Getting Ready to Roll

Global sales of rolls and buns remain strong, with the market recovering from the pandemic-enforced lockdown of many foodservice establishments (which impacted upon demand for products such as burger buns). The category is wide and diverse, serving a multitude of different eating occasions, while recent activity from manufacturers has gone some way towards overcoming many of the health concerns that have adversely affected sales of bakery goods in the past. 

By Jonathan Thomas

The bread rolls sector is wide-ranging, encompassing a variety of different products. These incorporate a range of ingredients, with the result that tastes and textures vary considerably throughout the sector. In terms of shapes, for example, many rolls and buns are circular, but the market also includes products such as sub rolls and finger rolls, which naturally lend themselves to certain types of fillings. Across much of Europe, eating occasions for bread rolls are heavily skewed towards times of the day such as breakfast and lunch, although some varieties are eaten as meal accompaniments during dinner. Rolls are extremely versatile in that they can be consumed with a vast multitude of accompaniments, ranging from butter to sweet toppings (e.g. jam), cheese and hot foods (e.g. bacon). 

The UK has one of Western Europe’s largest markets for bread and morning rolls. Although tastes are broadly similar throughout the country, the market does encompass various regional specialties possessing their own distinctive characteristics. Notable examples include the following:

  • Baps – although these are eaten widely throughout the UK, their origin is believed to be Scottish. Baps represent one of the UK’s most popular forms of morning roll, suitable for breakfast fillings such as bacon or sausages. Ingredients typically include flour, milk, sugar, salt, yeast and either butter or lard.
  • Barm cakes – despite their name, these are bread rolls associated with the North-West region of England. They are soft rolls usually topped with flour prior to the baking process. In the past, they were traditionally leavened with barm, the froth formed during the fermentation of beer or wine. Barm cakes are often used as a carrier for chips. 
  • Dorset knob – a traditional rusk-style roll originating from the county of the same name. These rolls have a distinctive hard and crumbly texture, the ingredients for which include flour, sugar and yeast. Although they are sometimes dunked in tea, they are more commonly eaten with butter and/or cheese. 
  • Kent Huffkins – another type of roll associated with one of England’s counties, these are circular to oval-shaped and feature a dimple in the center. They are often eaten with jam or cherries. 
  • Bath buns – these are sweet rolls traditionally associated with the south-western city of Bath. They are topped with crushed sugar after the baking process, sometimes with the addition of dried fruits such as sultanas or raisins. 

To these can be added other varieties of rolls and buns more strongly associated with non-UK cuisines. Examples include kaiser rolls (round and crusty bread rolls which originate in Austria), ciabatta buns (which are traditionally square-shaped with a crispy crust and soft texture) and potato buns, which are extremely soft in texture and have a long shelf-life. Much of the recent NPD activity has been driven by the greater consumer desire for alternative flavors and textures, with new product activity reflecting the innovation taking place within the bread market. It is for this reason that rolls made from whole grain or sourdough bread have appeared in greater numbers, as well as the emergence of more seeded products. 

Across much of Europe, the buns used to accompany burgers have tended to be of the brioche variety, enriched with egg and butter. However, as the sector has developed, manufacturers have increasingly been inclined to experiment with taste and texture – for example, the Waitrose range in the UK includes brioche burger buns flavored with savory black summer truffle. Seeded varieties are also present within the sector, offering a novel taste sensation as well as additional health appeal. 

In markets such as the UK, bao buns have been gaining favor, especially within the foodservice sector. These have an Asian heritage and come in many different shapes, sizes and flavors. Bao buns are typically served warm and filled with foods such as slow-cooked meat, crunchy salad and various pickles and/or sticky sauces, although they are often eaten with breakfast fillings in the Chinese market. Their most distinctive feature is their soft and fluffy nature, which results from the steaming process used to make them. 

Pretzel buns represent another possible alternative to brioche burger buns, although they have yet to make the same kind of headway as bao buns. These combine the distinctive chewy nature of a pretzel with the convenience and versatility of a burger bun, although their high salt levels represent a possible disadvantage on health grounds. In the past, the Wendy’s restaurant chain has experimented with pretzel buns for some of its burgers, but these appear to have been discontinued at present. 

It has also been speculated that cornbread represents a potential competitor to traditional brioche burger buns in markets such as the UK. Although cornbread is a popular meal accompaniment in many parts of the US, it has yet to make significant inroads in European markets. Much of this is because maize represents a key ingredient, and this is not as widely grown in countries such as the UK due to its cooler climate (where cereal crops like barley, wheat and oats are more frequently found). Nevertheless, cornbread has started to appear in some foodservice establishments such as restaurants, usually as a starter or a side dish. 

One popular type of bun in the UK, other Commonwealth countries (e.g. Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa) and parts of the Americas such as the US and Canada is the hot cross bun. This is typically a spiced sweet bun made with dried fruit and marked with a cross – for this reason, it is most frequently associated with Good Friday, just before Easter, although as the market has developed, hot cross buns have become a popular all-year option. The UK has one of the world’s largest markets, with sales valued at GBP37m in 2021. Tesco reported a 20% surge in sales of its hot cross buns during Easter 2021, which led it to open a hot cross bun café in Shoreditch in London the following year. Open for a period in April 2022, this served brunch, afternoon tea and evening meals with a hot cross bun theme. 

You can read the rest of this article in the July-August issue of European Baker & Biscuit magazine, which you can access by clicking here

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