Freeze and bake rolls: a head start on the holidays

What’s the best way to put fresh, hot, homemade yeast rolls on the dinner table at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, or [name your holiday] – without making yourself absolutely crazy?

Well, you can bake them now, wrap, and freeze. Then thaw and rewarm and serve. But somehow, they just won’t taste quite like fresh-baked.

Or you can make the dough, shape the rolls, refrigerate them overnight, and bake them the next day. But what if you don’t have time for that 2-day process and the day-before prep work (as you probably won’t, on the Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, or Christmas Eve)?

Freeze and bake rolls to the rescue!

I tested a slew of different make-ahead roll techniques for this post, from par-baked and frozen to risen and chilled to halfway risen and frozen to… well, it was controlled chaos in my kitchen, if you know what I mean.

And after the flour dust had cleared, the simplest solution was this: shape your kneaded (but unrisen) yeast dough into rolls. Place them in a pan and freeze. Once frozen, bag them airtight and stash in the freezer.

The day you want to serve them, take as many rolls as you want out of the freezer; place them in a pan; and let them thaw/rise for 4 to 5 hours or so. Bake. Enjoy.

You’re up at the crack of dawn anyway on Thanksgiving, right? If your turkey’s going to be hogging the oven from 6 a.m. to noon, get your frozen rolls out at about 7:30 a.m., and put them in their pan. By the time they’re fully risen, the turkey should be out of the oven and resting; pop the rolls in, along with any vegetable dishes that need rewarming. Bake for 20 minutes, while you’re carving the turkey.

Plated turkey. Hot vegetables. Oven-fresh dinner rolls. That’s the goal, and it looks like you’ve reached it.

Let’s take a look.

Freeze and Bake Rolls via @kingarthurflour

1. Make your dough with cool, not lukewarm, liquid (water or milk).

Why is this? You want the yeast to remain as dormant as possible for as long as possible, so it’s less vulnerable to damage during the freezing process.

Freeze and Bake Rolls via @kingarthurflour

2. Shape rolls as soon as your dough is fully kneaded.

I’m making our guaranteed Soft White Dinner Rolls here. Potato and milk make them moist and tender, adding rich flavor as well.

Note: If I plan on freezing these rolls for longer than 2 to 3 days prior to baking, I increase the amount of yeast by about 20% – just to be safe.

As soon as you’re done kneading the dough, shape it into rolls. That’s right; you’re not going to let the dough rise in the bowl first, as you usually would. Again, you want to minimize yeast activity.

Freeze and Bake Rolls via @kingarthurflour

3. Shape the dough into rolls.

Do this quickly; remember, you don’t want the yeast to start percolating.

Place the rolls in a pan lined with waxed paper or parchment. Cover the pan with plastic wrap or, as I’ve done here, a clear shower cap.

Place the pan in the freezer. Make sure to place it in the coldest part of your freezer, then leave the freezer door shut until the rolls are frozen hard. The more quickly they freeze solid, the better your final result will be. More on that later.

Freeze and Bake Rolls via @kingarthurflour

4. Freeze the rolls completely.

They should be rock-hard, with maybe a little frost on their surface. We’re not just chilling here; we’re FREEZING.

Freeze and Bake Rolls via @kingarthurflour

5. Bag the rolls and stash them in the freezer.

Frozen rolls should be good for a couple of weeks; longer than that, they start to noticeably lose their rising power due to yeast die-off; again, more on that later.

Freeze and Bake Rolls via @kingarthurflour

6. The day you want to serve freeze-and-bake rolls, remove them from the freezer.

Space the rolls in a lightly greased pan. Cover the pan (there’s that handy shower cap again!), and let them rise.

You can hurry the process by putting the pan somewhere warm, like in a corner of your busy kitchen. Or slow it down by putting it somewhere cool, like on the back porch. But standard-size frozen dinner rolls, frozen for just a couple of weeks, will take about 4 to 5 hours to thaw and then rise at cool room temperature (about 65°F to 70°F).

Freeze and Bake Rolls via @kingarthurflour

7. Bake the risen rolls.

Wow, these poor rolls are all by their lonely self! More typically for a holiday, they’d be surrounded by a green bean casserole, mashed squash, and scalloped potatoes.

Freeze and Bake Rolls via @kingarthurflour

8. Serve freeze-and-bake rolls warm from the oven.

Brush them with butter. Just because.

OK, that was easy, right? Well, scientifically speaking, it’s like that famous duck: serene up above, paddling like heck below the surface! For a relatively deep dive into yeast, freezing, and bread dough, keep reading.

I’m part of the EAT team here at King Arthur Flour. And while we do enjoy eating, the acronym stands for Education Advisory Team. Made up of various bakers/teachers/chefs from around the company, we make sure that the baking information and advice we pass along to you – via our baker’s hotline, kids’ classes, website, and printed materials – is accurate, consistent, and scientifically sound.

In starting this freeze and bake project, I turned to the team for advice on the best way to freeze yeast rolls.

Their answer? Don’t do it!

But after rounds of emails, the team concluded that yes, you can freeze yeast rolls, given a few caveats:

Freeze and Bake Rolls via @kingarthurflour

• Freeze for no longer than 2 weeks, 3 at the outside;
• Freeze as quickly as possible: in a 0°F freezer, without opening the door;
• Store where rolls will remain at a constant temperature, and completely frozen. This rules out self-defrosting freezers, which continually warm up, then cool down.

Why the cautionary notes? Well, some (but not all) of the yeast will be killed during freezing, thus lowering the rolls’ rising ability. But the bigger culprit is ice crystals, which develop during freezing. And the longer it takes for the rolls to freeze solid, the larger the ice crystals will be.

So what, you say? Ice crystals cut through the rolls’ gluten strands, creating a permeable network that allows CO2 from the developing yeast to escape. In other words – your rising rolls are full of (microscopic) holes. Not the best way to ensure a strong rise. In addition, those same ice crystals damage yeast – which is already stressed by being frozen.

Oh, and one more roadblock to high-rising rolls from the freezer: dead yeast releases a substance called glutathione, which acts as a natural dough relaxer. The more relaxed your dough, the less eager it is to rise upwards; it would rather spread outwards. The result? Rolls that don’t rise as high.

Dying yeast. Ice crystals. Glutathione. It’s a wonder frozen rolls turn out at all! But after explaining all of this to me in great detail, Jeff Yankellow, one of our company’s most talented bakers, summed it up like this: “Now having said all that, if I were to freeze dough for 2 to 3 weeks I probably wouldn’t change a thing to my process – although I would expect the leavening power to reduce over time.”

My advice? Do what I’ve done here. Use our guaranteed recipe for Soft White Dinner Rolls. Freeze the unrisen, shaped rolls for no longer than 2 weeks. Let them rise for 4 to 5 hours, then bake.

Freeze and Bake Rolls via @kingarthurflour

Trust me, you’ll think you’re enjoying absolutely fresh-made rolls.

Surely you can find the 20 minutes or so it takes to make and shape yeast rolls during those 2 weeks before Thanksgiving, right? After struggling for years with “When should I start the rolls?” – this is my favorite solution yet.

Now, what about using this technique with your own favorite dinner roll recipe? It should work just fine. We’ve found that the richer the roll (e.g., rolls made with milk, butter/oil, and/or eggs), the better the results. A “lean” dough (one made with simply flour, water, salt, and yeast) is more susceptible to freezer damage, since it’s easier for ice crystals to form in this type of dough.  

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Chris

    I will be making a yeast roll that is rolled into a rectangle, sprinkled with pesto, cheese and pepperoni then cut cinnamon roll style. Do you think that freezing before the final rise is the best solution here as well?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi, Chris. We’re not sure that freezing these filled rolls will work out well, we’re worried that filling might become too oily. Our suggestion would be to make your dough and follow the steps outlined here and freeze the plain dough. Then when the dough is defrosted you could roll the balls of dough out flat, fill them individually, roll them back up into a spiral, set them in a pan for their second rise and then bake as usual. We hope this tip helps. Happy baking! Morgan@KAF

  2. Rita

    I usually make sage ginger rolls with fresh sage and crystallized ginger rolled in the dough.
    Would this method work with this type of roll?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      This freeze and bake method should work out with your sage and ginger rolls, Rita! Happy baking! Morgan@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      For best results, we strongly recommend using a designed-to-be-gluten-free recipe for dinner rolls, like this one here: Gluten-Free Dinner Rolls. If you’d like to freeze your gluten-free rolls, we recommend baking them fully and THEN freezing. This will ensure a pleasant final texture and good overall rise. Happy GF baking! Kye@KAF

  3. Kathy Bolain

    Hi. You state that the rolls need to be in a freezer that is not self defrosting. Seen most refrigerators self defrosting these days or am I mistaking phraseology? Thanks.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Most freezers have a self-defrost mode that can be turned on or off; we recommend turning this off if you’re going to be storing baked goods in your freezer. If the baked goods continually go through cycles of freezing and thawing, it can compromise the final texture and consistency of the final products. If you don’t have this choice, try keeping your baked goods in the coldest part of your freezer to reduce the amount of thawing and re-freezing that happens. Kye@KAF

  4. Merrill Rush

    After shaping my rolls, I usually coat them with a 50/50 mix of melted butter and canola. Could I do this prior to freezing to prevent sticking together and possibly shielding dough from ice crystals ?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Try giving your rolls a gentle coating of butter/oil both before and after freezing (right before baking); this way you’ll get the benefit of brushing the rolls at both points in the process. The final rolls will be golden brown, rich with flavor, and supremely tender. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  5. Lawana Whaley

    In the past I have experimented with several of the techniques you listed in your trials, with mixed success. These hints will definitely help with my efforts to be ready ahead and/or have good rolls without the mix time.
    I normally use an overnight refrigerator rise technique for holiday rolls but am going to try this technique this year (on one pan of rolls at least as my clan would revolt if we don’t have yeast rolls on the table)
    Appreciate this site immensely!!

    Reply
  6. Maria

    Hi there, in the comment section for the original recipe, KAF replies to “Phil” recently (Nov 2018) that he has two options to make this recipe ahead, bake and freeze or parbake and freeze. It doesn’t describe the technique explained here. So my question is: what’s best practice in terms of flavor if one is to make this ahead for Thanksgiving? Shaping and freezing as described here, thawing the day of? Or what you recommended to Phil, bake and freeze then thaw and reheat? Also, if you guys could help me out with 20% more of 2 1/2 teaspoons of yeast I’d appreciate, LOL! I use SAF red. Likely making this the weekend before the feast. Thank you!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Maria! Both methods work. Freezing raw dough always kills some of the yeast which is why that added 20% (1/2 teaspoon by the way) helps, but it still won’t rise as much as it would had you baked it on the same day as it was made. This is why freezing after baking is another option, giving you the biggest rise possible. Flavor-wise they’ll pretty much be the same, it’s the rising that makes the difference. Annabelle@KAF

  7. Sue

    Does this technique work for loaves of bread as well? There are many times I want to make bread ahead a bit when I have the time to make the dough but have not done so for fear of ruining it.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Good thinking, Sue. This method doesn’t work quite as well with full loaves of bread as it does with rolls. Because rolls are small, they don’t need a lot of structure or support to rise high. Loaves, on the other hand, may be comprised if they skip the first rise (the bulk fermentation) and are then frozen. They’ll lack flavor and texture. If you have no other option, you’re welcome to give it a try, but you may find that the final loaf of bread is a bit flat. If you’d like to have bread on hand, consider freezing the baked loaf instead for best results. Kindly, Kye@KAF

  8. hannah

    So, putting together a bunch of techniques from your site for soft moist rolls: tangzhong, letting flour soak up liquid, and freeze ahead, I have cobbled together the following for the soft white dinner rolls recipe: Water, salt, sugar, milk scalded, adding some flour to create tangzhong, stirring in butter to melt in tangzhong. Adding warm slurry to flour/ potato flakes. I let this sit for 20 min or until cool/ room temp. I stir in dry yeast ( including the 20% increase). Knead until smooth. Form rolls quickly. Freeze. We shall see. Any thoughts?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi, Hannah! We would suggest following the Japanese Milk Bread Rolls recipe as written. Then use the freezing technique outlined here in this blog for best results and experiment from there. Happy baking! Morgan@KAF

  9. Marlene Arild

    Can you add some sour dough starter to any bread recipe in place of some of the water for additional flavor? What should be the ratio?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re glad you asked, Marlene. We actually have a full article on our blog about this very subject called, “Adding sourdough to a recipe.” In short, you can replace 4 ounces (a scant 1 cup) of the flour and 4 ounces (1/2 cup) of the water in the recipe with 1 cup of fed/unfed sourdough starter. If you used unfed starter, the flavor might be more sour. If you use fed starter, the rolls might rise faster but the sourdough taste may be most subtle. You’ll still want to use the full amount of yeast if you use unfed starter; you can experiment with reducing the yeast if you use fed starter. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

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