A Brief Guide to British Buns

September 14, 2017

I’m Food52’s favourite Brit (probably) and I’m writing this piece as much for myself as for you. There are buns in abundance on these tiny British isles, and I’ve never been clear on their nuances. For instance, there is such a thing as a “currant bun,” but there are several buns with currants in them.

Some of the buns on this list are regional specialties and others can be found in the window of any good high street baker (in east London, we have our own small bakery chain: Percy Ingle is a name, so ensconced in our daily lives it’s used in some circles as slang for “personal favorite”). So, here we go, then. Brew yourself a cup of tea and settle in for the bun show.

Photo by Louise Sheeran

Bath Bun

It’s the crystals of sugar that catch your eye. There’s a centralized pool of them on the top, and a cluster of currants, too. Bath’s Georgian, honey-colored streets lend themselves very well to a leisurely tea-and-bun break, but if the idea of hidden sugar lumps puts your teeth on edge (they’re baked into the bottom), there’s another bun in town…

Sally Lunn Bun

This is more puffed up than the Bath bun. It looks like a really airy brioche burger bun, because that’s basically what it is. Legend reckons it was invented by a 17th-century Huguenot refugee from France named Solange Luyon. People couldn’t be bothered to pronounce her name (because people are awful) so they went for Sally Lunn instead. That story is widely accepted as total rubbish now, but I for one am up for renaming this bun. Behold: The Solange.

Photo by Louise Sheeran

Chelsea bun

These are swirl-shaped currant buns that look like cinnamon buns or pain au raisins, but often aren’t as delicious. (I didn’t say that.) A good Chelsea bun is soft, plump and sweet, and full of raisins and spice. You shouldn’t need to go to Chelsea to get one; they sell them at most British supermarkets.

Belgian bun

As far as I can tell, if you take a Chelsea bun and cover it with white icing and a glacé cherry, it becomes a Belgian bun. Does anyone know what Belgium thinks of this? (Tell us in the comments!)

Hot Cross Bun

These are traditionally eaten at Easter and are easily recognizable by the crosses they bear. Don’t let that put you off. They’re usually full of lovely dried fruit, mixed spices, and candied citrus peel, and are best lightly toasted (not crucified) and well-buttered.

Photo by Louise Sheeran

Iced Bun

Lots of us grew up on these—arguably the most basic buns at the baker’s (and the best). They’re fingers of enriched dough, batch-baked so they have to be prised apart, leaving their sides super-soft. They’re topped with an icing-sugar glaze.

Cornish Saffron Bun

Just another enriched bun full of dried fruit, spices and candied peel, but this one has ideas above its station. Its deep golden color makes it an occasion bun, thanks to the presence of “saffron” (more often than not, it’s food coloring).

Photo by Louise Sheeran

Black Bun

Bun by name; pastry-wrapped, dark, spicy fruit loaf by nature. This Scottish non-bun is traditionally given to “first-footers” on Hogmanay —that is, the first people through a household’s front door on New Year’s Day.

Currant Bun

I’m going with this definition: any bun that has currants in it (including most of the buns on this list). Just don’t ask me where teacakes come in. Currant bun is also cockney rhyming slang for our very worst newspaper, The Sun—an insult to bun-loving Brits everywhere.

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Did we miss your favorite bun? Let us know in the comments!

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Leil February 21, 2021
I was wondering if you had any suggestions for a good cookbook with various British buns in it?
starting I. September 15, 2017
Despite being almost completely of British ancestry I know next to nothing about buns! Loved this story.