- I followed cinnamon-roll recipes from chefs Alton Brown, Ree Drummond, and Sandra Lee.
- Lee’s recipe required the least effort, but they didn’t turn out super well.
- Drummond’s recipe was my favorite but was so messy I’d only make it again for a special occasion.
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Imagine sweet, cinnamon sugar swirled into pillowy-soft dough, all dripping in glistening icing – is your mouth watering yet?
When that craving for cinnamon rolls kicks in, you could certainly grab a can from the grocery store – but there’s nothing better than gooey, homemade ones filling your whole house with comforting smells.
In order to make the ultimate cinnamon roll, I tested recipes from famous chefs Alton Brown, Ree Drummond, and Sandra Lee to see who has the best one.
Read on to see how each recipe turned out, and which was my favorite.
Alton Brown’s recipe calls for pantry staples
According to Alton Brown’s recipe, cinnamon rolls can be made using some pretty basic kitchen ingredients, many of which I already had on hand.
The ingredients are so standard that I happened to have enough on hand to make two batches, which later came handy when I ran into some trouble with my first attempt.
Brown’s overnight cinnamon rolls are meant to be prepared the day before, which makes morning prep easy
I like the idea of making these rolls in the evening, letting them chill overnight, then finishing them in the morning. It makes for a much easier process by splitting up the steps.
Still, this was a lengthy process, so I had to plan ahead for when I wanted to enjoy these cinnamon rolls. I made the dough the day before, let it rise for two and a half hours, and chilled it overnight.
For my dough, I used instant yeast that someone had shared with me from a larger package. I’d stored it in a clear, resealable bag – but it turns out instant yeast that has been opened should be refrigerated.
As such, my instant yeast was worthless. But I didn’t realize this until later.
In the morning, I let my rolls rise further in a cold oven along with a pan of boiling water for 30 minutes. Then I baked them for 30 minutes.
As I foreshadowed, my first batch never rose due to an issue with my instant yeast. The dough looked rather dry from start to finish, and the cinnamon rolls stayed small throughout the process.
They didn’t rise in the oven and came out looking undercooked and dry – but at least they worked well as an air freshener.
The icing smelled sweet, but it looked thin with clumps of cream cheese. These cinnamon rolls were difficult to cut into and incredibly dense.
The taste was fine – buttery and filled with a sweet cinnamon flavor – but the texture was just hard and dry. The icing was also a turn-off because of the clumpiness.
I decided to try Brown’s recipe one more time
After my failed first attempt, I made a second batch. This time, I tried using active yeast as a substitute for instant yeast by following the simple instructions on the yeast packet. It worked perfectly.
I combined active yeast with warm water (I made sure the temperature was between 100 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit) and sugar and let it sit for 10 minutes before adding it to the mixer to make the dough, per the recipe’s instructions.
The second time around, the dough definitely came out fluffier and stickier. It rose very well and was a bit harder to work with because it was so soft and sticky.
My first attempt was a letdown, but the second batch of Brown’s rolls came out excellent
These came out of the oven looking and smelling delicious.
The brown sugar from the filling leaked out more in this batch and caused the bottoms of the cinnamon rolls to become slightly overdone.
Otherwise, the rolls were so soft. I wish the filling didn’t leak out and pool in the bottom of the pan because I would’ve loved more cinnamon and brown-sugar flavor.
For my second attempt at the icing, I tried letting the cream cheese sit out for longer to make it easier to integrate with the powdered sugar and milk – but it still became clumpy. In the future, I might try topping these with whipped cream cheese.
Overall, this recipe resulted in soft, pillowy cinnamon rolls that could use more filling.
Ree Drummond’s recipe featured unique ingredients in high enough quantities to feed a crowd
I cut the ingredients in half, and this recipe still made the largest number of cinnamon rolls of all three recipes I tested.
I liked that this recipe called for some less common ingredients, including maple extract and strong coffee. I used cold brew because I already had some made in the fridge.
Oddly enough, this is a one-pot recipe
Although there are some mixing bowls needed for the icing, the dough is actually made in a single pot on the stove. This made for a pretty easy start, even if it seemed strange to me.
I made the dough on the stove as directed, then moved it to a mixing bowl to proof. It rose so well that I had a hard time getting it to stop rising.
The rising dough overflowed out of my mixing bowl, and it was very difficult to roll out because it was so fluffy and sticky.
I wrangled it as best as I could and packed my dough strips with filling before getting them into the baking pans to rise more.
Although they seemed far apart in the pan, I knew they’d rise even more once they began baking.
The look and smell of these maple cinnamon rolls was unreal, and the taste was even better
Despite the mess and frustration, these rolls came out nearly perfect. They were golden with gooey centers, even though they looked a bit pathetic and misshapen going into the oven.
The maple icing was easy to make, but next time, I plan to sift the powdered sugar to prevent it from clumping up.
The edges of the cinnamon rolls were just the slightest bit overdone. Aside from the slightly crisp edges, the rolls were perfectly soft with sweet fillings and ooey-gooey centers.
Taking a bite out of the middle of one of these rolls was indescribably good and the maple icing was so delicious I could eat it out of a bowl.
For just myself and my partner, I don’t think I would go through the nightmarish mess of this recipe again. But for a crowd, these cinnamon rolls are made to impress.
Sandra Lee’s cinnamon rolls were unsurprisingly quick and easy
True to her semi-homemade fame, Lee’s recipe calls for frozen bread dough. My grocery store typically carries one brand of frozen white bread dough, but it was out of stock when I went shopping.
Luckily, in an April 2020 Yahoo interview, Lee said you can swap out the frozen bread for biscuit dough in this recipe.
I decided to use buttermilk biscuits because I figured the buttermilk flavor, which is a tad acidic, would balance out the sweetness of the cinnamon rolls
The dough was harder to roll out than I expected
Biscuit dough is tough to roll out because it’s so dense. But once I finally flattened it, adding the brown sugar and cinnamon filling was easy.
This recipe’s dough was the easiest to roll out and shape.
The dough was easy to cut, and I created beautiful, nearly perfect rolls. This was a nice break from the other batches of cinnamon rolls I made, which mostly fell apart as I cut them.
Even using premade biscuit dough, I had to leave the cut rolls out for one hour to proof. They didn’t appear to rise at all during that time.
Like with Brown’s recipe, I found the cream-cheese icing I prepared to be lumpy.
The cinnamon rolls looked great, but the centers were too undercooked
These came out golden brown, and the lumps in the icing dissolved once they met the hot rolls.
Unfortunately, the dough was so dense that the centers didn’t bake well and were too underdone and doughy. But with more time in the oven, I predicted that the edges would burn.
The buttermilk flavor did help cut the extra sweetness from the excessive filling, but otherwise, these cinnamon rolls tasted quite similar to store-bought cinnamon rolls.
As such, I’d probably skip buying a can of biscuit dough to make these rolls and just opt for a can of store-bought cinnamon rolls.
I’d totally make Drummond’s cinnamon rolls again … but only for a special occasion
In general, making cinnamon rolls is a lengthy and messy affair.
Personally, I don’t mind grabbing a can of cinnamon rolls from the store or buying them from a local bakery or restaurant. I’ll likely continue to do so, but for special occasions and large gatherings, I’d make Drummond’s recipe in a heartbeat.
Her recipe resulted in such sweet cinnamon rolls, and the maple icing was such a unique and special touch that really made them next-level.