The smell of bread or rolls fresh from the oven is one of the most comforting, homelike fragrances any kitchen can offer. Bread machines and stand mixers have taken much of the physical work out of baking bread, but it still takes a certain amount of time to make and shape bread or rolls. If you'd like to have fresh dinner rolls on the table with less fuss, you can make them ahead of time and refrigerate the dough overnight.
Making your rolls the day before can save you prep time the day of your dinner, but you may need to adjust the recipe slightly.
Yeast Roll Basics
Yeast doughs don't require a whole lot of ingredients, just flour, salt and water. Most recipes for dinner rolls add sugar, milk and butter or other fats to the dough, giving the finished rolls a softer texture and richer flavor. Ordinarily, you'd let the dough rise once or twice, then punch it down and form the rolls. After a final rise, they'd go into the oven and bake. However, you can also cover the dough and put it in your refrigerator overnight, slowing its rise. This is a technique that's often used by professional bakers, who refer to it as "retarding" the dough. You can either refrigerate finished rolls, or refrigerate the dough and finish them the next day.
Yeasts are living organisms, and like humans they work best when they're at a comfortable temperature. Cold slows them down, which is why many recipes instruct bakers to let dough rise in a warm, draft-free place. If you put your dough in the refrigerator, the yeast will still make it rise, but the rise will take much longer. Professionals and home bakers do this so the rolls will be ready to bake when they're needed. The slow rise also gives the flour's natural enzymes time to convert some of its starches to sugars, improving the flavor and color of the finished rolls.
If your recipe calls for a short rise at room temperature, it uses more yeast than you'll need for a cold overnight rise. Cutting the yeast by a third to half will prevent sour, over-fermented flavors, and will also help slow the rise of the dough. It'll take a few hours for the dough to chill, and during that time it will continue to rise. Often, it will need to be punched down once or twice. That results in misshapen rolls, so many bakers prefer to chill the dough for at least a few hours before shaping them.
If you've refrigerated the dough without shaping it, remove it from the refrigerator and shape your rolls as usual. They'll take a bit longer to rise than your recipe indicates, but will bake normally. Shaped rolls can go into the oven directly from the refrigerator, if they're fully risen. Otherwise, take them out of the fridge two hours ahead of mealtime to give the yeast a chance to warm up. Bake in a preheated oven as usual, extending their baking time by a few minutes if necessary. Rolls baked from cold dough will often puff more than usual in the oven's heat, creating a lighter, fluffier texture.