Recipe Review

I Tried 4 Popular Sticky Bun Recipes and the Winner Is the Best I’ve Ever Eaten

published May 22, 2023
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Credit: Photo: Lucy Schaeffer; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne

I think of sticky buns as cinnamon rolls cranked up to a thousand. They involve a similar starting point — an enriched yeast dough rolled around a spiced sugary filling and cut into slices — but they gild the lily in decadent form with nuts and a glossy, gooey, caramel-like glaze that coats the baked buns.

If you’ve ever made sticky buns, you know that they’re a bit of a process. After all, you’re making a yeast dough that’s enriched with butter, sugar, maybe some milk, and perhaps some egg, depending on the recipe. The dough has to rise once, get rolled out and sprinkled with filling, get rolled up and cut into slices, and allowed to rise again before finally being placed into a pan containing that caramel-like glaze. The dough might rise an hour each time, or maybe overnight one of those times. Suffice it to say, making sticky buns is a labor of love.

Even though your time and effort will be well spent (homemade sticky buns are freaking delicious!), you probably want the lowdown on which sticky bun recipes deliver the best results. I found four popular, highly rated ones that I could test against each other, with hopes of finding one to crown the absolute, definitive best. And I did. They were all very good recipes, mind you, but one was an over-the-top, impossibly good, indulgent, and heavenly winner.

Credit: Photo: Lucy Schaeffer; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne

Meet Our 4 Sticky Bun Contenders

As mentioned already, sticky buns are like embellished cinnamon rolls that consist of three main components: the dough, the filling, and the glaze. All of the recipes I tested included these three components and used similar ingredients overall, but they differentiated themselves from each other with some key techniques and unique touches. 

Allrecipes: Although this recipe took about three hours from start to finish, it was the quickest one of the bunch, with a straightforward, no-nonsense ingredient list. I was curious to see how the old-school approach would stand up against the other recipes, which use some more intriguing ingredients. 

Serious Eats: This recipe calls for two optional subrecipes, which I felt were essential to getting the recipe’s full effect — toasted sugar and toasted cream. Would these offer a flavor payoff to offset the extra bit of time spent making them?

King Arthur: This was the only recipe included that uses milk powder and (get this) instant potato flakes in the dough. I couldn’t wait to see what effect those ingredients would have on the texture of the finished rolls.

Joanne Chang: Not only does this recipe use an enriched dough for the buns, but it also uses brioche dough — meaning lots more butter and, I would assume, a lot more richness. It also uses the least amount of cinnamon in the filling and the largest volume of glaze ingredients. 

How I Tested the Sticky Bun Recipes

To create as much parity as possible, I used the same brand of ingredients that the recipes had in common: Domino granulated and brown sugar, Cabot unsalted butter, King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour, McCormick cinnamon, SAF instant yeast for two recipes, Red Star active dry yeast for two other recipes, and pecans from my brother-in-law’s tree. 

I wanted to make all four recipes on the same day, but that was near impossible, logistically. Instead, I made two on one day and two on the other. I was able to taste each day’s recipes side-by-side, and because I made them on subsequent days, the memory of the first day’s recipes was strong and recent enough to compare to the second day’s. As I said earlier, all of the recipes were very good and would make any family or houseful of guests happy, so my ratings and rankings came down to small details. 

Credit: Photo: Lucy Schaeffer; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne

1. The Quickest Option: Allrecipes’ Ooey-Gooey Cinnamon Buns

Humble, straightforward ingredients make up this recipe: all-purpose flour, white and brown sugar, unsalted butter, milk, eggs, pecans, etc. Nothing too fancy, no hacks or secret weapons. You knead the dough by hand (a process I enjoy), allow the dough to rise both times at room temperature, and are able to enjoy your sticky buns about three hours after starting the process (this is quick for sticky buns). The buns weren’t as tender as the other buns I tested, and the cinnamon flavor was quite prominent (the recipe uses a tablespoon of the spice). They had a little less glaze on top than the other buns I tested, and some of the glaze firmed up more than I’d like. They were still quite good, especially considering they took the least amount of time to make, but they fell short of being the best.

Credit: Photo: Lucy Schaeffer; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne

2. The Recipe for Project Cooks Looking to Learn Something New: Serious Eats’ Double-Caramel Sticky Buns

This recipe had me making two subrecipes that honestly blew my mind. Toasted sugar was a revelation, remaining granular while boasting a burnt-sugar toastiness. And toasted cream ended up butterscotch-rich after its time in the pressure cooker. I will be forever grateful for learning about these two techniques. The sticky buns that use them involve an overnight proof of the shaped rolls and come out of the pan with loads of dark, gooey caramel. The buns were wonderfully soft and gooey. But a heavy hand with cinnamon overpowered the rich flavor of the caramel and muted the flavor payoff of the toasted sugar and toasted cream. (When I make these again — and I will — I will use less cinnamon.)

Credit: Photo: Lucy Schaeffer; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne

3. The Quick(ish) Recipe that Almost Tied for First Place: King Arthur’s Sticky Buns

This four-hour sticky bun recipe is pretty quick, comparatively speaking, and it delivers standout results. The dough includes a couple of ingredients that might have you scratching your head: dry milk and instant potato flakes. Whatever kind of alchemy they create is magic, as the buns are tender and pillowy, with a gooey deliciousness. The flavor of the buns — the present but unassertive amount of cinnamon; the rich and buttery glaze that sinks down into the buns; the enriched, yeasty bread — is memorably good. 

Credit: Photo: Lucy Schaeffer; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne

4. The Sticky Buns That Will Ruin You for All Others: Joanne Chang’s Sticky Sticky Buns

There are sticky buns, and then there are Joanne Chang’s Sticky Sticky Buns. Yes, they have earned the repetition of the word “sticky” in the title. These buns require a little more time, as you’ll allow your brioche dough to proof overnight before filling, shaping, and baking the buns, but the yeasty complexity you’re rewarded with makes that investment more than worthwhile. The baked buns are huge and irresistibly tender, and the extravagant amount of gooey glaze on top is indulgent, beyond delicious, and over-the-top good. Once you’ve had these sticky buns, they will haunt you; you won’t be able to stop thinking about them.