When it comes to indulgent treats, there’s nothing tastier than a cinnamon roll. Made with enriched dough (which contains fat), these sweet bread-based snacks are filled with butter, along with sugar and cinnamon, and topped with a rich cream cheese icing.
As a keen baker, they are one of my favorite pastries to make, even if they are time-consuming. While you can purchase ready-made dough from the grocery store, I prefer to make my own, but the proofing time required when making dough from scratch, and the 30 minute cook time, means in total making cinnamon buns takes almost three hours.
While there’s nothing I can do to shorten the proofing time of homemade dough, air fryers are great for creating an evenly browned crisp finish, often in a shorter amount of time. That left me wondering, could cooking them in an air fryer offer a better result than my traditional method of a cooker? While a cooker can evenly brown the tops of a cinnamon roll, the sides are often pale, even though they are crisp – unlike those I buy from a bakery.
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Here comes the science bit
When cooking bread, mid-range temperatures are best as these ensure the cinnamon rolls cook fully, so they’re soft and pillowy rather than raw and dense. This also ensures the crust is crisp and evenly browned, without burning.
In my conventional cooker, using a temperature of 356 F / 180 degrees is perfect for cinnamon rolls, but as we’ve already mentioned they take around 20 minutes to cook. On top of that, there’s a further 10 minutes, while the oven reaches the desired temperature. While they are still delicious, they’re often not as brown and crisp as those purchased from a bakery.
Air fryers have a smaller cavity than traditional cookers, which means the hot air is circulated around food more evenly during cooking, and they also heat up quicker than conventional ovens. Together, this means they can crisp and brown food more evenly as well as quicker than if using traditional cooking methods.
I have the Instant Vortex Plus, which currently tops our list of the best air fryers, and can bake, roast, reheat, and dehydrate as well as air fry. However, when the bake mode is used the hot air isn’t circulated as rapidly as when in air fryer mode.
This means the finish isn’t as crisp, crunchy, and brown – which is ideal for softer bakers, such as a Victoria Sponge – but in the case of cinnamon rolls I want crunchy and deep brown rather than soft and lightly colored, so in this instance, I stuck with using the appliance as an air fryer. The only thing left to do now was get cooking.
Let’s get baking
Over the past few years, I’ve tried several different recipes for cinnamon rolls and I’ve found that while some aspects of a recipe prove successful, others not so much. So I’ve settled on my own hybrid method, which uses the enriched dough from this BBC Good Food recipe.
However, if you are short on time and can plan ahead, it is possible to make and proof this dough in advance, then pop it in an oiled plastic container and freeze it.
Remove from the freezer a few hours before you need it and let it defrost at room temperature. Then follow the steps below for filling and cutting the cinnamon rolls.
When it comes to the buttery, slightly-spicy filling, after many tries I have settled on using 2.1 oz / 60g soft butter spread over the dough, then sprinkled with a mix of 3 oz / 85g of dark muscovado sugar and 1.5 tsp cinnamon.
I combined the dough ingredients, and left it to proof for 1.5 hours, then I rolled it into a rectangle 15.7 x 9.8 inches / 40 x 25 cm (l x w) wide and spread over the filling.
Using the long edge of the rectangle, I rolled the dough into a long sausage shape (in the same way you’d roll a swiss roll) and cut it into 11 equal portions (I always slice of each edge to ensure the rolls are neat before cutting into equal sizes, which means I get 11 rolls rather than 12). I then left these to proof for a further 30 minutes.
Once the cinnamon rolls were ready to cook, I switched the air fryer on and set the cooking temperature to 356 F / 180 degrees. I used my previous experience of cooking in an air fryer – for example when I discovered this game changing hack to make fries taste even better in an air fryer and when I made fried chicken to rival KFC in an air fryer, coupled with some research on air fryer cinnamon roll recipes (all of which used pre-made dough, incidentally) and settled on a cooking duration of 10 minutes – exactly half the time they take to cook in an oven.
However, when I went to place the cinnamon rolls into the air fryer, I ran into my first problem – the air fryer basket wasn’t big enough to hold all 11 of the cinnamon rolls. I managed to fit seven rolls onto the crisper tray in the air fryer basket comfortably, putting the remainder aside to cook afterwards.
The Instant Vortex Plus has a reminder to shake function, which alerts you half way through the cooking process so you can shake or turn the food in the air fryer drawer to ensure every inch of it is crisp and crunchy. However, when it comes to cinnamon buns, they don’t need to be browned on the bottom as well as the top, just cooked, so I merely ignored this notification during cooking.
Once I’d got to the end of the cooking time, I peeked into the air fryer and was extremely impressed. The cinnamon rolls were crisp and evenly browned on the top, but the sides were still as pale as when using a cooker. I removed the roll closest to the front of the air fryer drawer, to check it was fully cooked inside.
When I sliced into it, the dough was soft and spongy indicating it was indeed cooked through. All that was left was for me to top them with the sweet sticky mix of powdered sugar and cream cheese and tuck in.
As I began to remove the remaining rolls for the air fryer, I suddenly spotted a massive error. Some of the buttery spicy filling had seeped out of the buns and onto the crisper plate, with some dripping through into the air fryer basket.
The crisper plate is dishwasher safe, which makes for easy cleaning and is the same amount of effort as when cooking them on a tray in the oven. The air fryer basket is another story – as on this model it must be cleaned by hand (although some air fryers have dishwasher safe baskets) meaning there was a bit more time spent cleaning up than I would have liked.
To ensure this wasn’t the case with the second batch, I positioned them on a round baking tray and placed this on a crisper plate of the air fryer. This turned out to be even better than using an air fryer alone, as the metal tray reflected the hot air onto the sides of the rolls, creating crisp, evenly-browned sides as well as tops.
I shared the baked goods with my partner, who was very impressed and was unaware that they’d been cooked differently to my usual method.
It’s clear that an air fryer really can improve cinnamon rolls by ensuring the sides are crisp and evenly browned as well as the tops, without compromising on the quality of them. I certainly won’t be going back to cooking them in an oven.
Although going forward I‘ll always use an additional oven tray to hold the cinnamon buns during cooking to ensure I get a perfect result every time. If you love these sweet treats as much as me, I urge you to give it a go too.
Carrie-Ann Skinner is Smart Home & Appliances Editor at TechRadar, and has more than two decades experience in both online and print journalism, with 13 years of that spent covering all-things tech. Carrie specializes in smart home devices such as smart plugs and smart lights, as well as large and small appliances including vacuum cleaners, air fryers, and blenders. When she’s not discovering the next must-have gadget for the home, Carrie can be found cooking up a storm in her kitchen, and is particularly passionate about baking, often rustling up tasty cakes and bread.