Homemade buns change the cookout game. When I make the effort to serve grass-fed beef, artisanal sausages or even a noble carrot, I want the bun to be of the same quality. So, when I am asked to bring something to an outdoor gathering, I bring the buns -- and I'm the hero of the potluck.
What led me to this? There is no more egregious supermarket gambit than the inequitable packaging of hot dogs and hot dog buns -- you know, more of one than the other. For years I overcompensated, which meant there were sure to be slightly stale, squished, leftover buns in the far recesses of my freezer. Eventually I learned to make my own.
The accompanying recipe makes a dozen hot dog buns or a dozen burger buns or a mix of the two, matching the needs of the group and the menu. (What a concept!) It takes only a couple of hours from start to finish, and most of that time is waiting for the dough to rise.
Even some accomplished cooks balk at the idea of working with yeast. For consistent results and less worry, I start with a leg up by mixing a "sponge" of dried yeast, warm water, a small amount of sugar and flour in a big bowl. It will bubble happily, and in a just a few minutes this foamy, enthusiastic head start will provide the boost that yields a dependably quick, successful rise.
I use SAF brand instant yeast, found at some kitchen stores, Whole Foods Markets and online. It is dependable and reasonably priced. Active dry yeast, the grocery store packet, can be used instead of instant, but the latter has become more popular in recent years as it can be added without first dissolving it in water. Still, I opt for the sponge approach for the oomph it adds. (Rapid-rise yeast is different from instant and active and will not work in this recipe.)
Then, more flour, plus eggs, honey and butter are added to form a dough that can be kneaded by machine or by hand. It makes for a light workout, just a gentle rocking and folding motion, to bring out the dough's silky, bouncy, charming qualities. Because this dough is so springy, avoid over-proofing and either set aside the time to make and bake the buns (about 2 hours total) or refrigerate the dough at this stage and come back to form, proof and bake them around an hour before serving.
Forming the buns is easy enough, but I always start with deflating the dough by pressing across the surface as if I am playing the piano -- ridding it of bubbles that can make troublesome air pockets in the middle of a tight, fine crumb. For burger buns, after portioning the dough, I roll compact balls and firmly press each one into a hockey puck shape. This shape, I have learned, will rise to make your classic domed bun with a flat bottom.
To make hot dog buns, I roll up rectangles of dough like a cigar, tucking in the pointy ends. Initially, I tried baking these buns a few inches apart on a baking sheet, just as with the burger buns, but they were annoyingly inconsistent, bending this way and that. After one batch, my husband asked whether the long rolls were supposed to look like potatoes. Undaunted, I lined up two rows of formed dough portions across the width of a baking sheet and baked up a dozen gloriously burnished, straight-as-an-arrow, pull-apart hot dog buns.
I often brush breads with butter before baking for a glossy finish that isn't crackly, yet still soft. When a topping of seeds is involved, a brush of beaten egg white is the better choice. A simple swipe and the seeds adhere through baking, splitting and even grilling. Seeds are a matter of taste; I'm a fan. I tried toasted sesame, poppy, and then hit on an everything-bagel spice blend as a great choice for buns that will hold chicken sausages and carrot dogs, especially.
This afternoon baking project has a satisfying result -- perfectly pillowy buns that are good for toasting and grilling and taking on all manner of condiments. Definitely a match for the good things you put inside them.
• Cathy Barrow is a cookbook author.