The modern bread roll is one of those mother-of-invention moments. A product of the 1800s, when necessity decided that different sized breads were needed throughout the day in the various work environments, it is now ubiquitous across Europe.
The bread roll emerged out of the tradition of baking small bread loaves. These gradually became smaller and became known variously across Europe as a bap or a bun, and then simply as a roll or as a small bread (brötchen in Germany, brötli in Switzerland).
In the beginning these bread rolls were made with white wheat flour, warmed water, fat (usually lard), bakers yeast and salt. These were usually the breakfast bread rolls and the lunch bread rolls.
Depending on the environment (factory or field, mobile or office) they were designed large – to hold fillings – or small – to accompany confits and jams and pastes. In some countries whole milk replaced water, and, unsurprisingly, these became known as milk bread rolls.
Milk was an ingredient in tea bread rolls which were enriched with eggs and a higher quantity to fat, to produce a soft, silky bread. They might contain dried fruit and dried peel.
Dinner bread rolls were characterised by a crisp crust and a soft sponge. They contained less fat and more yeast.
Sugar featured in most breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner bread rolls throughout the 1900s, until it was decided that the quantity of salt determined the quality of the bread, and sweetness was not a criteria.
Small breads were not always round, and for a long time they were shaped like tubes, shorter versions of the Vienna roll. Exceptions included the bagel, the ring-shaped bread of northern Europe, the pirogi, the oval-shaped filled bread of central Europe, pouch-shaped bread of eastern Europe and the crescent-shaped breads that emerged out of Anatolia and Asia.
Viennoiserie defined breakfast breads from the late 1800s, with the baguette and the croissant. Suddenly bread was light or it was flaky. Hydration became a factor and instead of breads with a 2:3 liquid-solid ratio, the amount of water or milk increased to over 70%. This technique could only be achieved with machinery but it produced an aerated crumb with a softer sponge.
Then it changed again, toward the close of the 1900s, as bakers experimented with numerous ingredients. Milk began to feature prominently in recipes that had previously required water. Cream, kefir and yoghurt became popular liquid mediums and apple juice was found to work if it was combined with cream.
Biscuit ingredients, such as grains and nuts and seeds, were adopted and recipes that were once associated with confectionary became bread ingredients, especially in Switzerland where a bread roll revolution took place in the early 2000s.
Small breads began to feature toppings and traditional breads made a comeback, like the onion and poppy seed topped bread of Poland.
Oils began to replace lard in small breads as bakers realised that olive oil and rapeseed oil added a delicate flavour.
And not before time the sourdough techniques found their way into the ‘brötchen’ tradition and wheat began to lose its dominant position.
Pre-ferments or starters made with rye and water crept into small bread recipes, but it was the advent of spelt flour, white and whole, that changed small bread culture.
At first spelt flour was mixed with the various soft and strong wheat flours, then it broke out on its own, usually with a pre-ferment. Rye flour left its traditional position in northern Europe as the desired flour of the encased pie, to gradually become an essential ingredient in small breads.
Even barley flour, used as a pre-ferment and as an improver, got in on the act.
Generally small breads in Europe are made with soft wheat flours. Soft wheat has more flavour than strong wheat. Modern wheat, with its increased strength, now allows the home baker to hand knead dough with high hydration although some doughs are easier to handle with the hook.
This brings us to the type of dough being utilised for small breads. The old tradition of breakfast bread rolls made with a plain dough is still apparent, not so the dinner and tea roll tradition which has been replaced by a multitude of breads made from doughs that are plain or enriched or contain other ingredients and serve various functions.
Years ago all bread rolls fell into the breakfast (crisp and soft, some with fat, some without), tea (soft) and dinner (crisp crust, soft crumb) categories. All three contained water or milk, while the tea roll had milk, butter and egg.
A plain dough is made with water, flour, yeast, salt and sugar. It will produce a bread that is light in texture with larger air bubbles in the crumb, with a crisp crust albeit a little chewy.
An enriched dough will contain fat that can come from butter, egg, milk, vegetable oil, lard (although animal fat is being replaced in traditional recipes), buttermilk, kefir and yoghurt. Fats like butter will soften the crumb and produce an initial light crust until the bread cools when it will become soft. Oil will elasticise the dough to produce a light crumb while eggs will produce a firm crumb. The addition of grains, fruits, nuts and seeds interupt the gluten network and make a dough weaker to produce a denser bread with a shorter bite but increase the flavour immensely, which is why these breads are a challenge for the home baker.