If you’ve ever had to kill time during a flight layover, then you’ve most likely followed your nose to the nearest Cinnabon outpost. We wouldn’t blame you. The lure of rich, aromatic rolls is practically irresistible: warm, cinnamon-streaked pastries drizzled with runny frosting that seeps into their folds. It’s the full package.
“When you take them out of the oven, they’re the most fragrant of the breakfast desserts,” says Matt Lewis of the Brooklyn bakeshop Baked, a sentiment also echoed by Susan Reid, another pastry connoisseur at King Arthur Flour. “Warm cinnamon is the most addictive thing I can think of,” she says.
Historically speaking, our aromatic giant cinnamon buns are the all-American descendants of a European sweet yeast-bread tradition that’s often traced to Scandinavia in particular, where the buns come in too many sizes, shapes, and flavors to count. That sounds potentially complicated—multiple rises, elaborate rolling instructions, frosting consistency—but the art of making rolls is friendlier to home cooks than may appear.
“Because you’re eating them warm right out of the oven, they’re fairly forgiving,” says Reid.
Based on her credentials, we’re apt to believe her. That’s why we tapped Reid, along with Lewis and Joanne Chang—whose Boston bakery, Flour, makes buns so sticky that they’re fittingly dubbed “sticky sticky buns”—for a master class on how to get achieve cinnamon-bun glory outside of an airline terminal or mall.
Here is the complete guide to making cinnamon buns at home.
1. The Dough
Yeasted dough enriched with butter, eggs, and milk gives these pastries their stretchy, chewy texture. You can turn out a brioche, which is what Chang relies on to make her rolls at Flour. That sounds sophisticated, but “it’s a straightforward dough to make at home if you have a mixer,” she says. “Use cold butter and cold water so that the friction caused by the mixing doesn’t warm up the dough too much.” Or, make a simple dough with milk and melted butter, like this recipe from Alton Brown. You can use some buttermilk instead of the milk for an extra hint of tanginess.
Once you’ve mixed the dough together, you’ll want to knead. Go for it—push and pull it against the counter for five or ten minutes, until the dough feels smooth and stretchy. There’s a lot of talk about not overworking dough, and that’s basically true—you can wind up with a roll that’s tough if you knead forever. Better to jump in than to shy away though. Always remember, buns are forgiving. Lewis says: “Just don’t be too scared of it.”
2. Rising & Timing
The sweet yeasted dough needs time to rise twice. The first rest happens right after you make it. That’ll take around an hour or two. Many recipes say to let the dough double in size, but watching for an inflated, puffy look is actually the better clue. After that rise, you fill, roll, and cut the buns.
Then there’s the second rise, known as the “proof,” which lasts another hour or so. Proofing is instrumental in getting the right light and fluffy texture, says Chang, so leave time for that. “An over-proofed bun will bake off almost tight in texture. But on the flip side, an under-proofed bun will be hard and chewy and not appetizing.” A bun that’s done proofing will feel soft and pillowy and will wiggle “like a water balloon” when you poke, she says.
This schedule means that if you want to eat cinnamon buns at, say, 10am, you’ll have to be kneading dough at 5am—fine for a professional baker, but untenable for a normal human. Here’s how to hack the timeline: do everything from dough through assembly the night before, but put on the brakes before you preheat the oven. Then, let the buns proof at room temperature for about half the time specified in the recipe before transferring them to the fridge to slow the proofing overnight. In the morning, put them on the counter for 30 to 45 minutes, while the oven preheats, so that they come back up to room temperature before they go in. You can also freeze the assembled buns for up to a month, letting them come to room temperature before baking.
Traditional filling is nothing more than butter, swiped across rolled-out dough, and cinnamon, brown sugar, and salt, sprinkled on top. You can vary the amount of cinnamon, from as little as a teaspoon to much as a tablespoon. Since the filling’s so good, there’s an easy temptation to add extra butter and sugar, but Reid says to rein in that impulse. “Butter has a tendency to run right out,” she says. That’s counterproductive. If you’re serious and science-minded, she does have some tricks for increasing filling bulk: you can brush the dough with milk instead of butter, then use cinnamon, sugar, and flour in the filling (the flour holds the filling in). Another option is to buy a product called modified food starch, which is cornstarch treated to absorb the liquid from the butter and sugar as it bakes, and add that to the cinnamon, sugar, and butter.
For 12 buns, with a basic cinnamon-sugar filling, you’ll want to spread on 2 tablespoons of melted or very soft butter, followed by a sprinkle of mixed-together brown sugar (1/4 cup), white sugar (2 tablespoons), ground cinnamon (1 to 3 teaspoons), a big pinch of salt, and a few tablespoons of melted butter. You can also play around with ground coconut flakes, a few raisins, or chopped nuts. Keep the quantities small, so the filling doesn’t overwhelm the buns.
When the dough has risen and is nice and puffy, turn it out onto the counter and push it into a rectangle. You shouldn’t have to flour the surface, but if the dough sticks, flour only lightly. Then, use a rolling pin to persuade the dough into a larger rectangle—about 12 by 18 inches. This shouldn’t take too many strokes, as the dough is pretty pliable. Know that the longer you play around, the more finicky it will become, so try to get it right the first time. If you tear the dough, the imperfection will disappear when you roll.
Once the dough is in a rectangle, brush the surface with the butter and sprinkle evenly with the filling, being devout about reaching all the way to the edges. “When you put your filling on, people sometimes say ‘leave a half inch clear all around,’” says Reid. “All you’re doing is screwing the end cinnamon roll. Why would you do that?” Instead, leave a little room on one long edge, but diligently apply elsewhere. Finally, with the long edge closest to you, roll the rectangle up into a log. “If you want the ends to be pointy, roll tight. If you want flat tops, don’t press on it as you roll it,” says Reid, who notes that flat tops hold more icing.
No matter how carefully you saw back and forth with a sharp knife, your round log will probably turn into misshapen oval rolls when you cut. But Reid has a solution: “Since tender dough tends to squish when you cut with a knife, we use dental floss to get that perfect look.” Take your log of dough and mark off segments 1 ½-inches thick. Then nudge the (unflavored) floss beneath the log, and bring both ends to the top. Pull them together to cinch off a perfect round. Repeat until all buns are cut.
It’s easy to turn your cinnamon bun into a sticky bun by coating your baking pan with goo and nuts. Though it cooks beneath the dough, when you turn the buns out, that goo will become the topping. The best goo contains butter, sugar, cream, and honey. Honey, an inverted sugar, helps keep the goo gooey, explains Reid; you can substitute maple syrup, sorghum, boiled-down apple cider, or corn syrup, but don’t just use more sugar. To make the goo, melt together ½ cup of butter, ¾ cup dark brown sugar, ¾ cup heavy cream, 1/3 cup of honey, and a big pinch of salt. Let that come to a boil, then simmer for a few minutes, until it darkens (in a small pot, it’ll want to bubble over, so watch out). Pour the goo into the baking sheet before you place the buns.
“We make sure to use a lot of nuts when baking them so that the sweetness is offset a bit,” says Chang. Scatter at least 1½ cups of chopped pecans, toasted for extra flavor, on top of the goo. You can change up the classic by substituting your favorite nut, from macadamia to peanut.
Cinnamon buns have a few different textures, thanks to how they’re baked. The bottoms get brined in melted butter and cinnamon-y sugar, the outsides become brown and crusty—except in those lighter spots where they’re touching other buns—and the inner parts of the roll are tender and barely baked. Step one (done before proofing) is to arrange the buns in a parchment paper-lined, buttered pan for plain buns, or on top of goo and nuts for sticky buns. Use a 9 by 13-inch pan to make 12 buns. Whatever size you use, make sure all buns are touching. Step two is to bake at 350°F for about 30 minutes, until the buns have inflated a little. When done, “they should be a beautiful golden brown on top,” says Chang. Once out of the oven, let the buns cool for 5 minutes, then ice your cinnamon buns. If you’ve made sticky buns, invert the pan over a serving tray, scooping all the extra goo out on top.
There is no denying the aesthetic appeal of the icing on a bun, its white cap thin enough to show off the swirls underneath, and its drips covering the sides. Many bakers like a tangy cream-cheese based glaze, instead of a purely saccharine frosting made from just milk and powdered sugar. Whatever the recipe, don’t rely on the icing to make your bun good. “The cinnamon bun has to stand on its own,” says Lewis, who either pipes on thin lines or spreads on a schmear. “A little frosting makes it great; too much frosting makes it gross.” Baked’s proportion for the glaze is 2 ounces of softened cream cheese, 3 tablespoons of buttermilk, and 1 1/4 cups of sifted powdered sugar, beaten until smooth. Let the buns cool only slightly before you apply the icing: the goal is to have some melt into the bun’s swirls.
Like croissants and doughnuts, cinnamon buns just don’t last long, quickly losing their fluffiness, and of course, their perfume. “They deteriorate every hour,” says Lewis. “The texture becomes kind of dry and gummy.” There’s not too much evidence that our bakers wind up with excess stock, but when the bun case isn’t empty by the end of the day, they might repurpose them in a way that makes the most of the staleness. “We chop them up, soak in a rich creamy custard and bake it as sticky bun bread pudding,” says Chang. “We serve this with a generous drizzle of caramel sauce and pecans.” You could also slice buns crosswise and make French toast.