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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingman; Food Styling: Brett Regot; Design: Kitchn
Recipe Review

We Tried 4 Famous Cinnamon Roll Recipes and Found a Clear Winner

updated Sep 25, 2022
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Let’s talk about the qualities of a great cinnamon roll. The dough itself should be lightly sweetened but full of flavor — yeasty, buttery, maybe even a little tangy. The filling should have a punch of cinnamon and be sticky with brown sugar and butter. And the icing? It better be ooey-gooey, not too sweet, but very lush.

Yes, we’re asking a lot from a cinnamon roll, but considering most folks only bake them a few times a year (and that occasion is usually a celebration), a foolproof recipe that checks all these boxes is absolutely essential.

We knew that roll existed — we just had to find it. So we tested four of the most popular recipes on the internet. I’m happy to report that after testing all the doughs, fillings, and icings, we discovered the very best cinnamon roll recipe that everyone should be making, and learned some new tips for baking, shaping, and icing along the way.

Credit: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Brett Regot

How I Chose the Cinnamon Roll Contenders

Like many other foods, there are a lot of cinnamon roll recipes out there. So to narrow it down, I had three important criteria for choosing contenders. It needed to be a classic, no-frills recipe (no nuts, maple, or almond extract); it needed to be make-ahead friendly (so that you could bake fresh rolls in the morning); and it needed to yield 12 rolls.

These restrictions ruled out some popular recipes, such as Pioneer Woman’s maple-flavored take on cinnamon rolls and King Arthur’s recipe, which requires a sourdough starter.

Three choices quickly became obvious. Alton Brown’s Overnight Cinnamon Roll recipe is wildly popular on Twitter — his fans make and tag him in their efforts all year long. And it’s very classic: an enriched yeast dough, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, and topped with a simple powdered sugar icing.

BraveTart’s One-Bowl Overnight Cinnamon rolls follow a similar formula, but manage to use just one bowl for the whole operation. And we knew we had to try out a copycat Cinnabon recipe! Jo Cooks’ version is considered the best, and promised maximum reward for minimal effort.

The fourth pick came from Kitchn’s News and Culture Editor, Arie Knutson. She insisted she’d already found the holy grail of cinnamon roll recipes: The Vanilla Baking Blog’s Cinnamon Rolls. Although they require a fair amount of planning, she talked so highly of them we decided we had to make them our fourth pick.

With the recipes in hand and loads of flour, butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon in my kitchen, I was ready to get baking.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingman; Food Styling: Brett Regot; Design: Kitchn

How I Tested the Cinnamon Roll Recipes

Because each of these recipes required different rise and bake times, I had to do some scheduling to make sure that they could all be baked back-to-back on the same morning. I didn’t have four 9×13-inch baking dishes, so I used disposable aluminum pans, which ended up being an excellent way to store the unbaked rolls. (Each pan had a plastic lid so I could stack them neatly in my small fridge.) BraveTart’s recipe was the only one that called for parchment paper to line the baking pan.

I decided to use light brown sugar across the board, because half the recipes called for it and the other two didn’t specify. Each recipe was made with the same brand of yeast, eggs, butter, and flour.

I made The Vanilla Bean Baking Blog’s dough a full 24 hours before the others, then mixed and shaped the other three the following day. Somehow, I pulled it all off, and was able to try each one side-by-side while they were still warm (paired with lots of black coffee).

Meet Our 4 Cinnamon Roll Contenders

Credit: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Brett Regot

1. The Most Disappointing Cinnamon Rolls: Alton Brown’s Overnight Cinnamon Rolls  

Full disclosure: I have a history with this recipe. Because I worked with Alton for 10 years, I’ve made it numerous times and a batch once ruined my stand mixer. That said, it had been nearly seven years since I last made these, so I felt able to go into testing with fresh eyes. The recipe was easy to work with and they looked great! They were uniform and perfectly risen.

But the taste and texture of these rolls — especially compared to the others — was disappointing. The dough was dry and bland, something I believe may be attributed to the fussy proofing step. I won’t be making these again.

Overall rating: 5/10

Credit: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Brett Regot

2. The Instagram-Worthy Cinnamon Rolls: BraveTart’s One-Bowl Overnight Cinnamon Rolls

Stella Parks, also known as BraveTart, is one of the internet’s favorite pastry chefs. She brings wit and wisdom to classic recipes, and her one-bowl overnight cinnamon roll promises a lot.

BraveTart’s dough is supple and easy to work with, but parts of the process felt fussy. The directions promise to be one-bowl, but really just walk you through using the same bowl multiple times and cleaning in between. This made the recipe more complicated than I liked.

It did, however, yield the most beautiful cinnamon rolls of the four I tested, and I loved the filling technique (creaming together the butter and sugar). I would make these again with a different frosting, and probably just opt for dirtying a few extra bowls.

Overall rating: 7/10

Credit: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Brett Regot

3. The Best Last-Minute Cinnamon Rolls: Cinnabon Copycat Cinnamon Rolls by Jo Cooks 

Need a cinnamon roll recipe you can whip up in a single evening? This is it. This Cinnabon copycat recipe was easy to mix, has a short rise time, bakes up billowy, and has the best frosting. My two caveats: It needs more filling, and the recipe is very vague about the bake time.

At several points during testing, I really thought this was the winning recipe. The baked rolls were certainly great — but a little dry. A shorter baking time might have made for more moist rolls, but the recipe was very unclear in this regard. Despite not having the absolute irresistibly of the winning cinnamon rolls, I would totally make these again.

Overall rating: 8/10

Credit: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Brett Regot

4. The Very Best Cinnamon Rolls: The Vanilla Bean Blog‘s Cinnamon Rolls

Arie was right, you guys — this is the very best cinnamon roll recipe. These rolls are everything I was looking for: soft, flavorful dough, punchy cinnamon filling, and swoon-worthy frosting! Yes, they take effort and planning, but they are absolutely worth it.

There were many moments when I thought this recipe would lose. It felt fussy, and didn’t look all that impressive next to the other more robust rolls before baking. (They don’t puff very much overnight or at room temperature). However, they filled out beautifully in the oven, baking into pillowy goodness! Plus the ingenious two-step frosting process makes these very worthwhile.

Overall rating: 10/10