Week Sixteen: Sandwich Rolls
Ah, the hamburger. As American as the proverbial “Mom”, and probably twice as American as apple pie. Leaving any moral, ethical, environmental, or nutritional arguments out of it, the hamburger is undeniably popular in these United States, and Americans just keep eating more of them every year (even these days, seriously!). And when it’s made well, there’s no denying why: the crisp, seared crust on the meat, the juciness encased within, the medley of your chosen toppings blending with the rich beef flavor, all made so easy to eat by simply putting it on a bun.
Why must it always be a bun? Well, if you’ve ever tried eating a juicy hamburger on two slices of sandwich bread, you’ll know the answer. You need the whole crust of a bun to contain those juices. The airiness of a slice of bread is simply no match for them; you’ll end up with meat-liquid running down your chin and dripping off your elbows, and your poor bread will be reduced to mush. (This same juice issue is why Alton Brown insists mayonnaise always be put on a burger bun, even if you don’t like it. The fat provides a moisture barrier, keeping the jus in the meat where it belongs, not in the bun. However, you can also use butter for this, which is over-the-top good if you use a flavored butter.)
Please bear in mind that I’m talking only about quality hamburgers here. I’m not referring to any of that flash-frozen, mass-produced, cardboard-flavor trash they sell at McWherever. (Not including In-N-Out Burgers; they are a different story.) I’m talking real beef, preferably ground up yourself if you have a food processor (pre-ground meat is nearly always dodgy), seared to perfection, crowned with quality toppings (bacon-onion compote with blue cheese aioli, anyone?), and the best bun you can get your hands on. Yes, a properly-crafted hamburger is a thing of beauty, and there’s no two ways about it.
That’s where I come in. You think you’ll be able to find a decent hamburger bun wrapped in cellophane on your grocer’s shelf? You think you’re going to grind up your own meat and everything, and then ruin it all by ingloriously squishing it between two flavorless bits of an anemic roll? Not on my watch, you’re not! A proper hamburger deserves a proper bun, one with complex and slightly sweet flavors; one with a pillow-soft crumb and a slight crispiness on the bottom crust; one that any burger (ham, turkey, veggie, or otherwise) would be happy - nay, proud - to nestle into.
This recipe uses a sponge, which brings all sorts of wonderful complex flavors to the party. By letting the yeast ferment for an hour or two with plenty of food (from sugar, honey, and milk), an every-so-slightly sour flavor develops. This is not a sourdough bun, but the wonderful flavor compounds given off by the yeast in this time just make the finished buns so much more delicious. Yes, I know, it takes a little more time than simply running down to the store. But if you can find a better bun in any store but the finest bakeries, I will eat my hat. I don’t even have a hat.* I will go out, buy a hat, then actually consume it. They’re that good.
I’m calling these “Burger Buns” as opposed to “Hamburger Buns” because I don’t like to discriminate amongst burgers. I love a good salmon burger as much as I love a good black bean burger as much as I love a good beef burger. They all need a good bun. Can’t we all just get along?
Adapted from Bo Friberg
2 1/4 teaspoons active-dry yeast (1 packet)
2 cups warm milk (105º to 115º F)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 ounce honey (about 4 1/2 teaspoons)
13 ounces all-purpose flour (a scant 3 cups)
10 ounces bread flour (about 2 1/4 cups), divided
1 tablespoon salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
Sesame seeds, for topping
1. Make sponge: in the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the milk, sugar, and honey, until dissolved. Sprinkle the yeast over, stir to combine, and let stand until foamy, about 2 to 3 minutes.
2. Add the all-purpose flour. Using the dough hook, mix at low speed until a smooth, thick batter forms, about 2 to 3 minutes. Some lumps are okay. Cover and let stand in a warm place for 1 to 2 hours, or until has risen completely and starts to look fallen in the center.
3. To make the dough: reserve a handful or two of the bread flour. Add the remainder and the salt to the sponge. Knead for 1 or 2 minutes with the dough hook, or until combined. Add the oil gradually and continue kneading for 8 to 10 minutes, adding the reserved flour as needed to make a medium-stiff dough that is smooth and elastic. You may need to add a bit of flour to help the oil absorb into the dough.
4. Transfer to a lightly-oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
5. Punch the dough down, cover, and let rise a second time until doubled in size again, about 45 minutes.
6. Turn the dough out onto a work surface (you may or may not need to flour it), trying to punch it down as little as possible. Divide the dough into two equal pieces, and form the pieces into even ropes.
7. Cut each rope in half, then cut each half into thirds. Form the pieces into round rolls on an unfloured surface, trying to have only one seam or wrinkle in the skin of the dough. Place the dough seam-side down on a baking sheet lined with baking paper, about 2 to 3 inches apart. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, and set in a warm place to rest for 10 minutes.
8. Flatten the rolls with a flat object until they’re about 4 to 5 inches across. Spray or brush the tops gently with water, then dust with sesame seeds. Cover loosely again, and let rise until slightly less than doubled in size, about 45 to 50 minutes.
9. Preheat the oven to 400º F. When the oven is hot, bake for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown on top and baked through. Remove to a rack to cool. Slice horizontally and fill as desired.
1. You don’t have to be very dogmatic about the length of time you let the sponge rest (step 2); you’re just trying to develop some flavor. In fact, you could probably refrigerate it overnight.
* – I do have a hat. That was a lie for rhetorical emphasis.