I believe in the power of fresh bread. When I sit down to dinner at the end of a long day, there’s nothing I find more comforting than a warm roll alongside my supper—the puff of yeasty steam that rises as the delicately crisp crust is broken open; the way a swipe of butter melts and sinks into the feathery crumb. It’s small and simple yet such a luxury.
But let’s be real: The last thing I’m likely to do when I can finally take a breather is drag out the mixer to make a batch of yeasted dough. This got me thinking about brown-and-serve rolls.
The basic concept is that you mix up a batch of dough, let it proof, shape it into rolls, and let them rise. Then you bake the rolls, but not all the way—only until they’ve expanded to their full size and the crumb is set but the crust isn’t browned. You cool and freeze the pale orbs, and when you’re ready to eat, just thaw them, bake them until browned, and voilà: piping hot homemade rolls in minutes. Brown-and‑serve rolls would be a gift from past me to future me.
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I thought carefully about which recipe to use as a template, ultimately deciding on my Fluffy Dinner Rolls, which I developed a few years back. They look like classic pull-apart dinner rolls, but I’d applied a bread-making method commonly called by its Chinese name, tangzhong, which adds extra moisture to the dough in the form of a water-and-flour paste. The added liquid gives the rolls a supremely moist, light crumb.
The tangzhong would be crucial here: Because brown-and-serve rolls are baked twice, and each stint in the oven evaporates water, they’re especially susceptible to staling. Incorporating extra liquid in the form of tangzhong would mean I could double‑bake the rolls and still have moisture to spare.
To make the tangzhong, I microwaved water and bread flour together for about a minute until the mixture resembled a thick paste. Next, I poured in a bit of cold milk to cool the flour mixture. More flour, egg, and yeast made up the rest of the dough. I added sugar, salt, and softened butter and mixed until I had a satiny, elastic dough. After proofing, I shaped the dough into 12 rolls, arranged them snugly in a cake pan, and set them aside to rise.
One Baking Sheet, 16 Rolls
To fit 16 rolls onto a single baking sheet, arrange five rolls along each long side of the sheet and then arrange the remaining six rolls down the center, staggering their placement so that they don’t touch each other as they expand.
Instead of the 375-degree oven that the original recipe required, I baked the rolls at 300 degrees so that they’d expand and set but not brown. It took about 15 minutes for them to reach an internal temperature of 175 degrees, a marker that signified the crumb structure was fully established and the rolls wouldn’t collapse as they cooled. I turned the mass of rolls out of the pan—they were pale and damp—and let them come to room temperature before freezing them in a zipper-lock bag.
A few days later, I transferred the cluster of frozen rolls back to a pan, let them defrost, and baked them in a 400-degree oven until they were deep golden brown on top, which took 17 minutes. But when I turned the rolls out onto a wire rack, I discovered that the sides and bottoms were still not browned, and the innermost rolls hadn’t heated through.
Science: The Mechanics of Two-Stage Baking
In addition to starting with a moist dough that could handle two stints in the oven without drying out, here’s how we successfully divided baking the rolls into two stages..
PARBAKE IN A LOW (300-DEGREE) OVEN: When you bake rolls in one go, a moderately high oven (375 degrees or so) takes the dough from raw to fully expanded and set to browned. To ensure that the dough would fully bake but stop shy of browning, we turn the oven down to 300 degrees—which is still plenty hot enough to increase the activity of the yeast so that the rolls would properly expand. We then remove the rolls just when their interiors are fully set (they register 175 degrees) and their exteriors are still pale.
BROWN IN A HOT (425-DEGREE) OVEN: We freeze the rolls, then place them in a hot oven just before serving, where they thaw and warm through as the crust turns a rich brown and develops lots of flavor compounds.
I recognized my error: The mass of pull-apart rolls was too large to heat evenly in the relatively short second baking time, and the pan—which would normally conduct the heat necessary for browning the sides and bottoms of the rolls during a longer bake—didn’t have enough time to do its job.
Even if I could fix these problems, thawing the whole pan of rolls before baking had taken about an hour, and it didn’t give me the flexibility to finish baking just one or two rolls at a time. Separating the rolls in the first place would work better.
Because these rolls wouldn’t be nestled together for support, I’d need a slightly firmer dough, so I increased the amount of flour by about one-third (I still had plenty of moisture locked up in the tangzhong). Since there was more dough now, I divided it into 16 pieces after it proofed. This seemed like a good yield, whether I was prepping for a large gathering or simply wanted to stock my freezer for pulling out a couple at a time.
Once the rolls had almost doubled in size, I parbaked them. They were pale and started to wrinkle as they cooled, looking like forlorn little ghost rolls, but I persevered. Finding them too delicate to move, I froze them directly on the baking sheet. I then tumbled them into a zipper-lock bag and stashed them back in the freezer.
I hoped that this new format would enable me to skip the thawing step and take the rolls directly from freezer to oven to table. It took a bit of tinkering, but in the end I found the winning formula: 8 to 10 minutes in a 425-degree oven, during which the rolls thawed, browned, and expanded slightly, smoothing out those wrinkles. (The internal and external temperatures equalized during a 5-minute post-bake rest.) I was especially delighted to find that I could accomplish the second baking stage in my toaster oven, which would be ideal for times when I wanted just a roll or two.