Bread

Your Guide to the Best Cinnamon Rolls of Your Life

April 17, 2015

We should all have a solid command of the ABCs of baking. Thankfully, Food52's Test Kitchen Manager Erin McDowell is here, with tips and tricks to help you master the most essential desserts and the simplest breads.

Today: Erin un-curls the cinnamon roll, from the dough to the filling to the frosting on top. 

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In my family, giant, gooey cinnamon rolls are a staple for special occasion breakfasts. Whether they came from the bakery down the road or fresh from my grandma’s oven, they’d be gone crazy fast—and not a speck of icing left behind. 

To me, a good cinnamon roll is made with a flavorful dough (butter and yeast, y’all), a solid filling, and a killer frosting. But a great recipe is just the start: Knowing how to work your dough, handle it, assemble it, and bake it are the real keys to success. And if the way these cinnamon rolls were devoured in the Food52 offices is any indication (it was like a swarm of adorably hungry, ooo-ing/aahing vultures, with eyes rolled back in their heads and fingers licked clean), the family legacy is very safe, indeed. 

Here's everything you need to know to make the best cinnamon rolls of your life:

  1. Dough
  2. Filling
  3. Assembly
  4. Baking
  5. Frosting
  6. Serving

(You can also head straight to the ingredient list and hightail it to the kitchen.)

* * * * *

1. The Dough
The dough is the base of any good cinnamon roll. In my opinion, it should be soft, buttery, and yeasty. For this reason, I like to use a simplified take on a brioche. Like brioche, this dough is enriched with eggs, milk, and plenty of butter, but unlike brioche, it’s a bit more forgiving and a bit easier to work with. Many other recipes for cinnamon rolls, on the other hand, call for a slightly less enriched dough, most commonly known as “sweet dough,” which serves as the basis for lots of other breakfast pastries and breads.  

Regardless of the type of dough you choose, the goal is to use a dough that has been mixed to full or intense gluten development. This dough will be stable and flexible enough that you can roll it out into a thin rectangle, yet it will be strong enough to handle being spread with filling and rolled up tightly. 

Because I don’t relish waking up at 4 A.M. to bake breakfast, I like to mix my dough the day before and refrigerate it overnight. In addition to saving some time the morning of, this has a few other advantages:

  • First, you can mix the dough without thinking ahead: It's fine to use milk and eggs cold from the fridge (you don't have to wait for them to come to room temperature).
  • Also, the flavor of the dough will benefit from a slow rise overnight in the fridge. This is especially great for highly enriched dough, which tends not to rise as much as lean dough and therefore benefits from a slow rise, during which the yeast feeds on the sugar and other enrichments, creating an excellent flavor (for all you hardcore yeast-lovers out there).
  • And if all that wasn’t enough for you, cold enriched dough is a lot easier to work with. For me, this is especially important in the summer, when no amount of air conditioning can make my kitchen cool. The last thing you want when you roll out your beautiful dough is a soft, soggy mess.

Mix the dough according to the recipe’s instructions, let it have its first rise (at room temperature), then pat it out onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. At this stage, it's ideal to keep the dough rectangular and even in thickness, as it will aid in the final rolling and shaping of the dough. If the dough is super sticky, I’ll spray nonstick spray on my hands and use that to help me press the dough out. Then I cover the dough directly with plastic wrap and transfer it to the fridge, where it will stay overnight. 

Note: If you’re really an all-in-one day type of baker, no worries: Use warm liquid and room temperature eggs (this will speed up the fermentation process to compensate for the shorter rising time), then let the dough rise as directed by the recipe. Before rolling out the dough, you'll pop it in the fridge for at least 1 hour or in the freezer for at least 15 minutes—you’ll get a similar chilled effect. Then, proceed with the recipe as written.

* * * * *

2. The Filling
Since the filling is all about building flavor, the base of most fillings is, naturally, butter. But you don’t have to rely on butter for the base—cream cheese, another soft cheese, or even coconut oil could all work.

For sweetness, I like to use a combination of brown sugar and granulated sugar, partially for the texture and partially for the flavor (dear molasses, I heart you), and partially for the color (the darker the filling, the more striking the contrast between the dough and the spiral inside, which just makes me happy). As with the butter, there is also flexibility with the sweetener and the flavorings, and I especially love using fresh fruit or nuts. Maple sugar and pecans? Dig. Mascarpone cheese and fresh blueberries? Super dig. I even like to toss all of the above out of the equation and just spread really good jam all over the dough. If you like your filling to be more substantial, you might want to consider adding an egg or some flour (or other thickener); this will give you a more defined layer of filling in the finished roll. I keep my filling pretty simple so that I can make these even before I’ve had coffee, plus I like all the flavors to just meld together in the oven. 

* * * * *

3. The Assembly
Here is where it all comes together, and where I get the most questions. I take the dough cold from the refrigerator and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Since the dough has been resting on a piece of parchment, I peel that away and flour the surface of the dough. Since I like my cinnamon rolls to have plenty of texture, I roll out the dough to about 1/2-inch thick. If you like a super chewy and doughy cinnamon roll, you may want to aim for closer to 3/4-inch thick. If you like maximum filling to dough ratio, you may want to go closer to 1/4-inch thick.  

It’s more important that you maintain a consistent dough thickness than a particular size. I say this because if you use a recipe other than the one attached to this article, it may yield a different amount of dough; rather than suggesting you roll into a 12- x 17-inch rectangle, for example, I’d rather recommend with total certainty that you aim for an appropriate thickness. I roll out the dough to the proper thickness, using a dough scraper to maintain a rectangular shape to the edges while I work. The more squared off the edges, the more “perfect” the roll will be. The takeaway here? If it’s not a perfect rectangle, it’s really no big deal—you’ll just end up with some pieces that are slightly wonkier than the rest. If the dough is feeling very tacky or soft after rolling, it’s best to throw it back in the refrigerator or freezer for 10 to 15 minutes. Otherwise, apply your filling right away.

  

I dollop my spreadable filling all over the surface of the dough, then use an offset to spread it into an even layer. The main goal is to get the filling all the way to the edges of the dough for maximum coverage of cinnamon-y goodness. 

To roll the dough into a spiral, make sure one of the longer edges of the rectangle is facing you. Starting with the long side closest to you, begin to roll the dough away from you. The easiest way to do this is to form C-shapes with both of your hands, with your thumbs pushing at the base edge of the dough and your fingers keeping the roll tight from above while you work. Continue pushing the dough up with your thumbs to roll it into a spiral. The tighter the spiral, the easier the dough will be to cut. But don’t make the dough too tight or it might not expand evenly and properly (for the record, I’ve never seen anyone effectively roll an enriched dough too tight. It’s not particularly easy to do so). 

If the dough is sticky or tacky, transfer the roll to a baking sheet and chill it in the fridge or freezer until it’s firm to the touch. When it’s cool enough, use a serrated knife to cut the dough into individual pieces. Why a serrated knife? With a regular knife (or even a slicer), you either have to press down—which smushes the layers together—or use a sawing motion, which can create uneven lines in the cut side. Some people like to use plain dental floss or twine to cut the rolls—this definitely works to make a pretty clean cut. The thicker you cut the rolls, the more monstrous they will be (think Cinnabon-style). But too thin isn’t good because you won’t get that ooey, gooey center everyone loves so much. My ideal width is 1 1/2 inches (2 inches if I’m feeling saucy). 

Arrange the cut rolls in a generously buttered baking dish (you’ve already used a few sticks, so why stop now?). I like to give the rolls a bit of room to expand, leaving 1/4 inch between each one inside the pan. If you place the rolls close together, it can force them to rise upward (meaning the middle of the spiral may be higher than the outer edges of the roll). If you like this, go to town. If you want even rolls, give them a little room.

  

* * * * *

4. The Baking
In theory, this is the easy part. I like to let the rolls rise one more time in a warm spot (near the preheating oven, for example)—you don’t need too long here, just 30 to 45 minutes.

Right before baking, I egg-wash the rolls to encourage even browning and give a little shine. Remember that enriched dough is going to have no problem browning, so you don’t want to go too high with your oven temperature—375° F is my preference.

Finally, baking time is the most important element of all. A great man once said: “'Tis a far, far better thing to underbake your cinnamon rolls slightly…” Okay, no one may have ever said that, but I’m saying it now: Don’t overbake your cinnamon rolls! They’ll be crunchy, not soft. They’ll be firm, not gooey. Err on the side of under-baking and remember that they will carry-over-cook a little bit (and more so if you bake them in a dark metal or cast-iron pan). Baked cinnamon rolls should be golden on the surface, with a melty and/or bubbly filling. If you press a finger into the center of a spiral it should be set but still have some give.

* * * * * 

5. The Frosting
I still do this the way my grandma taught me, which is to add some cream to powdered sugar and throw a little vanilla in too. Yes, this is decadent. Yes, you can use milk instead. In fact, you can use any kind of frosting you like: cream cheese-based, royal icing, or anything really! I let the rolls cool for 10 to 15 minutes before applying a generous smear of frosting while they’re still warm. This promotes the gooeyness and the frosting will melt a little before setting back up as it cools. You can also let the rolls cool completely before applying the frosting (you’ll definitely want to do this if you want a particular pattern or drizzle effect, as warm rolls will make it all run together). 

* * * * *

6. The Serving 
There was one sacred rule in our household: Cinnamon rolls should be warm. I serve mine fresh from the oven, but I can’t always be so lucky. As crazy as it sounds, you can warm your baked cinnamon rolls in the microwave (yes, the microwave). The oven can dry them out too much, but the microwave is wonderfully efficient. Ten to 15 seconds is usually all you need. You’ll almost forget that they aren’t fresh from the oven! 

* * * * *

Cinnamon Rolls

Makes 1 dozen big cinnamon rolls  

For the dough:

22 ounces bread flour
3 1/2 ounces sugar
10 grams yeast
15 grams salt
8.6 ounces eggs (cold from the refrigerator)
7.7 ounces milk (cold from the refrigerator)
9 ounces soft unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan 

For the filling:

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons cinnamon
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Egg wash, for finishing

For the icing:

3 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup heavy cream, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Bobbi Lin 

47 Comments

Brenda P. January 15, 2018
I made it tonight, they were more than perfect. I struggled a little with the onces but I used a conversor* (ounces to grams) easy and delicious.
 
Picholine January 12, 2018
Ok all set to make , 22 ounces of flour ? How can I measure that ?<br />I don’t have a scale .
 
Author Comment
Erin M. January 12, 2018
You can use 5 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour!
 
Picholine January 12, 2018
Thanks so much. Can you help me with the rest of ounces converted too....also any way I can add a notation to the recipe on my saved recipe areas
 
Brenda P. January 15, 2018
If you click “see the complete recipe and print” you will see all the ingredients in ounces and cups or grams. But you can also use a webpage conversor (if that make sense) to convert from ounces to grams.
 
True C. October 28, 2017
Are you ever taste Ceylon cinnamon? It is a different spice than commonly available Cassia cinnamon. In many countries, the term 'cinnamon' is addressed to Cassia cinnamon in the market. Ceylon cinnamon is rare and expensive. Also known as true cinnamon, Ceylon cinnamon is the safe cinnamon due to low coumarin content. <br />Read more: http://www.trueceylonspices.com/ceylon-cinnamon/
 
robin June 18, 2017
Once you start using ounces & grams to bake it's easier & faster...try it.
 
Varvel April 30, 2017
Please speak in plain words. <br />How many eggs is your 8.6oz?<br />How many cups of sugar is your 3 1/2 oz - and how many cups of flour is 22oz.<br />How many tablespoons is 10 grams?...<br />I don't want a math test before I use a recipe!!!<br />Remember...We are homemakers - not professional Chiefs​.
 
Jody C. January 6, 2018
I know! 8.6 ounces of eggs??? Can't you say 3 eggs?????
 
Nuwan March 25, 2017
just want to tell you a good place to get best ceylon cinnamon. try http://www.cinoceylon.com/
 
Faith December 2, 2016
Can you freeze these to be baked later? If so, how would you recommend doing that?
 
Chef D. November 22, 2015
looks amazing! I want some of those cinnamon rolls :)
 
Valerie September 13, 2015
Is it okay to use a breadmaker to mix the dough, as I don't own an electric mixer with a hook attachment? Thank you.
 
Maria-Elena G. July 21, 2015
Thank you for the recipe. I am interested to do Chocolate rolls instead of Cinnamon. Would you have an idea how can i do the chocolate filling please. Thank you once again.
 
Whitney June 23, 2015
I use a similar recipe which works for me but I am taking away the idea of giving the buns an egg wash for extra colour. I've only ever used dark brown sugar with cinnamon and a pinch of salt and I butter the dough and then sprinkle the sugar on top. I will try adding some large grain white sugar next time. For those who don't want the monster rolls - I divide the dough in two and make skinny rolls with two 6" X 17" rectangles of dough. Also, these buns tend to stick so I always put a piece of parchment in the bottom of the pan.
 
Sharon June 19, 2015
Does it have to be bread flour?
 
Helen F. June 19, 2015
As a professional baker we used bread flour with yeast products but all purpose flour can be used with not too much difference. Bread flour has a higher protein count which works with yeast for a higher rise.
 
Sharon June 19, 2015
Thank you, Helen.
 
Kelly E. May 18, 2015
My dough is extremely sticky, gluey, and won't hold a ball shape...an amorphous blob! What have I done wrong?
 
jpriddy May 1, 2015
Click the link at the bottom of the recipe above and you will find measurements are now offered in cups, the milk is clarified as fluid ounces, etc.
 
ELB May 1, 2015
Thank+you+for+an+excellently+detailed+recipe.+For+those+complaining+about+the+measurements:+get+a+digital+scale.+And+stop+whining.+
 
Ana April 30, 2015
Keep in mind that just as there is a difference in measure between table salt and coarse kosher salt there is a difference between all coarse salts. Not all use the same size grind. There is , for example, a difference between Morton and Diamond Crystal.
 
KatieF April 30, 2015
I'm slightly confused about the rolling process... The recipe says to start rolling with the long side facing you, but in the pictures above they're clearly starting with the shorter side. Am I reading it wrong? Or did they do it reverse?
 
Ana April 28, 2015
If+a+recipe+calls+for+kosher+coarse+salt+do+not+subtitute+with+a+tablespoon+of+table+salt.+Use+1/2+tablespoon.++The+finer+grain+of+table+salt+in+equal+measure+will+be+too+salty.
 
jpriddy April 28, 2015
I have kosher salt, but thank you for the warning. I assumed I would need to cut back, but didn't know the proportion. You inspired me to go looking and I found a conversion table: http://www.mortonsalt.com/for-your-home/culinary-salts/salt-conversion-chart
 
Robert April 27, 2015
I will be substituting the Dairy components for non-dairy components. Thanks for a yummy looking recipe.
 
Angela P. April 27, 2015
Thank you Helen, that was wonderful of you!