thermometer.
- For a nice presentation, brush the tops with an egg wash (1 egg white beaten with 1 tbsp. water) before baking OR rub a stick of butter over the tops of the rolls as soon as they come out of the oven. Each method has a slightly different look (egg wash is shinier and browner, but not as soft), but both are nice.
- Making ahead: I make rolls ahead for Sunday dinner by mixing, kneading, letting the rolls go through the first rise, and shaping them the night before. I spray the tops of the rolls with cooking spray and cover them with plastic wrap. Then I put them in the fridge immediately. The next morning, as we are leaving for church, I take them out of the fridge and put them on the table at room temperature. When we come home (so the rolls have been at room temp 2 – 3 hours), I preheat the oven and bake as normal. While the rolls bake I get the rest of the meal ready.
- 20 minutes in a warm oven will do it, though, if you are in a hurry.
- Appropriate rise time after being taken out of the fridge depends on the temperature of the fridge and the room, which will vary for everyone, as well as by season. It took a little experimenting for me to find what works for me. I tried putting them under a desk lamp for the 2 hours, and that little bit of heat was too much. They overproofed (rose too much) and fell when I put them in the oven.
- To avoid burned bottoms: Make sure there is enough room for air to circulate in the oven. Two unfortunate experiences cooking rolls for large groups of people taught me that if I put two half-sheet pans full of rolls in my oven, they’ll burn on the bottoms and be underdone (WAY underdone) on the tops, because all of the hot air got trapped underneath the pans and didn’t make it up to the top of the oven. If I have that many to bake, I do it in differently sized/shaped pans (e.g. 1 half-sheet and one smaller cookie sheet, or 2 cake pans and a cookie sheet). Also, don’t sit on the stove.