Sugar and spice: hot cross buns
We take a look at the story behind hot cross buns, as well as the best-rated buns that you can find in major retailers. And because the best buns need a better butter to make those flavours sing, we also share some of our favourite Australian artisanal cultured butters.
A brief history of hot cross buns
While hot cross buns are now associated with Easter, their origins may date back to early AD. According to some sources, every Spring Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, pagan Saxons would celebrate Eostre, the Germanic goddess of spring. As part of the festivities, they would bake buns marked with a cross. The cross may have symbolised the four seasons or the four quarters of the moon, as well as the rebirth of world after a long, cold winter.
Another theory is that of a 14th Century English monk, who would bake crossed buns and distribute them to the poor on Good Friday. The buns’ popularity soon spread across the country and became a symbol of Easter.
But the oldest crossed baked goods may date back to Roman times. When archaeologists excavated the Roman city of Herculaneum, which suffered the same fiery fate as Pompei, they found two small, carbonised loaves. Each was marked with a cross.
In Christianity, hot cross buns are symbolic of the day Christ died on the cross. The spices used in traditional buns represent the spices used to embalm Jesus after he was crucified.
In the Early Modern Era, the holy nature of hot cross buns led to a range of beliefs about their supposed powers. One such belief was that if you baked and served hot cross buns on Good Friday, they wouldn’t grow mouldy for a year. Another was that you could use a piece of Good Friday bun to treat illness. If you took a bun with you on a sea voyage, it would protect against a shipwreck. And hanging a bun in the kitchen would protect against fires and ensure that all bread baked would turn out perfectly.
They became so revered that in the 16th Century, Queen Elizabeth I passed a law banning the sale of hot cross buns at any time other than Easter or Christmas. But the buns’ popularity endured, and people got around the ban by baking their own hot cross buns at home. The law was eventually rescinded. Now they go on sale at Woolies from January.
Which buns score best?
These days you can find hot cross buns of all descriptions. According to the Daily Mail, the Queen’s former chaplain Gavin Ashenden claims these blasphemous buns are the work of the devil. While that might be a tad extreme, we still reckon the traditional version will always be the best. And the taste-testing experts at Choice agree.
Despite the growing number of new flavour options hitting supermarkets each year, it was the traditional fruit bun from Woolies that topped the scoring in Choice’s 2022 taste test. Choice tested 23 hot cross buns across traditional, chocolate, and apple & cinnamon categories from Coles, Woolworths, IGA, Aldi, Bakers Delight and Costco. Each bun was given a Choice expert rating based on flavour, appearance, aroma and texture.
1. Woolworths Luxurious Richly Fruited Hot Cross Buns
Choice expert rating:84%
2. Aldi Bakers Life Indulgent Traditional Fruit
Choice expert rating:73%
3. Woolworths Indulgent Brioche Fruit Hot Cross Buns
Choice expert rating: 72%
1. Aldi Bakers Life Chocolate Hot Cross Buns
Choice expert rating: 73%
2. Coles Chocolate Hot Cross Buns
Choice expert rating: 71%
Best apple & cinnamon
1. Woolworths Indulgent Apple & Cinnamon
Choice expert rating: 72%
The final touches
If you want to make the most of your freshly toasted hot cross buns, using a quality butter is an absolute must. Forget that cheap supermarket stuff; if you really want the flavours of your bun to sing, what you need is a premium, artisanal butter. Most butter in supermarkets is industrially produced in large centrifuges. Artisanal cultured butter is made using a more traditional method that involves bacterial cultures and fermentation, along with churning. This gives you a creamier butter with less water, more fat and a much more deliciously complex taste and texture. Here are a few of our favourites.
Sydney-based artisan butter producer Pepe Saya has been making some of Australia’s best butter since 2010. Each product is batch-churned from single-origin cream, creating a natural and less processed product. You can find out more or buy online here.
Tasmanian Butter Co.
The Tasmanian Butter Co. produces handmade, small batch cultured butter using Tasmanian cream. Each batch is cultured slowly using traditional methods, then churned, hand-worked and salted to perfection. You can find more info here.
Meander Valley Dairy
Also in Tassie, Meander Valley Dairy uses traditional methods to produce a range of small batch butters and other dairy products. As well as salted and unsalted butter, there’s also pepperberry and lemon myrtle butters. You can check out the full range here.
St. David Dairy
St. David’s cultured butters are hand-crafted in small quantities from fresh pure cream and live cultures. Its salted and unsalted butters have won several awards, including gold at the Dairy Industry Association of Australia awards and overall highest scoring butter at the Sydney Royal Cheese and Dairy Produce Show. You can find the full range here.