I’ve mentioned it before here, but it’s worth mentioning again – I am very fortunate to be in a family of incredible cooks. Like, not to toot our horn or anything, but we’re bordering on gourmet at times (and then at other times, we make chili dogs, but whatev). I can’t think of a single adult in my family who isn’t supremely good in the kitchen (or on the grill or the smoker). It is a wonderful gift to get to enjoy so many delicious meals prepared by the people that I love the most. We eat gooooooddd.
So keep this in mind when I tell you this little tidbit—we almost always eat frozen dinner rolls with our Thanksgiving dinners. You know the little balls of dough that come 4,000 to a bag in the freezer section? You plop them into a baking dish and let them rise while you cook dinner, and then you bake them, and everyone oooohhs-and-aaaahhhs over your perfectly fluffy and buttery dinner rolls while you try to hide the bag in the trash so no one knows you’re actually afraid of baking with yeast. Yeah, those. Those little balls of dough have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
Well not anymore, friends, not anymore.
I took it as my personal mission to conquer the simple dinner roll this year. I wanted the most perfectly fluffy, light, buttery dinner rolls. And I wanted them to be easy. Almost as easy as plopping frozen balls of dough from a bag onto a baking sheet.
I wanted them to be so simple that everyone felt like it was something they could confidently bring to their Thanksgiving shindig. I can do this. You can do this. We can all do this. We can make buttery yeast rolls that everyone will flip over. Yes we can!
I know a lot of folks find baking with yeast intimidating (especially when you’re doing it for guests), but once you get the hang of it, you’ll wonder why you were ever afraid. There are a lot of hardcore bakers out there that will give you very specific rules and requirements about working with yeast—it can definitely be a science—but I honestly don’t think it has to be that complicated.
My suggestions when it comes to working with yeast are pretty simple:
(a) Make sure your yeast is fresh—I like to store mine in a closed canning jar in the fridge or freezer and get a new package every few months. Honestly, if you keep it in the freezer, it’ll last pretty much indefinitely.
(b) Don’t kill your yeast with hot water—yeast will do its thang at room temperature or even in cooler temperatures (albeit much more slowly that at warm temps), but very hot water will kill the yeast. Err on the side of too cool.
That’s it. Really. Yeast isn’t scary. It’s actually kinda cute.
When it comes to rising yeast dough, there are lots of ways to both speed up or slow down the rising (depending on what you need). If you’re pressed for time and need that dough to rise quickly, here are a few options:
- Use the oven. Many modern ovens have a “proof” setting. Turn that on and place your covered dough in there to rise. If you don’t have that setting, an oven light often pumps out enough heat, too. Or, just turn on your oven to a low temp (200° or below) for a few minutes, then turn it off, and put the dough in the warm (but off!) oven.
- Use the fire/wood stove/furnace. Our fireplace hearth is an excellent place to rise dough. Wood stoves, radiators, and other warm (but not too hot) sources of radiant heat are a good option, too. Just make sure to rotate the dough if the heat source is one-directional (like from a fireplace).
- Try the top of the fridge. The top of our fridge is nice and toasty! Yours might be, too. Try it.
- On top of a bowl of boiling water. This is my favorite tip, and the one that consistently works for me. Boil water in a kettle. Pour into a large mixing bowl. Rest covered pan/bowl of dough on top of the bowl of water. The heat from the steam does wonders to get dough to pop up fast!
- Try outside. This isn’t applicable in November in Indiana, but in August? You better bet I’m rising my dough out in the 90 degree sun on the back deck.
If you need to slow down the rising (as in, maybe you only have time to make the dough before work, but you want to serve rolls for dinner later), try this:
- Use the fridge. Temps under about 50° will stall the activity of yeast almost to a halt. Place the covered dough in the fridge, and then bring it out to rise about an hour before baking time.
- Try the basement or cellar. Our basement runs around 60-65° in the cool weather months—perfect for slowly rising dough. Yeast is most active at around 75°, so the 10 degree difference goes a long way to slowing the activity down.
- Try outside. If it’s above freezing (but below room temperature), wrap that dough up and place it outside.
And, of course, to bring this full circle, you can freeze up these rolls in the dough stage (before they rise), pop ’em in a bag, and have them ready for a meal whenever you need some bread for sopping. Just freeze them flat on a parchment paper covered cooking sheet, then once frozen, store in a labeled zip-top freezer bag. To bake, place the frozen dough balls in a greased baking pan, about a 1/2 inch apart, and then let rise in a warm area until defrosted and at least doubled in volume. Bake as you would if they were fresh.
I almost always do all my dough-making in my stand mixer, but just in case you aren’t madly in love with a red KitchenAid like I am, I’ve also included directions for making these buttery yeast rolls both by hand and in a bread machine. Enjoy!