On first glance these homemade cinnamon rolls may not look like anything out of the ordinary. Buttery, golden brown yeasted dough, check; delicious cinnamon–brown sugar filling, check; decadent cream cheese icing, check. But we’re putting it all on the line to wager that this recipe, thanks to a few choice tactical twists, produces the best, most ooey-gooey, perfectly fluffy from-scratch buns you’ll ever make.
The secret to the super-soft dough—which also happens to be incredibly easy to work with—is in the tangzhong starter. Tangzhong is the Chinese method of precooking a small portion of a recipe’s starch and liquid (usually flour and milk) to create a thick paste that then gets integrated with the rest of the dough ingredients. This results in a high-hydration cinnamon roll dough that steams more as it cooks, yielding a puffier, pillowy-soft bread with a supple, tender texture. As an added bonus, because of the higher moisture content, these rolls won’t go dry by the next morning (assuming there are any left).
Browning the melted butter ups the ante on the typical cinnamon-brown sugar filling, accentuating its warming spiced toffee flavors, all while adding a nutty, toasty dimension of its own. A tangy cream cheese frosting offsets these deep, rich notes. And while we like it just as it is, feel free to add a few drops of vanilla extract for even more warmth or a touch of lemon zest for extra brightness.
If all that hasn’t convinced you that this just might be the best cinnamon roll recipe, how about this? The recipe uses 1 envelope of instant yeast (different from active dry yeast!), but if you’ve got a big jar at home and are in a hurry, don’t hesitate to increase the amount to 1 Tbsp. for an even quicker rise—about 20 minutes less for the first dough rise and 10 minutes less for the second. (It won’t affect the flavor.)
Or for overnight cinnamon rolls primed for morning baking, spread preparation across multiple days by refrigerating the dough, either after the first rise or after the unbaked rolls have been shaped and nestled in their baking pans, ahead of the second rise. Cover with plastic wrap to prevent the dough from forming a skin, and leave the chilled dough out at room temp for about an hour before proceeding.
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cups whole milk, divided
cups (719 g) all-purpose flour, divided
¼-oz. envelope instant yeast (about 2¼ tsp.)
cup (67 g) granulated sugar
Tbsp. Diamond Crystal or 1¾ tsp. Morton kosher salt
cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces
cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
cup (packed; 200 g) dark brown sugar
Tbsp. ground cinnamon
Tbsp. heavy cream
tsp. Diamond Crystal or ¼ tsp. Morton kosher salt
FROSTING AND ASSEMBLY
Tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pans
All-purpose flour (for surface)
oz. cream cheese, room temperature
cups (138 g; or more) powdered sugar
Tbsp. (or more) heavy cream
tsp. lemon zest (optional)
tsp. Diamond Crystal or Morton kosher salt
Whisk ¾ cup whole milk and ¼ cup (31 g) all-purpose flour in a medium saucepan until smooth. Place saucepan over medium heat and cook, whisking constantly, until mixture is thickened and whisk lines are visible on bottom of pan, about 2 minutes. Scrape tangzhong into the bowl of a stand mixer and let cool.
Add 1 large egg, one ¼-oz. envelope instant yeast (about 2¼ tsp.), ⅓ cup (67 g) granulated sugar, 1 Tbsp. Diamond Crystal or 1¾ tsp. Morton kosher salt, and remaining 1½ cups whole milk to tangzhong and whisk to combine. Add remaining 5½ cups (688 g) all-purpose flour. Fit bowl onto stand mixer; fit mixer with dough hook attachment. Mix on low speed until combined, about 1 minute. Increase speed to medium-low and mix, scraping down sides of bowl occasionally, until dough is smooth and elastic, 18–24 minutes. Pinch off a golf-ball-size piece of dough and stretch between your fingers as thin as possible without breaking. If you can see light through the dough, it’s ready. If not, continue mixing a few more minutes, then try again.
Add ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces, to dough and mix on medium speed until incorporated, about 2 minutes. Continue mixing until dough pulls away cleanly from sides of bowl and is no longer tacky to the touch, 5–7 minutes longer. Remove bowl from mixer and cover with a damp kitchen towel. Let sit in a warm spot until doubled in volume, 60–90 minutes.
While the dough is rising, cook ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until butter foams and milk solids turn dark amber, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a heatproof bowl and let cool slightly. Add 1 cup (packed; 200 g) dark brown sugar, 2 Tbsp. ground cinnamon, 2 Tbsp. heavy cream, and ½ tsp. Diamond Crystal or ¼ tsp. Morton kosher salt to butter and mix to combine.
FROSTING AND ASSEMBLY
Butter two 9″-diameter cake pans. Punch down dough and transfer to a lightly floured surface. Stretch dough into a rough rectangle; if dough feels stiff, let sit 5–10 minutes to allow gluten to relax. Arrange dough with short side facing you and roll out to a 24×13″ rectangle. Spread filling over dough in an even layer.
Starting at edge closest to you, tightly roll up dough into a log; roll log seam side down. Using a sharp serrated knife and long sawing motions, trim ends of log; discard. Using serrated knife or, preferably, unflavored dental floss, cut log in half crosswise, then cut each half into 6 equal rounds. (If using dental floss, slide floss underneath dough, then cross over top and pull ends through.) Nestle 6 rounds, cut side down, in each prepared cake pan. Cover with damp kitchen towels and let sit in a warm spot until doubled in volume, about 30–50 minutes.
Place a rack in middle of oven; preheat to 350°. Bake rolls until golden on top and puffed (don’t be alarmed if they rise dramatically in the center), 25–30 minutes.
Meanwhile, using an electric mixer on medium speed or a whisk, beat 4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature, and 8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature, in a large bowl, scraping down sides of bowl as needed, until combined. Add 1¼ cups (138 g) powdered sugar, 1 Tbsp. heavy cream, 1 tsp. lemon zest (if using), and ¼ tsp. Diamond Crystal or Morton kosher salt and beat until mixture is smooth and sugar is incorporated. Taste and beat in more powdered sugar (up to ¾ cup) if desired. Thin with more cream as needed, a teaspoonful at a time, until frosting is thick but spreadable.
Let cinnamon rolls cool in pan 5 minutes; spread frosting over.