An easy recipe and tutorial on how to make my family’s favorite cinnamon rolls. You can serve these cinnamon rolls with a cream cheese frosting or simple vanilla icing and even prep them ahead of time!
I’ve been blogging for over four years now and realized that I don’t have one single recipe that has yeast. I’ve made cinnamon rolls and other things in the past, but I’ve always felt like yeast is an intimidating ingredient for some people so I’ve avoided sharing recipes that use it.
But I decided a few weeks ago I wanted to show you just how easy it can be to work with yeast. If you’ve made homemade cinnamon rolls, you know they’re really not too difficult. Sure they take a little extra time, but you can’t beat a soft, doughy cinnamon roll.
So, I finally decided to try out my grandma’s cinnamon roll recipe to share with you. I’ve made cinnamon rolls in the past and to be honest, they really don’t compare with this recipe. My grandma told me her sister gave her this recipe for dinner rolls, but once my grandma made the dinner rolls she realized it would be good cinnamon roll dough too.
And let me tell you, she was right! These cinnamon rolls are incredibly soft and absolutely delicious. And if homemade cinnamon rolls intimidate you, I think this post will change your mind. I’ve broken everything down from how to proof yeast, how to scald your milk, how to tell if your dough is properly kneaded, the easiest way to slice your cinnamon rolls, and how to even prep them ahead of time.
First things first, let’s start with a couple important things when it comes to making these cinnamon rolls.
How To Proof Yeast
To start, you want to make sure that your yeast is good otherwise your cinnamon roll dough won’t rise. The best way to activate yeast is to mix together 1/4 cup of warm water with 1 teaspoon of sugar then stir in 1 package (2 and 1/4 teaspoons) of active dry yeast.
You want your water to be between 105°F-115°F, if the water is too hot it can kill your yeast. If you’re new to working with yeast, a thermometer can help you to get an accurate temperature. The water should be warm to the touch, not hot.
The sugar isn’t necessary, but the yeast will go to work on the sugar and create a foamy mixture after about 5-10 minutes. See the difference between the two pictures above? The bowl on the right is where I mixed together the water, sugar, and yeast. The bowl on the left is after about 5-10 minutes, you can see that the yeast is activated and good to use.
How To Scald Milk
There’s one other key component to these cinnamon rolls and that’s scalded milk. If you’re wondering what that means, it just means to heat the milk until it’s near a boil and then let it cool. The reason scalded milk is important in this recipe is that it unravels the proteins that inhibit rising which in turn creates lighter, softer cinnamon rolls.
To scald milk, just place it in a saucepan over medium heat stirring often, you’ll start to see bubbles around the edges and the milk will start to steam. Once the milk starts to bubble right before it comes to a boil, remove it from the heat and pour it over your sugar, shortening, and salt. The scalded milk will also help to dissolve the sugar and salt better. If you still see a few pieces of shortening in the mixture, don’t worry.
One last thing with the scalded milk mixture, make sure to let it cool down to about 110°F before mixing it with the other ingredients. You don’t want your milk too warm when you mix it with the yeast otherwise it can kill the yeast.
So once you’ve proofed your yeast and scalded your milk and let it cool, you’ll mix some flour into the milk mixture, then add the proofed yeast, an egg, and then more flour. My grandma’s recipe says to use 4-5 cups of flour, I typically use between 4 and 1/4 cups to 4 and 1/2 cups of flour whenever I make these cinnamon rolls. I suggest starting with 4 cups of flour, then add 1-2 tablespoons at a time. The dough shouldn’t be too sticky, it should be easy to handle.
Once you’ve mixed in the flour you want to knead your dough. It’s important to knead this dough for about 5-10 minutes to help develop the gluten in the dough. Without well-developed gluten, your cinnamon rolls will turn out tough, kneading them helps to make them soft and light. I like to knead the dough with the dough hook on my stand mixer on low speed, but you can do this by hand too.
So how do you tell if your dough is properly kneaded?
- The dough should be smooth, no longer sticky, and hold it’s shape
- If you lightly press the dough with your finger it will bounce back
Once your dough is kneaded, place it in a lightly greased bowl, cover it, and let it rise in a warm area until it’s double in size like the picture above. I actually like to place the bowl of dough on a heating pad on low to let it rise. It sounds weird, but it works!
Once the dough has risen, you’ll punch it down, then roll it out into a large rectangle about 1/4-inch thick. Then, you’ll spread some softened butter on the dough and sprinkle some brown sugar and cinnamon on top.
My grandma never measures out her butter, brown sugar, or cinnamon so I measured out what works well when I make these cinnamon rolls. I like a lot more filling in my cinnamon rolls, but I’ve made notes in the recipe if you want to reduce the sugar and cinnamon a little.
Then, you’ll roll the dough up and cut it into 12 pieces. Here’s my little secret to getting perfect slices, I use unwaxed unflavored dental floss. I slide the dental floss under the dough, then cross it over the dough, and pull. Perfect slices every time! I actually keep a package in my kitchen to use for slicing cinnamon rolls.
Once you slice the cinnamon rolls, you’ll let them rise one more time for about 45 minutes. Or you can go ahead and cover them and refrigerate the dough overnight, then let them rise in the morning for 45 minutes in a warm spot and bake them. Both ways work fine!
As the cinnamon rolls are baking, I suggest keeping an eye on them to make sure they don’t brown too much on top. I usually place a piece of foil over my cinnamon rolls after they’ve been in the oven for about 10 minutes.
I’ve made the mistake of walking away once before placing the foil on top and they ended up browning way too much on top. Still delicious, just not as pretty.
You can also top these with any kind of frosting or icing that you prefer. I’ve included a recipe for cream cheese frosting, but I also included a simple recipe for an easy vanilla glaze that you can use in the recipe notes.
Baking Tips for Grandma’s Cinnamon Rolls
- Make sure to let the scalded milk mixture cool to about 110°F before mixing in the flour, yeast, and egg.
- Use unwaxed unflavored dental floss to easily slice the cinnamon rolls! I place the dental floss under the roll of dough, cross it over, then pull tightly for clean slices.
- Keep an eye on the cinnamon rolls and cover them loosely with a piece of foil if needed so they don’t brown too much on top.
Grandma's Cinnamon Rolls
For the dough:
- 1/4 cup warm water (110°F-115°F) plus 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1 package (2 and 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
- 5 tablespoons (62 grams) granulated sugar
- 3 tablespoons (32 grams) shortening
- 1 and 1/4 teaspoons salt
- 1 cup (240 ml) whole milk, scalded*
- 1 large egg room temperature
- 4-5 cups (500-625 grams) all-purpose flour, spooned & leveled
For the filling:
- 4 tablespoons (60 grams) butter, softened to room temperature
- 3/4 cup (150 grams) brown sugar
- 1 and 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
For the cream cheese frosting:
- 3 ounces brick-style cream cheese softened to room temperature
- 2 tablespoons (30 grams) butter, softened to room temperature
- 1/2 cup (60 grams) powdered sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1-2 tablespoons (15-30 ml) milk, use more as needed
To make the cinnamon rolls:
Whisk the warm water with the teaspoon of sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Sprinkle the yeast on top and gently stir it into the water. Set aside for 5-10 minutes until the yeast is foamy.
Add the 5 tablespoons of sugar, shortening, and salt to a heat-proof mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer. Pour the scalded milk on top and whisk until well combined. Set aside and allow to cool until it's warm and no longer hot (about 110°F).
Once the scalded milk mixture has cooled, mix in 2 cups (250 grams) of flour by hand or using the dough hook attachment on a stand mixer. Add the yeast mixture and mix until well combined, then mix in the egg.
Mix in 2 more cups (250 grams) of flour until fully combined, then mix in 1-2 tablespoons of flour at a time until the dough is easy to handle. Knead the dough by hand on a lightly floured surface or using the dough hook on a stand mixer on low speed for 5-10 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic, adding a little extra flour if needed.
Once the dough is kneaded, form it into a ball and place it into a lightly greased bowl. Cover and allow to rise in a warm place for about 1 hour or until double in size.
Once double in size, punch down the dough and roll it out on a lightly floured surface into a large rectangle. The dough should be about 1/4-inch thick or about a 12x18 inch rectangle.
Spread the softened butter all over the dough. Mix the brown sugar and ground cinnamon in a mixing bowl until well combined, then sprinkle on top of the butter and gently press it down.
Starting at the 18-inch side, roll the dough up tightly. Cut the roll of dough into 12 equal pieces and place each piece in a greased 9x13 baking pan. Cover and allow to rise in a warm place for about 45 minutes.
After about 30 minutes of rising, preheat the oven to 375°F. Once the oven is preheated, place the cinnamon rolls in the oven and bake at 375°F for about 25 minutes or until the cinnamon rolls are cooked through in the center. Cover loosely with foil after about 10-15 minutes of baking to prevent excess browning. Once the cinnamon rolls are done, remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
To make the cream cheese frosting:
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter together until smooth. Mix in the powdered sugar and vanilla extract until fully combined. Then mix in the milk, adding more as needed until it has reached your desired consistency.
Once the cinnamon rolls have cooled slightly, frost them, serve and enjoy!
How to scald milk: Pour the milk into a saucepan and place it over over medium heat stirring often. The milk will start to steam and bubble around the edges. Once the milk starts to bubble right before it comes to a boil, remove it from the heat.
To make ahead of time: Cinnamon rolls may be baked, cooled, and covered tightly at room temperature for up to 2 days. Add the cream cheese frosting or icing right before serving.
To prep ahead of time: Once you've cut the cinnamon rolls, cover them tightly, and refrigerate overnight. In the morning, remove from the refrigerator and allow to rise for 45 minutes in a warm place, then bake as instructed.
For a vanilla glaze: Whisk together 1 cup (120 grams) of powdered sugar, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, and 2 tablespoons of milk. If the glaze is too thin, add more powdered sugar and if it's too thick add more milk.
For the filling: You may reduce the filling down to 1/2 cup (100 grams) brown sugar and 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon. I suggest still using 1/4 cup (60 grams) of butter to spread on top of the dough.
Store frosted cinnamon rolls in the refrigerator covered tightly for 3-4 days and reheat in the microwave.