Behind the Recipes

Oatmeal Dinner Rolls

Can’t choose between plush, soft rolls and those with the more interesting flavors and textures of whole grains? Great news: You don’t have to.

Published Sept. 29, 2020.

Years ago, I developed a popular recipe for light, fluffy dinner rolls. The key to the recipe’s success? A baking technique that likely originated in Japan but commonly called by its Chinese name, tangzhong, thanks to being widely popularized by Taiwanese cook Yvonne Chen in her recipe for fluffy Hokkaido milk bread. The term, which loosely translates as “hot-water roux,” refers to a pudding‑like mixture made by cooking a small amount of flour in water until the two form a gel. Mixing that gel into my dough enabled me to add a high proportion of water without making the dough unworkably soft and sticky, because some of the water was effectively “locked away” in the gel. When the rolls hit the oven, that abundance of water turned to steam and inflated the rolls, making them light and soft. The gel also extended the shelf life of the rolls, so they remained moist even on the next day.

I’ve made those rolls at home more times than I can count, and the Cook’s Illustrated team has gone on to apply the tangzhong technique to other classic white breads such as sticky buns and challah. But recently I started wondering: Why stop at white bread? Wouldn’t it be great to use tangzhong (or its very similar Japanese counterpart, yudane) to add moisture and softness to breads that often lack those qualities, specifically breads with added whole grains? And then I realized I already had.

How Oats Make Moister Bread That Lasts Longer

Given the high hydration of this dough, one might expect that this dough would be extremely soft and too sticky to handle. Here’s why it isn’t: The recipe contains oats, and before adding them to the other ingredients, we soak them in some of the water (boiled first), which causes them to gel and essentially lock away this moisture. This technique is called tangzhong, and we’ve employed it in other bread recipes, but only with refined white flour.


It turns out that oats are even better at “hiding” extra liquid in a dough. That’s because, as a whole-grain product, oats contain more pentosans—a type of carbohydrate—than refined white flour, which has had its pentosan-rich bran layer milled away.


Pentosans are more absorbent than starch and can hold up to 10 times their weight in water. The upshot for our oatmeal rolls: With so much water in the dough, the rolls bake up exceptionally moist and stay that way longer.


Back in cooking school, I learned to make a recipe that went like this: Pour boiling water over steel-cut oats and let the mixture sit until the oats have absorbed the water. Then build your dough by adding bread flour, more water, a bit of brown sugar, yeast, and salt. After rising for about an hour, the dough was easy to shape into a loaf—not too sticky or soft. The resulting bread was surprisingly moist and plush, and it stayed soft longer than most other breads—even longer than my Fluffy Dinner Rolls (January/February 2016). When I recently analyzed the recipe, I noticed that the proportion of water to flour in that dough was higher than in most dinner rolls. In fact, it approached 70 percent, a hydration I associate with wet, sticky, unmanageable doughs. But this dough was easy to work with because using the soaked oats acted similarly to tangzhong, with all its associated virtues. (When I did a little investigating, I found out that oats are even more effective than refined white flour at holding on to water in a dough; see “How Oats Make Moister Bread That Lasts Longer.”) That old recipe seemed like a promising starting point for a new dinner roll: one with a plush crumb and an extended shelf life that still offered complexity in terms of flavor and texture.

Rolling Right Along

I made the steel-cut oat dough as I had learned it decades ago, but instead of shaping it into a single loaf that I baked in a loaf pan, after the first rise, I divided it into 12 pieces, which I rolled into balls and arranged in a greased 9-inch round cake pan. (High-moisture doughs can spread if they’re baked free-form; placing the rolls close together would allow them to support each other and encourage upward rather than outward expansion. For more information, see “Why Bake Rolls in a Cake Pan?”) I let the dough rise again and then baked the rolls. It was a good start: The crumb was fluffy and soft. But I’d had to wait 45 minutes for the coarse steel-cut oats to absorb that first addition of water, and sometimes oats near the surface of the bread dried out in the oven and became a little hard. The solution was to use rolled oats. These hydrated so quickly, in fact, that the mixture was still too hot to add the yeast. To be safe, I incorporated some cold water along with the rest of the ingredients.

Shaping Rolls

Set piece of dough on unfloured counter. Loosely cup your lightly floured hand around dough and lightly move your hand in small circular motions to form smooth ball.

When the rolls were baked, the oats in the dough mostly melted into the bread but left a subtle and pleasant nubby texture; the oats I’d sprinkled on top delivered a crisp texture and toasty flavor. Still, these rolls looked and tasted a lot like my fluffy dinner rolls. That wasn’t a bad thing, but I was after something a little heartier and nuttier here.

Pumping Up Personality

I was using bread flour because I needed its higher protein for lift (the oats have no gluten-forming proteins to contribute structure, so they’re freeloaders in this formula), but was there room for something with a bit more personality? I replaced one-third of the bread flour with whole-wheat flour, which turned out to be a good move. It provided more nutty flavor and a heartier texture, but it didn’t noticeably compromise the rolls’ lift. I was getting there.

Why Bake Rolls in a Cake Pan?

We have three reasons for baking our oatmeal rolls in the confined space of a cake pan versus individually on a baking sheet. First, arranging the dough balls close together encourages upward, not outward, expansion. Second, since the rolls essentially bake in a single mass, if a few are slightly bigger or smaller, they’ll still bake evenly with the rest. Finally, there’s less exposed surface area for moisture to escape, so the sides remain soft rather than turn crusty.

For the next batch, I added just a bit of richness in the form of butter. Rather than leave it to soften at room temperature or melt it in the microwave, I added it with the oats so that the hot water would melt it while the oats were hydrating. Finally, I considered the brown sugar. Presumably it had been added to that old cooking school recipe because, with its molasses notes, it provided a bit more character to the bread than white sugar would have. But why not go whole hog? I swapped the brown sugar for molasses itself, which added even more moisture; a complex, bittersweet flavor; and a rich color.

I still love my original fluffy white dinner rolls, but it’s nice to have options.

Oatmeal Dinner Rolls

Can’t choose between plush, soft rolls and those with the more interesting flavors and textures of whole grains? Great news: You don’t have to.
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