I once read that the smell of freshly baked bread makes people behave kindly toward one another. I never found the study to substantiate this claim. However, based on how my family reacts when I make soft and pillowy dinner rolls once or twice a month, I’d say it’s true. They truly become a happy bunch.
If you’re gathering family together for dinner and need an olive branch for passing around the table, try these soft and pillowy rolls. The recipe is based on my go-to milk bread rolls, sweetened with honey and brushed with honey butter as soon as they come out of the oven. I can’t image a better way to break bread.
Tangzhong Is the Secret to Tender Rolls
Tangzhong is a dough improver. It’s a Chinese technique where flour and a liquid—I use milk, but water works too—are cooked to create a paste that is added to the dough. The starch in the flour swells and traps moisture, helping the bread become and stay tender. I no longer make dinner rolls without tangzhong because it improves the texture of the bread noticeably. It’s a little extra effort for a big payoff.
Weigh Your Ingredients for Consistently Great Rolls
If you’ve ever made dinner rolls that turn out dry or heavy like a puck, I suspect that you measured the ingredients by volume—cup, tablespoon, teaspoon—rather than by weight. I always weigh the ingredients unless the quantity is so small that a standard kitchen scale is not worth pulling out. If you inadvertently add too much flour or too little milk, you’ll end up with dry rolls. Weighing your ingredients will guarantee perfect rolls every time.
Use a Light-Colored Metal Pan
I prefer to bake bread rolls in a light-colored metal cake pan because they heat up and cool down quickly. This gives the rolls a chance to brown evenly and cook through at the same time. This is my favorite 9×13-inch pan—it’s high-quality aluminum and has straight sides, which yields beautiful baked goods that are easy to take out of the pan.
I avoid dark-colored metal pans—like this popular cake pan—because they heat up too quickly and tend to over-brown the exterior of the rolls before the inside cooks through. Most professional bakers avoid using dark-colored metal pans for this reason.
If you only have a 9×13-inch glass baking dish, bake the rolls at a lower temperature (325°F) to avoid overcooking them. Similar to dark-colored metal pans, glass retains heat for longer.
Make the tangzhong:
In a small saucepan, add the flour, milk, and honey, and set it over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, until it thickens and looks like smooth mashed potatoes, about 2 minutes 30 seconds to 3 minutes.
Scrape the tangzhong into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.
Add remaining dough ingredients:
To the tangzhong, add the cold milk, egg, flour, yeast, salt, and butter. The cold milk and egg will cool down the tangzhong, so no need to cool it down before adding the rest of the ingredients.
Knead the dough:
Knead the dough on medium speed—that’s a #4 on my KitchenAid—for no less than 10 minutes, until it pulls away from the sides of the bowl and it’s no longer sticky. Resist the urge to add more flour. The dough will become stiff, smooth, and wrap itself around the hook after it’s kneaded.
Let the dough rise:
Pull the dough off the hook with your hands, form it into a ball, and place it back into the bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise at room temperature for about 1 1/2 hours, until it doubles in size.
Overnight rise option: Right after you knead it, pop the bowl with the dough into the fridge for up to 24 hours. When you’re ready to bake the rolls, proceed with the recipe.
Meanwhile, prepare the pan:
Lightly grease a 9×13-inch metal pan with butter and line it with parchment paper.
Shape the rolls:
Dump the risen dough onto a clean kitchen counter and divide it into 15 equal pieces—about 82 grams each. The dough won’t be sticky and will be easy to work with.
To shape each roll: Flatten a piece of dough using the palm of your hands. Pull the outer edges up and over the center, all around. Pinch the pulled-up edges together and flip the dough over so that the smooth side is facing up. Cup your hands around it to shape it into a ball. Transfer it into the prepared pan and shape the remaining pieces. Distribute them evenly in the pan 3×5 with some room between each roll.
Let the dough rise, again:
Cover the pan with plastic wrap and let the dough rise at room temperature for 45 minutes to 1 hour. The rolls will rise to touch each other, but not quite double in size.
If you let your dough rise overnight in the fridge, it’ll take longer for the dough to rise, about 2 hours total.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F:
Place the oven rack in the center.
Make the egg wash:
Whisk the egg and 1 tablespoon water in a small bowl. Use a pastry brush to lightly brush the tops of the rolls with it.
Bake the rolls:
Bake the rolls until golden brown on top, about 30 minutes. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of a roll in the middle of the pan should read 190°F or higher.
Meanwhile, make the honey butter:
In a small saucepan, add the butter and honey. Set it over low heat and stir until the butter is fully melted. As soon as you take the rolls out of the oven, brush the top with the honey butter and sprinkle flaky salt on top. Serve the rolls warm.
Store leftovers in a zip top bag or a tightly lidded container for up to four days on your kitchen counter—they’ll remain soft and fluffy. It’s not magic, it’s the tangzhong!
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