Freshly baked cinnamon rolls drizzled with vanilla glaze. A special breakfast treat that you can make from scratch in less time than you think. Using instant-yeast allows you to cut down the rising time dramatically.
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This cinnamon rolls recipe creates soft pillowy bread filled with a brown sugar spread. Don’t waste your money on Cinnabon when you can make a homemade version that tastes better. Sometimes working with yeast-leavened baked goods may feel intimidating or look time-consuming, but I’ll show you the science behind the process in the formula below.
The good news is now, with technology on our side, manufacturers have created an instant-rise yeast to save us time in the kitchen. Compressed fresh yeast or active dry yeast, requires proofing or multiple fermentation steps. However, with the instant version, you only have to let it rise after shaping for 30 minutes, instead of hours.
Use instant dry yeast
For this recipe, I use instant dry yeast, also known as rapid-rise yeast. The most important thing to remember is that yeast is alive, just dormant in a dried state. That means it’s susceptible to high heat and can lose it’s rising power if combined with a liquid that’s too hot.
Gradually heat the mixture of sugar, butter, water, and milk between 120 to 130°F (49 to 54°C) and no higher. Yeast dies at temperatures of 138ºF (59ºC) and above. Keep an instant-read thermometer handy to monitor the temperature as this step is critical for a successful rise. This warm liquid mixture is then combined with one package of instant dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons), flour, and salt.
Make the dough
Once you incorporate the warm liquid with the dry ingredients, it will feel sticky until the starches hydrate. As the dough mixes, gluten formation rapidly occurs with constant kneading, creating an elastic texture. This makes it easy to roll out and hold its shape.
I prefer to let my stand mixer do the kneading using the dough hook attachment. But you can also use your hands to knead the dough on a floured surface.
Rolling out and shaping
Make sure to cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rest for 10 minutes before rolling. The dough will be warm from the heated liquids, around 90ºF (32ºC) which rapidly starts yeast fermentation and gas formation. This also allows the proteins to relax a little, so it’s easier to work with. Shape the dough into a square on a well-floured surface. Use a rolling pin to create a rectangle shape about 16 by 19-inch.
The dough should be even in thickness, about ¼-inch. Carefully roll from the longest edge into a tight cigar shape. Trim off the edges as it’s mostly just dough, and then cut 12 even-sized pieces.
Make the filling
A combination of softened butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, flour, and ground cinnamon creates a sweet paste to spread evenly over the dough. You can make this part a few days ahead, but make sure to bring it to room temperature before using. Use a knife or spatula to evenly distribute the filling.
Keep a skinny border, about ¼-inch from the edge with no filling, to make it easier to roll. If you’re looking to add more mix-ins, you can sprinkle some chopped pecans or walnuts, sauteed apples, caramel, or even chocolate chips on top of the paste.
Allow time to rise
This is the only long fermentation step that is needed to allow the dough to puff up and increase in size. Evenly space the pieces in a greased baking pan, allowing for some distance between themselves and from the sides of the pan. This gives the rolls room to double in size.
Yeast is the most active in producing flavor and gas bubbes when the dough temperature is between 75 to 78ºF (23 to 14ºC). If it’s a warm day in your kitchen, you can leave it on the counter and cover it with plastic wrap for about 30 minutes, or longer as needed. The plastic does a better job of keeping the dough from drying out, so it stays soft and pliable.
Alternatively, I like to set up a makeshift proofing box in the oven or microwave to create an enclosed warm, humid environment for the rolls to rise efficiently.
You might notice that the rolls will continue to increase in size as it bakes. The yeast keeps fermenting and produces carbon dioxide gases until it ultimately deactivates in the hot oven temperatures. So if your rolls don’t seem quite doubled in size before baking, they’ll get an extra boost once in the oven. The cinnamon rolls bake until golden brown. The smell of caramelized sugar and hot bread is heavenly!
Drizzle on the glaze
The glaze is very simple to make. Just whisk together powdered sugar, vanilla extract, lemon juice, and warm water. I like to use vanilla bean paste because it gives a nice speckled appearance. You can also scrape in some whole beans for a stronger flavor.
Make sure to use warm water. Otherwise, the consistency will become stiff and hard to drizzle. The glaze will harden as it cools, so wait to mix it until right before adding. If you’re a cream cheese frosting fan, it’s a tasty substitute for this glaze.
The advantage of using instant-rise yeast
Instant yeast, also sold as rapid-rise yeast, is a dry product with enzymes and additives that help it ferment faster. It can be mixed right into dry ingredients. Warm water activates the yeast to get it fermenting. The dough then only needs 10 minutes of resting before rolling and shaping—just one rise step, which is about 30 minutes in a warm area before baking.
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Homemade Cinnamon Rolls
- 2 ¾ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 2 ¼ teaspoons instant yeast, or rapid-rise yeast
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ½ cup water
- ¼ cup whole milk
- 1 large egg
- ⅓ cup dark brown sugar
- ⅓ cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to 67 to 70ºF (19 to 21ºC)
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- ¼ cup whole milk, warmed to 80 to 100ºF (27 to 38ºC)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- In the bowl of a stand mixer or large bowl, whisk together the flour, yeast, and salt. Set aside.
- In a medium microwave-safe bowl, combine the sugar, butter, water, and milk. Microwave on high power in 20-second intervals until the mixture reaches 120 to 130°F (49 to 54°C), about 40 to 60 seconds. Let it cool slightly if it gets too hot. Stir to combine.
- Add 1 large egg to the flour mixture. Use a spatula to gradually stir in the warm liquid mixture, until a soft, sticky dough forms.Using the dough hook attachment of a stand mixer, mix on low speed (setting 2) until the dough becomes smooth and elastic, about 4 minutes. If not using a mixer, knead by hand on a lightly floured surface for about 5 minutes. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and rest on the counter for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, make the filling.
- In a medium bowl stir together the brown sugar, granulated sugar, flour, and cinnamon. Add 6 tablespoons of softened butter and mix until smooth and spreadable.
- On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a 16 x 9-inch rectangle.
- Evenly spread the filling over the dough, leaving a 1⁄4-inch border on all sides. Tightly roll the dough into a 16-inch long log. Trim off a small piece of dough from each end. Cut the log into 12 even-sized pieces.
- Place the rolls in a lightly greased 9 x 13-inch baking dish, spaced out about 1⁄2-inch apart, 3 rolls per row. Leave about 1⁄2-inch of space along the edges of the pan. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm draft-free area or proofing box (see notes) until doubled in size, about 30 minutes.
- Adjust the oven rack to the lower-middle position. Heat to 375°F (191°C). Uncover and bake the rolls until lightly golden brown in color, about 15 to 17 minutes. Slightly cool the rolls for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, make the glaze.
- In a medium bowl, whisk the powdered sugar, warm milk, vanilla extract, and lemon juice until smooth. Drizzle glaze over the warm cinnamon rolls. Serve immediately.
- Make it Gluten-Free: Substitute gluten-free flour for all-purpose flour. I recommend Bob’s Red Mill 1:1 Gluten-Free Baking Flour.
- Make it Dairy-Free: For the butter, substitute coconut oil, margarine, or shortening. For the milk, use water, coconut milk, almond milk, or cashew milk.
- Microwave Proofing Box: Heat 1 cup of water on high power in the microwave for 2 minutes. Leave the cup inside and immediately add the covered tray of cinnamon rolls. Close the door until the rolls double in size. Alternatively, make an oven proofing box.
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