The 19th Century Table: Parker House Rolls (including recipe)

Kathleen Rice Adams header

Harvey D. Parker, father of Parker House Rolls
Harvey D. Parker (sculptor John D. Perry, 1874), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

When 20-year-old Harvey D. Parker arrived in Boston on a packet from Maine, the young man had only $1 in his pocket. Even in 1825, $1 wasn’t enough to sustain him for more than a day, so Parker took the first job he could find: caring for a horse and a cow at a salary of $8 per month. A series of other subsistence jobs followed, until he found one that set him on a career path from which he’d earn a fortune.

While working as a coachman for a wealthy socialite, Parker frequently ate his noon meal in a dingy basement tavern. In 1832, he bought the tavern for $432 and renamed it Parker’s Restaurant. Excellent food served by an attentive staff soon made the place a popular dining spot for the city’s newspapermen, lawyers, and businessmen. By 1847, the restaurant was one of the busiest and most well-regarded in the city.

In 1854, Parker and a partner bought a boarding house that once had been a grand mansion. They razed the structure and built an ornate, five-story brick-and-stone hotel on the site. The elegant hotel, named simply Parker’s, opened with great fanfare on April 22, 1854, and quickly became the establishment for upper-crust travelers. Notable guests included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and Charles Dickens. John Wilkes Booth stayed at Parker’s only days before he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

Parker's hotel, where Parker House Rolls were born.
Parker’s (19th century photo by Leander Baker)

At the time, the few existing hotels (most travelers took lodging in taverns or boarding houses) operated on “the European plan,” which included meals in the cost of a room. Meals were served family-style at given hours; if a lodger missed the hour, he went without food.

Parker’s hotel introduced a new concept: Rooms and meals were priced separately. Guests were offered menus appropriate to the time of day and ate virtually anytime they pleased. The upscale food was prepared by a kitchen staff and served in a grand dining room, where members of the public were invited to dine at their convenience, too.

The restaurant introduced dishes that remain popular today, including Parker House rolls and Massachusetts’s state dessert, Boston cream pie. According to legend, the rolls resulted when an angry chef tossed unfinished dough into the oven, accidentally creating a bread diners demanded ever after.

Parker's dining room, where diners demanded Parker House Rolls
Parker’s dining room, ca. 1910

Today, the Parker House is part of the Omni Hotels chain of high-end lodging establishments. Omni chose to maintain the original property’s lux décor, for the most part. The walls remain burnished American oak; lobbies, bars, and the restaurant resonate with the deep colors of yesteryear; massive crystal chandeliers sparkle in the public areas, and elevator doors are overlaid with a patina of burnished bronze.

Recipes for the hotel’s signature dishes reportedly remain unchanged, as well. Understandably, Omni Parker House doesn’t reveal its culinary secrets, but intrepid cooks and bakers take that as a challenge. Recipes for Parker House rolls began appearing in cookbooks in the 1880s. Fanny Farmer revealed what she claimed to be the original in her 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.

Here it is, with baking instructions for modern kitchens.

Parker House Rolls

Parker House Rolls
Parker House rolls, courtesy King Arthur Flour

1¾ cup scalded milk

¼ cup lukewarm water

2 Tbsps. active dry yeast

1 cup butter, melted and cooled to room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

2 teaspoons salt

1 large egg

6 cups all-purpose flour


1. Dissolve yeast in water.

2. In large bowl, combine 1/2 cup butter, sugar, and salt.

3. Stir in water/yeast mixture, milk, and egg.

4. Add 3 cups flour and beat thoroughly. The mixture should resemble a thick batter. Cover and let rise until at least double.

5. Stir down sponge, then stir in enough flour to make a soft dough (about another 2½ cups).

6. Turn dough onto lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes, working in more flour (about ½ cup) while kneading.

7. Shape dough into a ball and place in large, lightly greased bowl, turning so that top of dough is greased. Cover with towel; let rise in warm place (80 to 85 degrees F.) until doubled, about 1½ hours. (Dough is doubled when 2 fingers pressed into dough leave a dent.)

8. Punch down dough by pushing the center of dough with fist, then pushing edges of dough into center. Turn dough onto lightly floured surface; knead lightly to make smooth ball, cover with bowl for 15 minutes to let dough rest.

9. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

10. In 17¼-inch by 11½-inch roasting pan, melt remaining ½ cup butter over low heat; tilt pan so melted butter coats entire bottom.

11. On lightly floured surface with floured rolling pin, roll dough ½ inch thick.

12. Cut dough into circles with floured 2¾-inch round cutter. (Note: The dough may be cut into rectangles instead of circles.) Holding dough circle by the edge, dip both sides into melted butter pan; fold in half.

13. Arrange folded dough in rows in pan used to melt the butter. Each roll should nearly touch its neighbors. Cover pan with towel; let dough rise in warm place until doubled, about 40 minutes.

14. Bake rolls for 15 to 18 minutes until browned.



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13 thoughts on “The 19th Century Table: Parker House Rolls (including recipe)”

  1. Amazing what people did to survive taking any and all jobs they can until you finally can save a little for something better in the future. Like $432 and starting a restaurant to a hotel empire eventually which is even now one of the first of its kind and stands strong and proud. Even having an angry chef make a mistake in baking be one of the menu best selling item and known throughout the world as your signature roll. Tasty mistakes are totally flawsome. But who knows the exact original recipe, we may never know for sure but they are fun to guesstimate and sample nonetheless. Yeah to the famous Parker House Rolls, they make any dinner more tasty and enjoyable especially spread with butter while still warm, yum. Thanks for letting us in a bit of Boston history today Kathleen, and who knows maybe some of my ancestors were around to enjoy it all back then. My family is from Massachusetts originally here in this country and Fall River for my two brothers, both parents and their dad’s that I know of, not sure on the others since only genealogy research will help on that. Liaise Borden was the local legend back when my mom would rollerskating in the town cemetery and Lizzie Borden’s grave as a kid. I am the 1st California kid in my family so have never gone back East to visit yet.

  2. I love rolls, although when I was growing up, remade cloverleaf rolls instead of Parker House rolls. A difference in shape, but if the same dough is used, no difference in taste. I do a sour cream crescent roll for special dinners. They are so rich and so good. I love breads and enjoy making them. That being said, I try not to make bread and rolls very often. I’ll eat way too much of them if they are home made. Thanks for an interesting post.

  3. I love rags to riches stories. One of the first foods I learned to bake were homemade rolls. They were refrigerator potato rolls. I should see if I can find the recipe. Sadly, I lost mine. I haven’t tried making Parker House rolls. I really should because those look so good.

  4. Such a great ‘success’ story. Of course the ‘rolls’ are the best. Now, I just remember how great they were. (That gluten thing…sigh). Thank you for digging and sharing the story. Got the old brain cells working. Doris

  5. Kathleen,

    I have an aunt who made Parker House rolls for every holiday dinner when I was a kid. She claimed to have the ‘original’ recipe. She was so secretive about her recipe that not only wouldn’t she share it, she banned her family (and everyone else) from the kitchen when she made them so no one would learn the secret. This aunt is my dad’s twin, and they were born in 1931. She’s still going strong and is as snooty as ever. *wink* I have no idea if she’s passed the recipe down to her children, but I hope so.

  6. Kathleen, I LOVE those rolls! I never knew where they originated from though. Very interesting. I’d rather have hot bread than a dessert any day. Especially if there’s butter involved! You can look at my rear and tell that. Ha!

  7. Howdy Tex, what a cool post. I saw the Parker Hotel walking around Boston, but admit I am too terrified of yeast to try this recipe. I killed some cinnamon rolls as a child and still mourn. xo

  8. LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVE these rolls. My hubby’s aunt from KY taught me how to make them. They sure don’t last long after I make a batch.

  9. I went to college in Boston so we walked by the hotel numerous times, sometimes on the Freedom Trail, but just as often toward the North End where all of the Italian eateries are, or on the weekend to Haymarket for some fresh food treats. Boston’s a great city with loads of things to do and see, and where walking about is the best way to see things. Back then I certainly wasn’t “well to do” so I couldn’t stay at the Parker, but I count my blessings for being able to go to a wonderful college in a absolutely wonderful city.

  10. Thank you for your interesting post and wonderful recipe. These would be great to prepare for Thanksgiving.

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