Wisconsin's Sheboygan Rolls Are A Little-Known Regional Icon

When you think of Wisconsin, chances are you're probably thinking about cheese, the Packers, and "That '70s Show." But if you aren't thinking "bread," it's time to think again. Introducing Sheboygan hard rolls. Don't let the "hard" part scare you — these regional beauties are actually soft, plush, and warm inside with a firm, toothsome exterior. They're puffy, bun-shaped yeasted rolls similar to Kaiser rolls and easily mistaken for regular hamburger buns. But the giveaway is the trademark cleavage that runs through the top of the roll. In a practical sense, the scoring also allows the gasses to escape from the bread as it bakes.

Sheboygan hard rolls are also called "semmel rolls." The thin, crispy outside crust comes from cornmeal, which helps the bread to slide off of the hot pan after baking. These substantial, chewy rolls are customarily around four inches wide and two inches tall, and they're traditionally baked in a brick oven. (For intrepid home bakers, a baking stone is a useful tool here.) Classic Sheboygan semmel rolls are made from some combination of bread flour, yeast, shortening, eggs, sugar, salt, and malt extract. Recipes vary, but either way, the bread emits a uniquely tangy, yeasty aroma that has kept Wisconsinite foodies coming back for decades.

A showcase of local culinary prowess

It's unclear exactly how hard rolls became the beloved regional staple they are today. But to Wisconsin foodies, the Sheboygan hard roll is a killer opportunity to patronize local businesses. The rolls are available exclusively within the Sheboygan area, and you can swing by the Piggly Wiggly to grab a bag. But for diehard fans, the three most prominent Sheboygan bakeries to secure a world-class hard roll are Johnston's Bakery, City Bakery, and West Side Bakery. In 2021, local news outlet the Sheboygan Sun even held a citywide vote to determine the best hard roll bakery in the region: City, Johnston's, and West Side were the three contenders.

City Bakery makes everything from cakes to donuts and pretzels, but the establishment is known for its hard rolls. It's a doughy creation rooted in tradition — owner Rick Navis has owned the establishment for 31 years but began working there as a custodian at the age of 17. Across town, Fuzzy — the local legend of West Side Bakery — purchased his establishment in his early twenties and turned it into a pillar of the community. The bakery has since been passed down to Fuzzy's son, but an illustration of Fuzzy's face is printed on the paper bags in which the hard rolls are served to customers.

Cozy comfort food with Midwest flair

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to Sheboygan hard rolls, and any way you choose to enjoy them is a good way. In Wisconsin, they're often used to house sandwiches, but rather than fully sliced in half, the roll is typically hinge-cut. Hard rolls are also commonly used as hamburger buns, but in these instances, both halves of the roll are generously buttered around the patty.

Semmel rolls are perhaps most famous for their association with brats. They're classically used as a bratwurst (not hotdog) bun, with both ends of the weenie protruding generously from the round roll. Fuzzy of West Side Bakery told local outlet Wisconsin Foodie that he preferred a bratwurst patty on a hard roll with Muenster cheese, butter, pickles, onions, and Grey Poupon mustard — according to him, it was a dish he ate at least four times a week.

No matter how you enjoy them, like any other bread roll, these bad boys are best if eaten within a few days of purchasing (or immediately). Fuzzy himself admitted that, if you eat them the same day, City Bakery has superior hard rolls. But, as he explained, West Side's hard rolls last for three or four days, which allows the bakery to work with other local retailers and ship wholesale. They're surely a treat to try if you're ever in the area!