My fiancée is from a small town outside Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which is about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Chicago. It’s a place where the cheese is plentiful, the bratwursts ubiquitous, and the sheer variety of frozen pizza more stunning than you could imagine. We’re up there as often as we can be, and the last stop before we return to the city is always the Piggly Wiggly for one important souvenir: a bag of hard rolls.
Before I had reason to travel regularly to this part of Wisconsin, I had no idea hard rolls even existed. You can’t get them outside of the Sheboygan area (trust me, I’ve tried). They’re even harder to find than sport peppers outside of Chicago. But what are they, and why are they so special?
The hard roll is a yeasted dough that looks similar to a kaiser roll, round and bun-shaped, except it’s somewhat puffier, with a slightly dimpled split top. Despite the name, the hard roll isn’t hard or crackly at all: Its exterior has a firm, elastic chew to it, and the interior is fluffy and soft. There’s even a unique scent to the hard roll that I can’t quite find the words for, one that’s at once bready and tangy.
My description is doing hard rolls a disservice, because on paper, it all reads like an overblown description of a regular sandwich bun. But anyone who has tried one understands they’re unique. And they’re irresistible.
They’re used in all the typical ways you’d deploy a bun, like sandwiches like burgers, though the bread is slathered in butter before the patty is placed, and the rolls are usually hinge-cut instead of fully sliced in two. They’re also used to hold bratwursts, which was funny to me at first, since the ends of the sausage stick out awkwardly from each side. Now I can’t picture eating a brat any other way, because the bun is as much of a delight as the encased meat itself. You don’t just eat a hard roll, you tear into it.
Most mom-and-pop burger stands in the area, most of which are open only during the summer, use hard rolls for pretty much everything aside from hot dogs. The Sheboygan hard roll is just one of those unspoken staples in the bakery section at the supermarket. If you’re not from the area, it’s likely you’d miss them altogether, since they just look like regular hamburger buns at first glance.
There are two main bakeries that supply the area with hard rolls: Johnston’s Bakery and City Bakery. Locals usually swear by one or the other. My fiancée insists we get Fuzzy the Baker’s hard rolls, which hail from West Side Bakery. Though Fuzzy himself passed away earlier this year, the rolls still proudly bear his name.
Though there are a lot of things that make these hard rolls unique, longevity isn’t one of them—just like any other fresh-baked good, they go stale pretty quickly. You’ll want to eat them within a few days of purchase. Think of it as one more reason to visit Sheboygan with regularity, in addition to the area’s scenic lakefront and hiking forests. Make the grocery store your last stop before you hit the road, picking up some locally made brats and hard rolls by the armful.