This sticky bun recipe bakes up a big tray of soft, fluffy rolls topped with crunchy pecans and gooey caramel sauce. It’s the perfect treat for breakfast, brunch, and special occasions!
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When a hot tray of fresh sticky buns comes out of the oven, you’re in for a treat! This recipe’s secret is using bread flour and water to prevent the dough from becoming dense and dry. The paste that forms adds extra moisture to lighten the texture while making each bite incredibly tender and pillowy.
A layer of sugar, maple syrup, and butter spread on the baking dish’s bottom transforms into a rich caramel sauce in the oven. If you’re a fan of nuts, I sprinkle a generous amount of chopped pecans in the pan and on the buns before baking.
I use bread flour in the recipe to give a stronger, more elastic crumb. This type of flour contains about 12 to 15% protein compared to all-purpose, which is around 10 to 13%. The increased gluten-formation gives the bread structure and additional strength while supporting the flour paste’s increased hydration level. Don’t worry. The bread will not be hard.
For the softest rolls
To ensure that each roll is exceptionally soft when sinking your teeth in, I use a simple Asian yeast-bread technique called tangzhong. It sounds fancy, but it’s just a small portion of flour mixed with water, then heated until a thick paste forms. This step pre-gelatinizes (swells) the starches and allows the bread flour to absorb twice the amount of water.
The additional moisture makes the dough tackier but still easy to work with. The cooked starches provide more structure and hold onto the water droplets when kneading, shaping, and baking the buns. The result, moist pastries that puff up bigger when baked due to extra steam generated inside. This process only takes about two minutes and makes a significant texture impact.
I use instant dry yeast (or rapid rise) to make these sticky buns. It doesn’t need to be proofed, and you can add it directly into the dry and wet ingredients. To ensure a better texture and flavor, I first ferment the dough until it doubles in size, then again later after the buns are shaped and placed in the pan.
Mix and rest the dough
The bread will be very soft, but we don’t want it to collapse during fermentation and baking. To achieve tall and fluffy rolls, the paste, milk, eggs, flour, and yeast are mixed to hydrate, then allowed to rest for 15 minutes. This gives the dough the opportunity for maximum gluten-formation and the yeast to hydrate and activate.
The salt and granulated sugar are then added and mixed until an elastic dough ball forms. These two ingredients can tenderize the dough and inhibit yeast activity at high levels, so it’s better to add them later in the process.
Ferment the dough in a warm area
Yeast are the most active and develop better flavors between 75°F to 78°F (24 to 26ºC). After mixing the dough for 5 minutes, the physical sheer increases the dough temperature to about 75ºF (26ºC). Lucky us! However, many kitchens can not sustain that temperature.
Therefore, I like to use the oven proofing method or microwave method to keep a constant temperature. This process ensures that yeast are happily fermenting and creating carbon dioxide bubbles in a makeshift sauna. I do this for both rise steps.
Make the caramel topping
To create a caramel sauce that sticks to the buns’ surface, I use a mixture of melted butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, maple syrup (or dark corn syrup), and water. A little kosher salt naturally enhances and balances the sweet notes. Add the mixture to the baking pan’s bottom, which has closer contact with the hot baking sheet in the 375-degree oven.
As the sugars heat up and break down into simple sugars, the sauce changes to a golden amber color and new flavors emerge during caramelization. This process happens around 320 to 335ºF (160 to 170ºC). As the moisture evaporates, the mixture concentrates into a thick syrup-like consistency.
Add nuts to the topping
I love incorporating chopped pecans into the topping as they have a nice crunch when bitten into. But other types of nuts like walnuts, peanuts, or chopped almonds work well too. If you want to omit the nuts, leave them out.
Roll out the dough and fill
The dough in this recipe is more tacky and moist than my other sticky buns with no yeast. That’s because of the additional moisture from the paste. Once the dough doubles in size, roll it out on a lightly floured surface. There will be a lot of air pockets created by the yeast. Press them down.
Use a rolling pin to make a 14-by-16-inch rectangle. Brush melted butter over the surface to keep the layers separate and to help the sugar-cinnamon mixture adhere better when sprinkled on. I add nutmeg into the filling to elevate the baked notes. Roll the dough into a cylinder, then cut into 12 even-sized pieces.
Do a second rise after shaping
Evenly place the rolls onto the prepared pan, allowing space in between for them to grow. Cover them tightly with plastic wrap to keep the dough moist and trap the warm air for optimal fermentation. You’ll notice that the rolls will puff up a lot, nearly filling all of the space in the pan. This step takes about 45 to 60 minutes.
The rolls initially bake for 20 minutes to get the sugars caramelized and the dough cooking. To prevent the surface from getting too brown, loosely cover it with foil. The sticky buns are ready when they reach about 195 to 200ºF (91 to 93ºC).
I like to test pieces with an instant-read thermometer on the pan’s outer and center to check the progress. The parts in the center will always be lower in temperature and moister.
Best way to remove
Cool for 5 minutes to complete carryover cooking and to thicken the caramel sauce. Run a knife along the edges to release them from the pan. Place a parchment paper-lined sheet pan on top, then swiftly invert. Slowly lift the pan and you’ll be stunned by gorgeous sticky buns with candied nuts on top.
Sticky buns vs. cinnamon rolls
Sticky buns are similar in concept to cinnamon rolls, using sweetened yeast-leavened dough to make rolled pieces of bread. They both have a sugar, cinnamon filling swirled in the center, adding layers of flavor, and they’re baked together in a tray to create a loaf.
However, sticky buns are a bit denser because they have a built-in caramel sauce that cooks on its own as the bread bakes. No extra work is needed! It’s also served inverted, with the sticky sauce shining on top.
Substituting with active dry yeast
If desired, you can use active dry yeast, substitute at a 1:1 ratio. You don’t have to dissolve the yeast before using, because manufacturers are now drying them into smaller particle sizes to make it easier to hydrate. Make sure to allow the dough to rise about 60 minutes or until doubled in size since it’s not as active as instant yeast.
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- 3 ¼ cups bread flour, divided
- ⅔ cup water
- ⅔ cup whole milk
- 1 large egg
- 1 large egg yolk
- 2 teaspoons instant yeast, or rapid-rise
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to 65 to 67ºF (18 to 20ºC)
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- ½ dark brown sugar, packed
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- ¼ cup pure maple syrup, or dark corn syrup
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons water, warm
- 1 ½ cup pecans, roughly chopped
- ⅔ cup dark brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- In a medium microwave-safe bowl, whisk together ¼ cup bread flour and water. Microwave on high power for 75 seconds, in 25-second intervals, whisking in between each cycle. The final mixture should be a thick, scoopable paste, like pudding.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the warm flour paste and milk. Whisk by hand until smooth, 30 seconds. Add the egg and yolk, whisk to combine, 10 seconds. Fit the mixer with the dough hook attachment. Add the remaining 3 cups of flour and yeast. Mix on low speed (setting 2) until the flour is hydrated, about 1 minute. Let it sit for 15 minutes.
- Add the granulated sugar and salt. Mix on medium-low speed (setting 3) for 2 minutes. Add the softened butter and mix for 3 minutes on medium-low speed, scraping down the hook and sides of the bowl halfway through. The dough will be sticky and elastic.
- Lightly grease a medium bowl with vegetable oil or cooking spray, set aside. Lightly dust a work surface with flour. Place the dough on top, and knead until a ball forms, about 30 seconds. Don’t over flour the dough, it should still be slightly tacky.
- Place the dough ball in the greased bowl. Tightly cover with plastic wrap and allow it to rise in a warm draft-free area or proofing box (see notes) until it doubles in size, about 45 to 60 minutes. The optimal temperature is about 75 to 78ºF (24 to 26ºC) for yeast fermentation. Meanwhile, prepare the topping and filling.
- Grease a 9-by-13-inch metal baking pan with vegetable oil or cooking spray.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the melted butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, maple syrup, and salt. Add the warm water and stir to combine, it may get slightly lumpy. Evenly spread the sugar mixture into the greased pan.
- Evenly sprinkle the chopped pecans on top of the sugar mixture. Set aside.
- In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Set aside.
- Transfer the dough to a lightly floured cutting board. Press the dough down to remove any gas bubbles formed by the yeast. Starting in the center, roll the dough into a 16-by-14-inch rectangle, even in thickness. The dough will be slightly sticky and elastic, use a minimal amount of flour to help with rolling.
- Brush two tablespoons of melted butter evenly over the surface of the dough, leaving a ¾-inch border.
- Sprinkle the brown sugar and cinnamon filling mixture evenly over the dough, leaving a ¾-inch border. Use your hands to pat it down, helping it adhere.
- Starting at the longer edge, roll the dough into a cigar shape, making sure it’s not too tight. Crimp the seam, and place it seam-down on the cutting board. Use a chef’s knife to cut into 12 even-sized pieces.
- Place the rolls in the baking pan, spaced out about 1⁄2-inch apart, 3 rolls per row. Leave about 1⁄2-inch of space along the edge. Tightly cover with plastic wrap and allow it to rise in a warm draft-free area or proofing box (see notes) until doubled in size. They should touch each other and the sides of the pan, about 45 to 60 minutes.
- Set the oven rack to the upper-middle position. Preheat to 375ºF (191ºC).
- Place the baking pan on the parchment paper-lined sheet pan. Bake for 20 minutes, then loosely cover the surface to prevent it from browning too fast. Bake until the surface is golden brown, and the dough reaches between 195 to 200ºF (91 to 93ºC), about 10 to 15 minutes. Do not over bake, as the caramel topping can become too thick. Cool the pan for 5 minutes on a wire rack.
- Gently run a knife along the sides of the pan to make it easier to remove. Immediately place a parchment paper-lined sheet pan on top of the baking pan, then quickly invert. Slowly lift to release the buns. Scoop out any remaining nuts and sauce and put them on top of the buns. Serve warm.
- Storing: Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 1 month.
- Reheating: Microwave individual pieces on high power in 10 to 15-second intervals until warmed through.
- 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 sticky buns. If needed, transfer the hot water to a smaller cup to fit with the baking pan. Close the door until the rolls double in size. Alternatively, make an oven-proofing box.
- Making in advance: After slicing the buns into 12 pieces, place them on the baking pan. Tightly cover and refrigerate for up to 12 hours. When ready, allow them to rise in a warm draft-free area until doubled in size, about 60 to 90 minutes.
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