If you’re looking for the softest, gooiest homemade cinnamon roll recipe, we tested 9 recipes in search of the best! From easy cinnamon rolls to cinnamon rolls with heavy cream, we tested a variety of techniques to find the ultimate!
As someone who never grew up eating cinnamon rolls, my mind was blown when I had my first warm, fresh roll at my college servery. Doused in cream cheese icing, the best part of the roll was clearly the gooey center. After trying a few storebought ones, I realized there was no way they could live up to a fresh cinnamon roll.
So in this bake off, I baked 9 recipes in one day in search of my ideal homemade cinnamon roll!
Methodology: how we made all 9 cinnamon rolls
- All 9 recipes were baked the day of, and I baked most recipes two at a time.
- Frostings were all made the day of baking, except for Bravetart (Bravetart was entirely prepared two days before, as allowed by the recipe).
- All recipes that allowed for an overnight rest (5 out of the remaining 9) were prepared the day before.
- Approximately 31 friends tasted and ranked the cinnamon rolls for the below scores.
- Each taster ranked each cinnamon roll on a scale from 1-10 overall.
- Gold Medal all-purpose and bread flour
- Kroger butter
- Adams vanilla
- Diamond kosher salt
- Kroger sugar
- KAF instant yeast
- Red Star active dry yeast
Best Cinnamon Roll Results
I tossed around the idea of adding a Cinnabon as a control, considering many recipes exist to create “copycat Cinnabon” recipes. But in the end, I used Pillsbury’s cream cheese cinnamon rolls as a control. Having never made these cinnamon rolls before, I didn’t know that the Pillsbury Grands was the way to go. The scone-like circles landed dead last, though the flavor was actually not AS terrible as I expected. (Just a very sandy, dry texture, not enough frosting, and a bit fake-tasting).
Aside from Pillsbury, this seemed to be the highest-quality bake off so far in that there were no universally terrible recipes. People seemed to like all the recipes for the most part, which makes me feel bad about ranking them since they all have pluses and minuses. You can see the full list of recipes I considered in this Google spreadsheet.
Here are the ratings (click on the image to see a bigger version):
For the recipe composition chart, I broke down each recipe ingredient into grams. I then broke out the percentages of the main ingredients: flour, liquids (milk, water, buttermilk, yogurt), fat (butter, fat and shortening), eggs (includes whole eggs and egg yolks) and sweetener (sugar and honey).
Influencing factors: fat, liquid, sweetener and more
Fat and liquid
From this data, you can see that the top-rated recipes did seem to follow a pattern of higher fat content. But the recipes that did the best overall (i.e. Vanilla Bean Baking Blog, Lizzy T and Pioneer Woman) combined high fat recipes with high hydration dough via milk (using anywhere from 14% milk in VBBB to 36% in Pioneer Woman).
Interestingly, America’s Test Kitchen had very similar ratios to VBBB, yet they came in last in rankings. My best guess as to why is due to the added cornstarch in ATK’s recipe, giving a cakier texture that the majority didn’t prefer. Lizzy T, in second place, also had an additional 1/2 cup of heavy cream that gets poured over the rolls before baking which isn’t accounted for in this chart (but adds extra fat and liquid).
Sweetener and flour
Using more fat, liquid and sugar can all help contribute to a more tender dough, although you can still make a very flavorful dough using less butter and fat. You may notice that King Arthur Flour uses no sweetener in their dough, causing some taster complaints of a drier texture. Still, most thought the dough had good flavor overall. (KAF is also the only recipe that called for bread flour, which may have also made a difference).
No clear pattern emerged when it came to eggs. VBBB went heavy on the eggs, as did Alton Brown’s recipe (with 4 egg yolks, landing in 4th place). But Pioneer Woman landed in third place with no eggs whatsoever! I’m guessing her recipe was able to compensate with the high amount of other liquid.
A quick note on terminology
Some cinnamon rolls are advertised as “brioche cinnamon rolls.” Brioche is defined as containing “flour, eggs, butter, liquid (milk, water, cream, and sometimes brandy), leavening (yeast or sourdough), salt, and sometimes sugar.”
By that definition, most of these recipes are brioche cinnamon rolls. The only exceptions are Pioneer Woman, which uses vegetable oil, and Two Peas, which uses shortening.
Analysis of the best cinnamon roll recipes
Vanilla Bean Baking Blog: an ultra-rich, soft cinnamon roll with cream cheese frosting that even cream cheese haters will love
I’ve been excited to include a recipe from Sarah Kieffer (the wildly talented mind behind pan-banging cookies). This cinnamon roll recipe is originally from her cookbook and she features a slightly different, individually baked version here. Sarah’s recipe had one of the highest percentage of eggs (about 16% compared to an average of 7%). The unique addition of honey–barely detectable in the final product–as well as a generous amount of milk and butter (18% compared to an average of 8%!), resulted in a very sticky, no-knead enriched dough.
On the plus side, the no-knead dough means you barely have to deal with the very sticky dough. However, you’ll have to wait around for two hours to fold the dough every 30 minutes for 4 turns. I found the dough alarmingly sticky during the folding, but once it rests overnight (optional), it’s a dream to work with. The cream cheese frosting, which gets whipped into a gorgeously fluffy buttercream, is also a dream to dollop over the baked rolls.
Tasters unanimously loved these rolls for the perfect, soft doughy texture and “gooey factor”–i.e. a perfect balance between dough, filling and icing. This is a very rich roll, and while most found the dough “perfectly sweet” and “flavorful,” some thought it was too sweet. If you don’t mind a very decadent roll (and what cinnamon roll isn’t), this is a true crowd-pleaser. This is the recipe I’ve turned to countless times post-bake off!
Overnight rest recommended but not required.
Tastes of Lizzy T: a beginner-friendly, easy cinnamon roll recipe with a caramelized exterior and tender, gooey interior
This recipe is nearly identical to that of Sally’s Baking Addiction–but with a secret ingredient! Here’s the secret: right before baking, you douse the rolls with warmed heavy cream.
These were among the quickest to make—they only require a 30 minute rise, then a 20 minute rise once assembled. They’re topped with a cream cheese frosting similar to the Vanilla Bean recipe except it doesn’t specify to beat it for as long. This was the only recipe baked in a round pan (except for Pillsbury) instead of a 9×13 pan. They were a little more squished than they would be in a larger pan, resulting in very tall buns.
Back to the secret ingredient! After baking, the cream soaks into the rolls and also creates a caramelized crust on the bottom thanks to the leaking of cinnamon sugar and butter. Tasters loved this caramelization, describing the rolls as “melt in your mouth” with a “crisp, caramelized exterior and gooey interior.” A few noted that the tops were a bit dry, but most liked the balance of flavor and great texture. Absolutely delicious! I’d try baking these in a larger pan for more squat rolls that get more surface area to soak in the cream next time.
No overnight rest required.
Pioneer Woman: an easy, beginner-friendly cinnamon roll recipe with a high filling to dough ratio and a maple and coffee-flavored icing
I was fairly positive these rolls would not do well since they use vegetable oil in the dough instead of butter. Ree’s stuffing recipe didn’t do well in the stuffing bake off. Plus, they seemed TOO easy to make. Everything gets mixed in a large saucepan and left alone to rise. You’ll need to roll out an oddly long (30×10”) rectangle and cut the long, skinny log into 20-25 tiny rolls. There’s no kneading, and there seems to be WAY too much butter and sugar for the filling. “Don’t worry if the filling oozes as you work; that just means the rolls with be divine,” instructs Ree.
HOWEVER. Many of you told me that you make her rolls every year. Some of you gift them, and some even sell them! So, are these rolls worthy of being gifted/sold/made annually? My answer is 100% YES. This recipe is incredible. Similarly to the butter in the filling, there is a extraordinary amount of frosting (with maple extract and coffee). The tiny, icing-drenched rolls that just melt in your mouth. I actually liked the size of these rolls for the more equal ratio of dough to cinnamon filling. They’re also a great size for gifting!
The only downsides: maple flavor was rather divisive. It was too strong for some–I think you could easily sub maple syrup for a more subtle flavor. Several complained there was just too much icing altogether. This is easily remedied–like many who make this recipe, you can just make your own frosting! But I do think she was onto something with the small roll size. And no kneading. And somehow even the vegetable oil works.
Optional overnight rest.
Alton Brown: a “classic” overnight cinnamon roll recipe that uses egg yolks and buttermilk
If you’re wondering where the Smitten Kitchen recipe is, I used this recipe instead since Deb’s version uses this as the base with a few ingredient alterations. Alton’s recipe stood out for its use of four egg yolks and buttermilk. Although I couldn’t detect any tang from the buttermilk, the yolks seemed to contribute to a rich crumb. Plus, a good amount of kneading in the stand mixture led to a nicely chewy texture. It’s a fairly straightforward recipe to make, although the rising times felt fairly long compared to others.
Many agreed that in texture and taste, this was their idea of a “classic cinnamon roll.” “Very flavorful, perfect balance of salty to sweet,” said one taster. It’s very moist, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth, with a good balance between fluffy bread and doughy center and a “caramelized crunchy bottom.” Interestingly, this frosting uses only cream cheese, sugar and milk (no butter), which may have led to comments that the roll was quite sweet and sugary.
Requires an overnight rest.
All Recipes: a light, airy, and slightly bready cinnamon roll recipe that uses mashed potatoes
Listed as a “First Place Winner at the 2008 Iowa State Fair,” these incorporate potatoes and potato water into the dough! Making a tiny batch of plain mashed potato was a slightly cumbersome extra step. Besides that, the dough is relatively straightforward (though it calls for mixing potatoes and butter in hot water, and the butter didn’t melt all the way for me). The dough was easy to roll out, and it uses a simple vanilla glaze.
I liked the light and airy texture of the dough, but several complained that it was “too bready.” Some likened it to “Kings Hawaiian rolls.” While several noted that there was “less cinnamon than the others,” my main complaint was that the overall flavor was very one-dimensional. I think this was due to the granulated sugar in the filling instead of brown sugar and the simple powdered sugar glaze. If I made it again, I would use brown sugar, add some more cinnamon, and try it with a cream cheese frosting.
No overnight rest required.
Two Peas & Their Pod: an overnight cinnamon roll recipe that’s lower-fat, not too sweet and still tastes like a regular, delicious cinnamon roll!
After Two Peas’ strong showing in the banana bread bake off, I was curious to see if their popular cinnamon roll could measure up. This recipe uses the same technique of melting fat in hot water as All Recipes. But instead of butter, this recipe uses shortening for the best, silkiest dough texture! (But just a little–only 6 tablespoons for a massive batch of 30 rolls!) Interestingly, several tasters detected a “weird flavor” but couldn’t place it. I’m not sure if this was the shortening or something else. Note: I did omit the raisins for consistency.
Tasters praised it for having the “best cinnamon flavor so far” (i.e. heavy cinnamon). Many liked that they were “very light” and with a perfect balance of “spice and sweet.” Overall, it really wasn’t TOO sweet, which is hard to achieve with many recipes. You could easily swap out the shortening in this recipe for butter if you like. (Though Maria has tested both and specifically says shortening gives a better texture.) I found these rolls just a tiny bit drier than some of the others, which may be due to the lower ratio of fat in the dough. On the plus side, these are another recipe you can fully assemble and leave in the fridge overnight.
Overnight rest required.
King Arthur: a slightly drier cinnamon roll with a sugary frosting that uses the tangzhong technique
I was very excited to try this recipe–it uses the Tangzhong method, which requires cooking a mini roux-like mixture that gets stirred into the dough. This supposedly helps the dough stay soft for several days after baking (though I couldn’t tell a significant difference when sampling the rolls the next day). Even with the additional starter method, the dough was fairly easy to make, though it does require a 20 minute hydration period in addition to two long rising periods.
Unfortunately, the overwhelming sentiment from the tasters was that the dough was “dry,” at least where it wasn’t covered by icing. The icing requires a lot of powdered sugar to be mixed with softened (not melted) butter and a dash of milk until oddly thick, about the “consistency of softened cream cheese.” The frosting was a bit sugary for me, though I agreed with the tasters that the dough had good flavor despite its dryness. As with all the other recipes, this is still an undeniably good cinnamon roll, just not our personal favorite. One likened it to the “texture of a yeast doughnut” and another described it as “nondescript.” I think this is a great recipe to try out if you want to try experimenting with new techniques, and particularly if you don’t love the uber-gooey texture of some cinnamon rolls.
Overnight rest is optional but not preferred.
Bravetart: a substantial, bready cinnamon roll recipe with complex, tangy flavor and cream cheese frosting
This is the clear winner if you are trying to make cinnamon rolls ahead of time. Many recipes will allow you to rest the dough overnight–some even fully assembled. But Stella thinks through every step, from the filling to the frosting, and streamlines theh process. The filling is basically a cinnamon buttercream that’s very easy to spread thickly, resulting in picture-perfect rolls.
Although about half the rolls used cream cheese frosting, this frosting tasted particularly cream cheesy. Stella’s recipe is the only one that uses yogurt, which definitely lends tangy, yeasty notes in the dough. I unfortunately forgot to cover these rolls with foil during the first bake, which definitely lead to more browning. Some tasters wished for “less browning” and more tenderness in the dough. So take these results with a grain of salt. I think it’s impressive that even though I forgot to cover them, they still turned out well.
Tastes loved the cinnamon flavor, the salt balance, and the great caramelization. (Again, there was more caramelized sugar in the pan than there would be had I baked them properly). Some found the dough too bready and tangy. However, if you like tall, bakery-esque rolls, these are the way to go!
Overnight recipe required.
America’s Test Kitchen Ultimate Cinnamon Buns: a generously-sized, slightly cakey-textured cinnamon roll recipe
This recipe was delightfully straightforward for an ATK recipe. It stood out for the incorporation of a full 1/2 cup of cornstarch in the dough. It uses a fairly standard filling and a cream cheese frosting that omits butter, like Alton’s recipe. Cornstarch generally creates a more tender texture in baked goods. Interestingly it lent this roll an almost shortbread-esque texture with a pleasant bite. Rather than being chewy, there’s almost a cakey, Danish-like characteristic to these.
Although tasters complained that this recipe was “missing cinnamon,” “too cakey and dense” and “too crunchy,” these were actually one of my favorites. Some other tasters agreed that they are “very well balanced” with “nice crusty edges. Although the dough dries out quickly, I liked that the glaze dried into a faintly crunchy texture. ATK suggests you cut these into 8 pieces, though I’ve seen other versions cut into 12 pieces. Eight pieces will yield fairly huge rolls.
No overnight rest required.
Pillsbury: a dry, artificial scone impersonating a cinnamon roll
(No photo because honestly, they were ugly): the clear loser. Tasters were nearly unanimous in that it tasted like a biscuit or a scone rather than a cinnamon roll. “Tastes like McDonald’s breakfast,” said one. “Sandy and artificial,” said another. “Can this be classified as a cinnamon roll?” Another asked. The running joke was that I managed to make nine cinnamon rolls from scratch mostly unscathed, but then messed up the pop and bake. Were the dry scones baker’s error or are they really that bad? We may never know, but at least we can be fairly sure that making cinnamon rolls from scratch is the right answer.
My favorite cinnamon roll recipes
- Best overnight recipes: Vanilla Bean Baking Blog, Pioneer Woman, Alton Brown, All Recipes, Bravetart, Two Peas & Their Pod
- Best recipes that can be made the day of: Tastes of Lizzy T, Pioneer Woman, King Arthur Flour, America’s Test Kitchen
- Classic cinnamon roll: Alton Brown
- Decadent, treat yo’self recipe: Vanilla Bean Baking Blog, Tastes of Lizzy T
- For impressing your friends: Vanilla Bean Baking Blog, Bravetart, Lizzy T
- Best recipe to make on short notice: Two Peas & Their Pod, Pioneer Woman
- For a cakey, danish-like recipe: America’s Test Kitchen
Tips for baking the best cinnamon rolls
Use brown sugar in the filling
As with most things, brown sugar gives a better depth of flavor. I would always opt to use this in the filling over granulated. (All Recipes and Pioneer Woman are the only ones who use granulated).
Cream the filling ingredients
Even though it takes an extra step, I loved Stella’s method of creaming together butter, sugar and cinnamon to get an easily spreadable frosting. The traditional method of spreading melted butter and sprinkling on cinnamon sugar tends to lead to sugar leakage when you roll up the dough. If you’re using the mixer anyway, why not go the extra step?
Reduce butter in the filling
If you are trying to cut back on fat, an easy place to reduce is the filling. I didn’t notice a huge difference in recipes that used 2 tablespoons of butter compared to recipes that used a full stick.
Use cake flour or cornstarch for a cakey texture
If you like a more cakey dough, look for a recipe that uses cake flour or cornstarch in the dough.
Use sugar to tenderize and mellow salt
My home baking hero @cleobuttera mentioned that she tried making a batch of King Arthur’s dough, half with sugar and half without. She greatly preferred the batch with sugar (not as bready and less salty tasting). Worth giving a try!
Use cool cream cheese for the icing
When making icing for cinnamon rolls, it’s best to use cool cream cheese that has sat at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. While butter can be fully softened for icing, fully softened cream cheese may turn watery when you beat it in a high-speed electric mixer. Cold cream cheese straight from the fridge will generally be too stiff to beat. Make sure the cream cheese feels slightly cool to the touch when you start for the best results!
With that, I leave you to choose your own adventure. Tag your creations #pancakeprincessbakeoff so I can see them on Instagram!