Published November 1, 2008.
Turning flour, water, and yeast into crusty, airy rolls is one of the hardest bits of kitchen wizardry around. We wanted to make the process foolproof.
European-style dinner rolls boast an airy crumb and yeasty, savory flavor worlds away from their richer American cousins. The best part is their crust—so crisp it practically shatters when bitten into, yet chewy enough to offer satisfying resistance. However, the crust is what keeps these rolls the provenance of professionals, who typically rely on a steam-injected oven to expose the developing crust to moisture.
Without a steam-injected oven, we wanted to create a reliable recipe for rustic dinner rolls with a crisp crust and chewy crumb that looked—and tasted—like they came from an artisanal bakery.
We baked our first batch using bread flour, but when we broke the rolls open, we found a dense, bland crumb beneath a leathery crust. The flavor was easy to improve—we replaced a few tablespoons of bread flour with whole wheat flour, which contributed earthiness, while honey added sweetness. The next task was creating an airy crumb. A little yeast provided lift, but not enough. That’s when making the dough wetter was suggested. Lots of water in the dough created more steam bubbles during baking, which produced an airier crumb. Assembling several dough batches with varying amounts of water, we determined that about 72 percent hydration (water’s weight divided by flour’s weight) was optimal before the dough became too wet to shape. Giving the dough a couple turns also encouraged the yeast to produce more carbon dioxide, creating more bubbles and thus an airier crumb. As for shape, because we used more water, the dough was sticky. And forming rolls caused the delicate dough to deflate, making its texture dense. The solution? A two-step baking process: First, we misted the rolls with water before baking for an even crisper crust. We then partially baked them in a cake pan at a high temperature to help set their shape. Halfway through baking, we removed the cake pan from the oven, lowered the temperature, pulled the rolls apart, and returned them to the oven spaced out on a baking sheet. The results? Uniformly golden rolls with a shatteringly crisp crust and perfectly airy crumb.list of recipes