My very beloved father-in-law (father-outlaw?) recently cracked me up about hot dogs. We'd been debating getting some from a stand after a long and beautiful walk--only the stand guy explained that there'd been some kind of a "hotdog malfunction." "There might be some ready in five minutes," he said, and we said, "Oh, never mind, that's okay," because, really. What exactly is a hotdog malfunction? I pictured, for instance, all the various times a swimming pool had been evacuated, and I said to Grandpa Larry, "A hot dog is kind of barely functioning as it is." Which is when he explained, maybe quoting Anthony Bourdain, that a hotdog is always an implied-consent situation. "It's gross and made of gross stuff, and that's really just the whole premise of a hotdog," he said, and I agreed. A hotdog yoinked from a boiling trough, slathered with brown mustard and dripping sauerkraut into a damp and disintegrating white bun? Walk me past a Sabrette stand or take me to a ball game, and I'm all over it.
Which is not at all how I feel about hamburgers. And maybe that's because I'm a hypocrite. Or because hamburgers have kind of e.-coli-ed their way out of our forgiving hearts in recent years. Or because we have meatier expectations when it comes to burgers. But I've gotten picky about my burgers and picky about my buns. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I hate buying hamburger buns because they're either wheaty and fine and jaw-droppingly expensive at Whole Foods, or they're cheap and white and as intuitively edible as a flip-flop. ("Is this really something you're supposed to eat?" Ben once said, rolling a fistful of bun into a bright white ball the size of a Tic Tac.) Also, the off flavors gross me out--the way they seem to soak up all the off-gassed fumes from the detergents and air fresheners that are seven aisles over. Do you know what I'm talking about? No? Maybe it's just me.
But it doesn't even matter, because it's fun to make buns however you feel about the boughten ones: homemade hamburger buns are delicious and inexpensive and deeply satisfying to make. Plus, they're gorgeous and show-offy and as nutritious as the flours you choose to use. You won't be surprised to hear that I use a great deal of whole wheat, and the buns that result are full-flavored and sturdy--more than a mere vehicle for transporting your burger mouthwards. You also won't be surprised to hear that I use the no-knead method, here adapted from the recipe for "Soft American-Style White Bread" in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Except, of course, it's not white. And it's buns. You'll be mad if I say these are easy. Which is why I'm not saying it.
Makes 15 buns
Active time: 20 minutes; total time, including resting and refrigeration: 4 (plus) hours
Figure out what works for you, flour-wise. I want to say start with all white and then add in whole-grain little by little, but I honestly find it harder to go that direction, as one's family (and self) can become quite attached to the earlier squishy versions. I started with half and half and got gradually wheatier and this is, for us, a perfect balance of soft and wholesomely flavorful. I usually make the buns for beef hamburgers, which I always serve with chipotle mayo, but what's pictured here are the absolutely fabulous Bulgur Veggie Burgers with Lime Mayonnaise that I made for a vegetarian friend; they were as good as any burger I have ever eaten.
3 cups warm water
1 1/2 tablespoons yeast (2 packages)
1 1/2 - 2 tablespoons kosher salt, depending on your saltiness preference (or half as much table salt)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 stick butter, melted
7 cups flour (I use 3 cups white, 3 1/2 cups whole wheat, and 1/4 cup each ground flax and wheat germ.)
Pour the water into a large bowl, then sprinkle in the yeast, salt, and sugar, then stir in the butter and flour, mixing with a wooden spoon until there are no dry patches. The dough will be shaggy and sticky and this is fine. Cover it with plastic wrap or a shower cap and let it rest and rise at a warm room temperature for at least 2 hours and up to 5 hours, then--if you can--refrigerate it for an hour or longer before using it. You can shape the buns right away if you must, but even a brief chilling makes it so much less maddening, I find.
Cover two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.
At this point, I sprinkle the dough with flour and then take a knife to it and mark it into 14 or 15 pieces, just so I have a rough guide as I'm grabbing the dough to shape buns. Pull each piece of dough out and shape it into a little bun by rotating it in your hands to stretch its surface, pulling it under to create a taut, rounded top and a gathered-up bottom (imagine that you're giving the dough a firming face lift and tucking all that baggy, extra skin underneath, only in miniature, if you've already made the full loaves). You will want to do this kind of quickly, keeping your fingers moving lightly over the surface of the dough, rather than plunging them inside, where they will stick. If your hands get doughy, stop what you're doing, wash and dry them, re-flour the dough, and try again. As you shape each bun, place it on a prepared cookie sheet.
When all the buns are made, cover them with a dish towel or two, and leave them to rest until they are no longer cold to the touch--15 minutes or so if the dough was only briefly refrigerated, and a half hour if it is was colder for longer.
Heat the oven to 450 (or 425 if your oven runs hot.) Brush the rested buns with milk, sprinkle them with sesame seeds, and bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes, rotating the pans top to bottom and back to front after about 15. The buns should be deeply golden on top, brown on the bottom, and hollow-sounding when you tap them. Remove them to a baking rack, at which point I cover them again with a dishtowel to keep the surface from getting too crusty as they cool.
Leftover cooled buns can be frozen in Ziploc freezer bags for up to a month, and they're still quite good.