The warm, sugary dessert fills my mouth with joy. A dance between filling and dough, an intricate tango. A cinnamon roll.
This fluffy treat is one everyone can enjoy: friends, family—maybe not dogs, but you get what I mean. There’s so many recipes out there, claiming to be the best one. But after measuring, waiting and waking up at 4am, I have made the perfect cinnamon roll recipe.
The Science Behind a Fluffy Cinnamon Roll
We all know that in baking there are three main ingredients that can make something fluffy: baking soda, baking powder, and yeast. But what really happens when you put these in your dough? Why are you always told not to over-mix? Or to let your dough ‘rest’?
Let’s take pancakes as an example. As Scientific American points out, gluten is what tends to make American style pancakes so nice, fluffy and gooey! But gluten on its own does nothing; it is almost immobile. What activates it is a liquid like eggs or milk, so it becomes elastic, and wants to bond.
As you mix, the gluten particles start to connect with themselves, forming a web-like structure. And when you add that rising agent (baking powder in this case), it starts to create air bubble —which as you heat up the pancake, get trapped in the webs of the gluten. The more you mix, the tighter your web of gluten gets—meaning when you over-mix, you have an almost solid web of gluten which only allows small air bubbles to get trapped, this makes your baked good dense.
This means to make our cinnamon rolls nice and fluffy, we need a gluten-rich flour, like bread flour. And, we need to make sure to not over mix our dough. We also need a rising agent like yeast, baking soda, or baking powder to start creating air bubbles.
But what is the difference between yeast, baking powder and baking soda? They all need different activators to start producing CO2. For example, baking powder needs something acidic to activate it, like yogurt or lemon juice. Baking soda is a bit more complicated and is activated at two different times. The first when a liquid is added, and the second when it is heated.
But yeast, which is what we need for our cinnamon rolls, is completely different. Yeast is a living organism. It activates the dough through a biological process, commonly known as ‘fermentation.’
As well as being an organism, yeast takes longer than both baking powder and baking soda to leaven the dough. Yeast also adds a certain flavor to the dough, making it perfect for breads, or a cinnamon roll base. To activate yeast you need a warm liquid and a sugar for it to ‘feed’ on.
But, if gluten is so important, how do gluten free recipes work? Well often, because gluten free flours don’t give the same elasticity as normal flour, they use a mix of different flours, making all sorts of different blends that give your baked goods a variety of textures.
To make sure it’s not too dense, xanthan gum is often added. This works well as a binder, and gives the dough some elasticity that it usually wouldn’t have.
Tips & Tricks
So, now that we know what creates an airy, fluffy dough, what can we do to improve the taste? To find out, I went to the AISB’s cafeteria to talk to Stradale’s baking staff. With 15 years of experience, I think they know a thing or two.
“To make it taste better, and to increase flavor, we like to use good butter,” says Cristian, the head baker at AISB.
This makes sense, as butter typically makes everything better. So, the better the butter, the better the taste. But what is a quality butter? A good quality butter is one that has been fermented, and made with the milk of cows that are allowed to graze naturally. But, I don’t think any company would stick that on their packaging.
Butter is more complicated than it seems. It consists of three main ingredients: water, fat and milk. Butter needs a good flavor; and for this, most people would assume the fat percentage is what affects this most. But the flavor actually comes from the grass cows are fed. If they are free-range, their milk will taste different as the seasons change (in the summer they eat more fresh grass, and in the winter they eat more hay/dried grass).
Another important factor is that you get the “European style” butter, which usually has a bit more of a tangy flavor. This is because European style butter is fermented, unlike other butters.
Besides a good butter, I was told that it could help to “let your dough rise for a few days longer than [the recipe] says.” This ensures that your dough is light, fluffy and very flavorful. A longer rise time allows your dough to fully incorporate all the liquid.
Something else I was told is that “It is important to have your dough be sticky, not too much flour.” Adding too much flour makes your dough dry and chalky, which no one wants. So, even if you’re very tempted, don’t add too much flour! I cannot stress this enough.
Going on the hunt for more tricks to help us, I found some very useful things. The flour is very important, as I’ve stated before, this is where our gluten lies. And using a bread flour, which has more gluten, gives our cinnamon rolls a stretchier dough, which allows our rolls to be even and more fluffy.
You also need to make sure you have fresh yeast. If your yeast is dead, your dough will not rise. To make sure your yeast is alive, sprinkle it on top of the warm milk and wait for 3-5 mins. If it foams and froths on top, it is alive, if it doesn’t, restart with new yeast.
Speaking of yeast, don’t cut down your rise time! Just as the AISB staff said, as well as Healthy Happy Life, a long rise time ensures a fluffy dough, and a fluffy dough means a fluffy cinnamon roll.
Trial and Error: Recipe 1
Now, what we have all been waiting for: it’s time to make some cinnamon rolls! I found four different recipes to try out the tips, and of course test which is best. From here I will create my own ‘franken-recipe.’
The first recipe is the one I usually use, so I’m calling it the control recipe. Looking back on the recipe and just the cinnamon rolls in general, they weren’t great… At first I thought this recipe would stick with me forever; it had sentimental value as it was the first cinnamon roll recipe I ever used. In my eyes, cinnamon rolls seemed like the hardest thing I could ever bake, so the fact that it worked made me partial to this recipe.
What often happened when I baked it though is the dough would always be a bit too sticky, which wasn’t great. I find that adding just 1-2 tablespoons of flour usually helps. Another thing I notice with this recipe is that it always needs just more time than stated for the dough to rise. Usually 3-4 hours.
Comparing this to the other doughs I noticed that it doesn’t get the fluffy dough you want, it doesn’t rise as nicely, it tends to be a bit more dense, and even though the cinnamon rolls turn out okay, it isn’t a great recipe overall… This pained me to write, but it’s for science! And cinnamon rolls.
I asked some friends and family for their opinions based on a certain criteria: Is the filling to dough ratio good? Are they fluffy or dense? Are they dry or moist? Here’s what they said about my first recipe:
“It wasn’t fluffy”
“It wasn’t dense either, but it wasn’t light to eat.” Ninth graders Phoebe and Clara both agreed on the fact that the cinnamon roll wasn’t bad, but “mediocre.” The filling to dough ratio was mediocre, the fluffiness was mediocre, the dryness was mediocre. All in all, there needed to be improvements.
However, my other interviewees disagreed a bit. They both concured that there was a good ratio, a score of 9/10 was given. Pia B. even thought that it was “a little on the sweet side.”
Trial and Error: Recipe 2
Now, moving on to the second recipe by Ambitious Kitchen. I enjoyed this recipe more than the first, but they were very similar.
What I noticed about this recipe though, is that the dough rises really well; it’s SO satisfying to punch down. I think this got my hopes up though. The cinnamon rolls rolled up nicely and stayed relatively tight.
But, when baking (much like my used-to-be treasured recipe), they didn’t rise that much, and didn’t get that fluffy. I will admit though, the first bite straight out of the oven was delicious; they just don’t stay good over a longer period of time. But if you wanna cry in a corner and eat 15 freshly baked cinnamon rolls, this recipe is perfect.
“It was fluffier than the last cinnamon roll, easier to eat which was good, but it was drier than the first recipe.” —feedback from several tasters.
Trial and Error: Recipe 3
The third recipe ended up surprising me. it was so far the best recipe, very fluffy, moist (even after baking, unlike the other two recipes!) and just overall delicious! The recipe was from a website called Tastes of Lizzy.
While making it, the recipe was a bit different than the others; it used bread flour, had specifically asked for shorter rise times, and there was one ingredient that I didn’t expect: heavy cream. When baking, I had to pour heavy cream over the cinnamon rolls, which was absorbed into the rolls, making them gooey and soft.
And the dough was so easy to roll out! I love recipes which don’t make my arms die trying to roll out a dough. I like cinnamon rolls, but I hate arm workouts. Moving on, let’s see what my taste testers think of it!
I got generally similar reactions, all being mostly positive.
“The ratio of filling and dough was perfect,” said 9th grader Daria A.
Everyone agreed that the filling was good on this recipe which was nice to hear. I noticed that the cinnamon rolls stayed together a lot more, which helped them retain more filling in the outer rings. What I suggest (and only found out after baking) is to bake them so that they squish together, not on a baking sheet, this way you lose less filling!
As I said before, these cinnamon rolls had heavy cream, which apparently made a big difference compared to the others. “This one was very moist, in a good way, it wasn’t dry at all,” said Phoebe K. Everyone had the same reaction: not dry at all, “perfectly moist.”
The fluffiness was also a hit. Daria said that “It was very fluffy, enough that you could still taste the dough without it being dense.” According to Pia, fluffiness level was a 9.7! All in all, this cinnamon roll recipe was by far the best, and this is clearly shown in my recipe later.
Trial and Error: Recipe 4
And finally, last but not least, we have a recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction. I enjoyed this recipe, but as Pia said, “there’s a better recipe out there.”
As I said above, I did enjoy this recipe. The feel of the dough was just right and I didn’t need to add anything to improve it. It rose well the first time, but during the second rise, barely anything happened.
They rose while they were in the oven, so they were still fluffy, but trust me when I say, sleep deprived, 4am me, was freaking out. Usually I wouldn’t care too much, but something came over me. Luckily they were fine, and rose well in the oven.
“This is good, it’s better than the last two, even just looking at it I can see.” —Taste-tester Clara.
Filling in this roll had a great reaction, and personally I enjoyed it as well. I agree with Pia, “improvements were made.” However, reactions weren’t all good… “I think the outside should be more filled,” Daria mentioned, but noted that the middle was really good, moist, and flavorful.
A solution to this would be to not make the same mistake I made: don’t use a baking tray, as it allows your rolls to spread out and this lets the filling seep out. Now, moving onto the next category, fluffiness!
“It was like right in the middle of fluffy and dense,” said testers. The rolls weren’t really fluffy, but they weren’t dense either. Clara, Pia, Phoebe, Daria and I all agreed that it wasn’t horrible, but improvements could be made.
These, like the last ones, had a good reaction; almost everyone agreed that they were a lot less dry than the first two recipes—that they were moist, but not too moist. Daria again stated that the outside was a bit too dry, but this could be fixed with the smaller pan solution, just don’t make the same mistake as me!
That brings our testing to an end, and finally, after a long wait, a lot of trials, and waking up at a god forsaken hour, I have made a recipe. The (hopefully) best recipe.
At Last, Perfection: The Final Recipe
Something I was sure of was bread flour. It worked really well, and the science backed it up. I also noticed in both recipes milk and butter were both around the same quantity, but I leaned towards the one from Ambitious Kitchen as it got better responses.
I think the reason the Ambitious Kitchen did well is because of something I didn’t realize would affect it beforehand. We ran out of butter (which was a pain) and so over the weekend I went to the store and bought a different butter than usual. I noticed this butter was a lot softer than Presidente, which I usually use, and the color wasn’t as constant—which my ‘butter research’ showed is good!
I also let my dough rest for short times which proved to work well for Ambitious Kitchen. But something I noticed about my cinnamon rolls when baking is that they browned VERY quickly. I don’t know exactly why, but it was an easy fix: just place tin foil over your rolls and they won’t brown, but they will bake.
The rest wasn’t as pressing. I chose to do that based off of my own knowledge of baking, afterwards checking if it was fine by comparing with the other (good) recipes. But now, what this entire journey has been about, the final recipe:
- 4 cups of bread flour (+ 1-3 tablespoons if needed)
- 2 ¾ teaspoons of yeast
- 2 eggs, room temperature
- 1 cup of warm milk (not hot)
- ⅔ cup of white sugar
- ⅓ cup of butter (melted, not hot)
- ⅔ teaspoon of salt
- Around ½ cup heavy cream (don’t have to measure, this is also optional)
- 1 ⅓ cup of light or dark brown sugar.
- ½ cup of softened (not melted) butter
- 2 ½ tablespoons of cinnamon
- Pinch of nutmeg
- Warm the milk, distribute the yeast overtop. (Make sure your yeast is alive! You can do this by letting it sit for 5 mins in the warm milk to see if it froths.)
- Mix in the sugar, butter and eggs until combined.
- Add in 2 cups of flour, mix until lightly incorporated, mix in the other two cups and salt. Your dough should be tacky, meaning it does not stick to your hands excessively, but it isn’t dry either. If it is still a bit too sticky, add a table spoon of flour, two if necessary. Do not make your flour too dry, and do not over mix. If you make your flour too dry, your cinnamon rolls will not rise, and your rolls will be dense and dry. If you over mix, your rolls will also become dense.
- Knead your dough for 3-5 minutes on a lightly floured surface.
- Grease a bowl with oil, and put your dough in. Cover it with a towel and let your dough rise in a warm place for around 30 mins, you don’t want it to rise for too long. (See my trick below for where to let it rise.)
- Now prepare your filling. Combine your brown sugar and cinnamon with the softened butter and mix until well combined. Put it in the fridge while you wait for your dough to rise.
- Once your dough has risen, roll it out on a lightly floured surface, around a 20×15” rectangle. (It doesn’t have to be perfect.)
- Spread your filling evenly over the rectangle, and cut 15 1-inch strips, or larger depending on how large you want them. Roll these strips up to form your rolls.
- Place your cinnamon rolls on a baking tray, and cover with plastic wrap or a towel and put it in a warm place, let it rise for 1 hour, or until they have doubled in size. (This could even be 20 mins!) Or go look at my overnight option below.
- Preheat the oven to 175 degrees celsius, or 347 degrees fahrenheit. Before putting your rolls in the oven, pour ½ cup of warm heavy cream (not hot) over the rolls.
- Bake them until golden brown, for me this usually takes 15-20 mins, but can differ between ovens.
*When I let my dough and cinnamon rolls rise, I like to heat my oven on a low temperature, 80C, for a couple minutes, and then turn it off and put my dough in there.
For the overnight option, prepare your cinnamon rolls through step 8, and then instead of letting them rise, put them in the fridge. They can go in the fridge for up to 18 hours. When you want to bake them the next morning, you need to first let them rise for 1-2 hours, then bake them according to the recipe above.
The heavy cream is optional. If you like a gooey cinnamon roll, go for it! Make sure your cinnamon rolls are cooked through though, if you notice they brown quickly, put tinfoil over them so that they don’t burn.
If you want another article like this one, go check out The Ultimate Guide to Cupcakes, written by a fellow 9th grader! And, if you end up trying these cinnamon rolls, leave a comment below!