Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy 4th of July: Rose Levy Beranbaum's Hamburger Buns

I confess I am a frustrated bread maker with aspirations of greatness (delusions of grandeur?). With my usual kitchen confidence, I've tried to approach the making of yeast breads just as I do other kitchen endeavors: If I see someone else make homemade pasta, pie crust, or focaccia, I'm thinking, "If he/she can do it, so can I!" And yet with the yeast breads I haven't practiced enough to the point that when I start out to make pizza or something, I approach it with the confidence that comes with experience. That sort of realization that comes with, "Well, maybe I've never made borscht before, but I've cooked soup so many times, how hard can it be?"

Sure, I've made pizza with dough from scratch--both in the oven and on the grill--and I've generally been pleased with the result, but I want to become a confident bread maker, thank you very much! I so admired a friend I met while teaching English in Japan who grew up on a farm and even in her tiny Japanese kitchen regularly baked her own bread in a countertop oven. That's the kind of confidence that comes when you're at someone else's house and you move into the kitchen to "whip something up" and you amaze friends and family with your proficiency. That may sound like a high bar, but preparing food is all about sharing with friends and family (not that one shouldn't treat oneself with the same high regard as one would treat a guest) and nothing shows the love more than taking the time and effort to make something for friends that you know they'll love.

Three things occurred about two years apart that put me back on the path to moving from breadmaking apprentice to journeyman. Prior to Memorial Day in 2007, there were the usual articles about making hamburgers in the Washington Post food section and included was an article by Rose Levy Beranbaum on making hamburger buns from scratch. At the time, I scoffed at the notion! Even if you don't want to buy the wonder bread white hamburger rolls that we all grew up with, nowadays there is such an assortment of whole wheat, potato and other rolls, why bother making them from scratch?

I had fallen into the typical line of thinking held by those who are outside another's zone of passion. As anyone who pursues a hobby knows, there will always be detractors questioning the value of the effort versus the value of the result. Needlepoint may be the last hobby on earth I'd choose to pursue, but I hope we can all admire a beautifully crafted endeavor by someone else even if it's not something we would pursue ourselves. Nigella Lawson has the best refutation for such detractions you might encounter: if the process of doing something gives one pleasure, that is reason enough to do it. And because breadmaking is so tactile and of course the aroma of bread in the oven will lift anyone's mood, what could be more pleasurable?

Fast forward to Memorial Day 2009 when we were staying with our friends at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware and planned to barbecue turkey burgers one night. My friend John is the master bread baker. In fact his partner Colin has long since forgotten what a sandwich on store bought bread tastes like because they always have a bun in the oven (or in the freezer). He has a KitchenAid mac daddy stand mixer at both of his homes and makes bread as easily as other people make a bowl of cereal. Naturally there would be no store bought hamburger buns that night! And as with watching the cooking shows and thinking I can do anything just as well as any of them, the spark went off and I knew I'd be making homemade hamburger rolls myself this summer. Plus I know he swears by Ms. Beranbaum having adopted her breadmaking technique from The Bread Bible, which differs quite a bit from the simpler technique published in the paper. Having successfully pulled off these delicious buns, I know that store bought buns are just not in my future anymore.

And finally, the New York Times had its July 4th food article breaking down the elements of the perfect burger to its three primary components: the burger, the bun, and the condiments. Their conclusion about the best hamburger bun was that a brioche bun was best. Their recipe for the brioche bun called for bread flour whereas Ms. Berenbaum's uses the ubiquitous all-purpose flour. I've no doubt though that I'll be returning to the brioche recipe sometime soon.

Rose Levy Beranbaum's Best Buns
adapted from the Washington Post, May 23, 2007

There's little that I can add to Ms. Beranbaum's instructions since I'm rather a bread novice. I love how she gives such detailed and descriptive instructions. I can say that I consulted other bread recipes to see what proportion of flour would be used if I used an envelope of yeast--which is what I had on hand--instead of the instant rapid rise yeast she recommends. Some day when I really get into making the yeast breads, I may start buying different kinds of yeasts that I might measure with the spoons, but for now it's an envelope at a time.

Makes 8 hamburger buns but also makes a mean turkey sandwich as well!


  • 3 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour, plus more as necessary

  • 1/4 cup whole-wheat flour

  • 1 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast, such as rapid-rise or bread machine yeast [I used one envelope which is equivalent to 2 1/2 teaspoons, which John says is the typical amount used for most bread recipes]

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt

  • 1 1/3 cups room-temperature water

  • 1 teaspoon mild honey, such as clover [I used maple syrup]

  • 1/4 cup olive oil

  • 3/4 cup toasted mixed seeds, such as cracked flax, sesame, poppy, sunflower and pumpkin (optional, and I didn't use)

  • Milk or water, for brushing the tops of the buns (optional, I used half and half)

  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds for the topping (optional, but I used)


In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, whole-wheat flour and yeast, then the salt. Add the water, honey and oil. Using a mixer with a dough hook on medium speed, or by hand, knead the dough for 7 minutes (10 minutes by hand) until smooth and springy. The dough should be soft and just sticky enough to cling slightly to your fingers. If it is still very sticky, knead in a little flour [I kept checking mine and added about 1/4 cup additional whole wheat flour in three or four increments]. If it is too stiff, spray it with a little water and knead it. Allow the dough to rest, covered, for 20 minutes and then knead in the seeds, if desired.

Set the dough in a large, lightly oiled bowl and lightly spray or oil the top of the dough. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and set in a warm spot. Allow the dough to rise for about 1 hour or until it has doubled. (The indentation from a finger stuck into the center of the dough should remain.)

If you plan to bake the hamburger buns the next day, press down the dough and place it in a large, oiled resealable plastic food storage bag, leaving a tiny bit unzipped for the forming gas to escape, and refrigerate it. Take it out of the refrigerator about 1 hour before shaping.

When ready to shape the dough, set it on a very lightly floured work surface and form it into a log. With a sharp knife, divide it into 8 equal pieces. (If you prefer very large buns, you can divide the dough into 6 equal pieces.) Shape each piece into a ball by cupping your hand over the dough and rotating it. It works best if you use only as much flour as you need to keep the dough from sticking. A little resistance helps to form a round ball. Keep the balls of dough covered with damp paper towels to prevent drying; allow them to rest for 5 minutes.

Transfer the dough balls to a parchment-lined baking sheet or inverted sheet pan, leaving enough space between them to allow for a 4-inch bun. Flatten the balls to a height of about 1 inch. (If the dough is very elastic, you can flatten them again after 15 minutes of rising.) If using the sesame seeds, brush the dough lightly with milk or water and sprinkle with the seeds. Cover the balls with a large inverted plastic box or with plastic wrap lightly coated with baking spray, and allow them to rise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until almost doubled; when the dough is pressed gently with a finger, the depression should very slowly fill in.

While the dough is rising, set the oven rack toward the bottom of the oven and place a baking stone or baking sheet on it. Set a cast-iron skillet or heavy baking pan on the floor of the oven or on the lowest shelf. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees for 45 minutes or longer.

Mist the dough with water, quickly but gently set the baking sheet on the hot stone or hot baking sheet, and toss 1/2 cup of ice cubes into the pan beneath. Immediately shut the door and bake 15 minutes. Rotate the pan front to back and bake for 3 to 5 minutes or until the buns are golden brown and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. (An instant-read thermometer inserted into the center will read 200 to 210 degrees.) Transfer the buns to wire racks until they are completely cool or barely warm.

TIP - Food Processor Method:
Refer to the instruction booklet for your model to determine the maximum amount of flour allowable. Chill the water. Place the whisked flour mixture in the work bowl fitted with the steel blade. With the motor on, add the cold water and oil. If the mixture doesn't come together after 10 seconds, scrape down the sides and scrape the dry part into the moist part.

After the mixture comes together, continue processing for 1 1/2 minutes until a smooth, elastic dough is formed. If it does not clean the bowl, pulse in a little extra flour. Transfer the dough to a counter and knead it for 10 seconds to equalize the temperature. If adding the optional seeds, allow the dough to rest for 20 minutes and proceed as above.