Delicious, Whole-Grain Homemade Hamburger Buns

Once you discover the rich goodness of homemade hamburger buns, you’ll never be satisfied with wimpy store-bought varieties again.
August/September 2009
http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/homemade-hamburger-buns-zmaz09aszraw.aspx
The Adams' foray into homemade hamburger buns sprung from a desire to recapture the taste of caraway rye rolls.


PHOTO: DEBORAH J. ADAMS

Some years ago as we casually strolled by the “baked in store” goods at our local grocery store, my wife and I spied bags of caraway rye hamburger buns. That sounded good to us, so we bought some.

That evening, we swooned as we devoured the best hamburgers ever — big, juicy meat patties topped with cheddar; lightly toasted buns slathered with mayonnaise and mustard; fresh tomatoes and lettuce. With the juices running down our hands, we were in burger heaven. For six months we bought the caraway rye buns every time we saw them. Then they were gone. We asked the baker, “Where are the caraway rye buns?” All we got was a puzzled stare and an “I don’t know.”

Had some traveling baker — after a brief stint at our local grocery — moved on, leaving us to lust for a treat we could no longer enjoy? We’ve eaten a lot of juicy burgers since that time, sans the buns we associate with true hamburger goodness. Many times we vowed to bake our own, but it wasn’t until we got a catalog from King Arthur Flour that we knew our burger destiny was calling: homemade hamburger buns! They offered a hamburger bun pan — recipe included — that lifted our culinary spirits to such a pinnacle that we knew we had to get it. Make that two pans, plus flour and a nifty silicone rolling pad. It was like a first date with a beautiful woman: The chemistry was right, the anticipation was breathtaking, the finish line was in sight but the challenge was daunting, and a successful and satisfying relationship was the only acceptable outcome.

Now let me assure you that in my 60-plus years, I had never baked anything that didn’t come from the freezer section or out of a biscuit roll. In the beginning, we mixed the dough by hand or used a food processor. But after 30 batches, we invested in a stand mixer. A good price and free shipping made it a great deal. You might also want to pick up a treadmill, as testing each batch of buns with a bit of butter while they are still hot is irresistible!

Whole-Grain Hamburger Buns

So we tried King Arthur’s basic hamburger buns recipe. It turned out nice buns, but remember that we were after that elusive caraway rye flavor of our past. So, how did we turn that recipe into rye buns, then whole wheat buns and lots of other variations? The process has involved considerable trial and error, and we’ve made more than our share of hockey pucks. But if you start with the recipes here, you should have better luck!

King Arthur’s basic buns recipe called for 3 cups of all-purpose flour. For the caraway rye buns, we initially replaced that with a half cup of rye flour and 2 1⁄2 cups of all-purpose flour. The resulting buns had a wonderful light rye flavor, with the occasional caraway seed to boost the flavor even more.

The whole-wheat buns were more of a challenge. At first we tried the same ratio of whole wheat to all-purpose flour, but even after we added a King Arthur product called “Whole Grain Bread Improver” that improves flavor, moisture, and rise, the rich, warm whole-wheat flavor didn’t stand out and the buns were rather heavy. When we stepped it up to three-fourths cup whole-wheat flour, the flavor increased but the buns were more like rocks. Reading up on whole-wheat breads, we found a recommendation to start with a “sponge.” A sponge, in bread making, consists of all the liquid, plus a small portion of the flour and yeast required. This mixture is allowed to work (ferment) for a couple of hours or overnight, before the remaining ingredients are added.

Using a sponge worked for us, but it’s here that a stand mixer comes in handy. After adding the sponge to the bowl, and adding more flour with our food processor set on knead, it turned into a sticky mess that pulled the blade off and shut down the motor. We then had to knead the rest of the flour in the bowl, followed with kneading on a lightly floured counter. Our stand mixer makes this whole process easy. Alternatively, hand-kneading is good exercise and stress therapy, and something all home bakers should have a feel for.

This batch made the lightest and best whole-wheat buns yet. Having solved some problems on our own, I decided it was time to call one of the bakers at King Arthur Flour with a list of questions we had been compiling. Jessica Meyers patiently answered my queries and provided some real insight into the bun-making process. For example, a sponge works with whole grains, because it fires up the yeast and softens the wheat bran, making it easier for gluten strands to develop.

Why use King Arthur’s special dried milk instead of standard dried milk? Meyers says that dried milk from the store is freeze-dried and contains an enzyme that interferes with gluten development. But King Arthur’s heat-drying process inactivates that enzyme, so the gluten strands develop more fully and the buns rise until light and airy. Meyers adds that instant potato buds are a reasonable substitute for potato flour.

Success with the whole-wheat sponge prompted us to try it with our rye recipe. The sponge method made the caraway rye buns to die for — lighter and incredibly tasty.

Extra Goodness: Adding Nuts, Seeds, Spices and Other Yummy Flavors to Hamburger Buns

You can add lots of delicious goodies to your hamburger bun recipes. Just remember that the burger, tomato, lettuce, mayo, and mustard are the star players, and the bun is there in a supporting role. With that in mind, adding a tablespoon of minced chipotle, jalapeño, or red pepper flakes; a teaspoon of cracked black pepper; or some Parmesan, Romano or sharp cheddar can add zing to your buns. Oh, and roasted garlic, onion flakes, and seeds such as pumpkin or sunflower would be good, too. Go crazy and add oat flakes and other grains for a really rustic bun. (Hard seeds may need to be boiled in water for one to two hours, then squeezed well to remove excess moisture before they are added to the dough.) Small seeds such as caraway, fennel, poppy and sesame are fine mixed dry with the dough or sprinkled on top. So what if the kids ask, “What are these seeds doing in my bun?” Recommended response: “Eat it. It’s good for you.”

Can you bake your own hamburger buns without a spiffy hamburger bun pan? Of course you can! Place the dough balls on a cookie sheet about 2 to 3 inches apart. After a 10 minute rest, press them down with the palm of your hand — not flat, but somewhat spread out. Do it again 10 minutes later if they aren’t about 4 inches across. They should be about right after the final rise. After you discover the rich goodness of homemade hamburger buns, you’ll never be satisfied with wimpy store-bought buns again.


Caraway Rye Hamburger Buns Recipe

To make the sponge:

1 cup warm milk (If you need to proof your yeast, reduce the milk to 3/4 cup, and proof yeast in 1/4 cup warm water.)
4 tbsp unsalted butter, partially melted in the warmed milk
3/4 cup rye flour
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tbsp caraway seeds
1/4 tsp instant yeast
*2 tbsp potato flour (You could substitute instant potato buds.)
*1/4 cup King Arthur’s dry milk
*3 tbsp King Arthur’s Rye Bread Improver

To make the dough:

1/4 cup warm water
2 tsp instant yeast
11⁄4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tbsp sugar
11⁄2 tsp salt

Toppings (optional):

1 egg white beaten with 1 tbsp water
Sesame seeds, oat flakes, or other whole/milled seeds and grains of your choice

* These additives are optional, but yield lighter, more flavorful buns. If you don’t use them, add an extra 1/4 to 1/2 cup all-purpose flour.

The night before baking, mix sponge ingredients and allow to rest at room temperature overnight, or for at least 2 hours. Scrape the contents of the bowl to the bottom, and push plastic wrap down over the sponge to keep it from drying out. Cover with a towel and leave out in a draft-free area. In a separate bowl, pour a little water over any hard seeds or grains that you plan to use as topping, and let them soak overnight. Softer seeds can be added dry.

In the morning, mix the yeast into the warm water, and work that mixture into the sponge. Then mix in the remaining dough ingredients. Knead the dough (in a stand mixer or by hand) until it is smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes in a mixer). If the dough is unmanageably sticky, add a few more tablespoons of flour. If it’s too dry, add a little water.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, turning to coat all sides. Cover the bowl with lightly greased plastic wrap first, and then a kitchen towel. Let the dough rise in a warm spot for about an hour, until it has doubled in bulk. If you plan to include a seed topping on your buns, this is a good time to take out an egg and let it come up to room temperature before separating the white.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide it into 6 pieces. Roll each piece into a smooth ball and place it in a lightly greased bun pan. Cover the pan with lightly greased plastic wrap and a towel, and let the buns rest for about 10 minutes. Then remove the towel only and press down on the tops. Replace the towel and let rise until puffy, about an hour.

Just before baking, remove the plastic wrap and brush each bun top with the egg white/water mixture, and sprinkle with desired topping.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, and bake buns for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they’re golden brown. Remove from the oven, pop them out of the pan with a spatula, and cool on a wire rack. Yields 6 buns.


Whole-Wheat Hamburger Buns Recipe

To make the sponge:

1 cup warm milk (If you need to proof your yeast, reduce the milk to 3/4 cup, and proof yeast in 1/4 cup warm water.)
4 tbsp unsalted butter, partially melted in the warmed milk
3/4 cup whole-wheat flour
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp instant yeast
*2 tbsp potato flour (You could substitute instant potato buds.)
*1/4 cup King Arthur’s dry milk
*3 tsp King Arthur’s Whole Grain Bread Improver

To make the dough:

1/4 cup warm water
2 tsp instant yeast
11⁄4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tbsp sugar
11⁄2 tsp salt

Toppings (optional):

1 egg white beaten with 1 tbsp water
Sesame seeds, oat flakes, or other whole/milled seeds and grains of your choice

* These additives are optional, but yield lighter, more flavorful buns. If you don’t use them, add an extra 1/4 to 1/2 cup all-purpose flour.

The night before baking, mix sponge ingredients and allow to rest at room temperature overnight, or for at least 2 hours. Scrape the contents of the bowl to the bottom, and push plastic wrap down over the sponge to keep it from drying out. Cover with a towel and leave out in a draft-free area. In a separate bowl, pour a little water over any hard seeds or grains that you plan to use as topping, and let them soak overnight. Softer seeds can be added dry.

In the morning, mix the yeast into the warm water, and work that mixture into the sponge. Then mix in the remaining dough ingredients. Knead the dough (in a stand mixer or by hand) until it is smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes in a mixer). If the dough is unmanageably sticky, add a few more tablespoons of flour. If it’s too dry, add a little water.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, turning to coat all sides. Cover the bowl with lightly greased plastic wrap first, and then a kitchen towel. Let the dough rise in a warm spot for about an hour, until it has doubled in bulk. If you plan to include a seed topping on your buns, this is a good time to take out an egg and let it come up to room temperature before separating the white.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide it into 6 pieces. Roll each piece into a smooth ball and place it in a lightly greased bun pan. Cover the pan with lightly greased plastic wrap and a towel, and let the buns rest for about 10 minutes. Then remove the towel only and press down on the tops. Replace the towel and let rise until puffy, about an hour.

Just before baking, remove the plastic wrap and brush each bun top with the egg white/water mixture, and sprinkle with desired topping.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, and bake buns for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they’re golden brown. Remove from the oven, pop them out of the pan with a spatula, and cool on a wire rack. Yields 6 buns.


Hamburger Bun-Making Hints

Moisture content is critical. If working with a food processor, slowly add the liquid ingredients and watch for the dough to begin cleaning the sides. Once the sides are clean, stop adding liquid and wait 60 seconds as it kneads. If the dough in your food processor is too wet, you will likely end up digging out the goo and hand-mixing to the proper consistency. Stand mixers are more forgiving — it’s easier to add liquid or flour to make perfect dough, and they do a great job of kneading (usually in about 10 minutes).

You can hand-knead a rather sticky dough. Keep some all-purpose flour handy when you begin, and put a little bit on the counter and your hands. Work the dough while it is a bit sticky but still workable, and it will begin to behave as the gluten develops. If you get hooked on bread making, by all means shop for a stand mixer — but don’t cheat yourself out of the hand-kneading experience! You’ll enjoy the five to 10 minutes of vigorous stress relief.

Find a warm place out of cold drafts for the dough to rise. The top of our oven (not in), with the oven set to about 225 degrees Fahrenheit, provided just the right bottom heat. We tried rising in the oven using the warm setting, but when we took the buns out to preheat for baking, they sunk in the cooler air.

Cooking sprays with flour are really handy, and they ensure your buns won’t stick to the pan.


Bill spends more time in his Central Texas garden than he does baking buns, but he does like a good burger and a challenge. The connection is obvious if you think about it — what would a burger be without a thick slice of vine-ripened tomato?