Sourdough Cinnamon Rolls Surpass Canned or Yeasted Rolls by Far

Active dry yeast and I have never had a great relationship. Maybe the yeast I used was too old. Maybe the water I used to activate it was too cold or too hot. Maybe I didn’t wait long enough for the yeast to grow. Or maybe I used too much whole wheat or rye flour, producing what my family vividly (fondly?) refers to as “rye rocks.” Whatever the reason, I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded when baking with yeast.

Sourdough and I are a different story. Sourdough is more reliable and amenable to my baking style. Alaska “Sourdoughs” (early miners or old-timers in Alaska) also considered sourdough more reliable than yeast cakes even though it sometimes could not stand up to the extremes it was exposed to. They carried small pouches of sourdough on their persons to keep it from freezing. While the early miners likely baked without cookbooks, a renowned San Francisco baker named Chad Robertson took 27 pages in “Tartine Bread” to divulge his basic bread recipe. Here’s a pared-down version of the recipe.

A pan of freshly baked sourdough cinnamon rolls.

A pan of freshly baked sourdough cinnamon rolls.

The fact that Alaska sourdoughs and hip bakers in San Francisco can both successfully bake using sourdough is a testament to its flexibility. My methods fall somewhere in the middle between Robertson’s and the early miners’, assuming they were similar to the recipe described in Alaska Magazine’s Cabin Cookbook. I’ve developed a couple of my own tricks to minimize the mess and streamline the process. For instance, I simply make the sponge (leaven) in the same quart jar I keep the starter. Also, I let the dough do all of its rising in the same large glass bowl that I do the mixing.

Another great thing about sourdough is that keeping a starter around inspires me to bake more. If I’m feeding and caring for something anyway, I may as well use it. Also, I prefer the taste and texture of sourdough. There may even be some health benefits. The fermentation process helps break down some of the peptides in gluten, making sourdough bread more digestible, and when compared with breads made with yeast, has a lower glycemic index.

Note: Technically there is yeast in sourdough. Active dry yeast is a monoculture of one type of yeast, while sourdough is a diverse ecosystem made up of yeast and bacteria.

Christmas Sourdough Cinnamon Rolls

Cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning is a tradition from all sides of my family, but I wasn’t inspired to make sourdough cinnamon rolls until my husband thought cinnamon rolls from a can would be a good idea. Happily, I discovered that the sugar, milk and butter in the dough make it really foolproof for the sourdough to rise quickly and voluminously. Not so with rye or whole wheat bread. Rye or whole wheat pose significant challenges in the rising department, but the sugar and milk added to the cinnamon roll dough make for a nearly foolproof and impressively risen dough, making it an excellent first foray into sourdough baking.

Sourdough starter
A sourdough starter’s vintage is a point of pride for some. I’ve had good luck starting my own when I need it. From what I’ve read, the characteristics of a starter has more to do with the temperature and feeding schedule than where it originally came from and in fact will probably incorporate whatever local bacteria and yeast are in the air where you live. In some of the older cookbooks I’ve read, they don’t talk much about the feeding schedule of the starter. That might be that people were using it on a daily or every few day schedule so the feeding schedule was irrelevant.

If you do not bake with your sourdough every day (like I imagine most of us non-commercial bakers), consider feeding it daily or at least every few days. If you need a break or are going to be out of town, stick the jar in the fridge. Before you bake with it again, feed it for a few days first. If you do not feed it or use it regularly, you’ll end up with a very sour starter. Before feeding it, dump about half of the starter out each day so that you don’t have to waste too much flour to keep it vigorous. Old-time starters sometimes suggest adding any number of things to the starter—yeast, sugar, potato water, and apples to name a few items. I have only ever added water and flour.

To make your sourdough starter, mix a 1/4 cup of flour with a 1/4 cup of water together in a one-quart glass jar. If you’re not using the starter, dump about half of the starter out each morning and continue to feed so you have about 1/2 cup of starter. Stir vigorously whenever it occurs to you.

Sourdough sponge
Add about 1½ cups of flour and 1½ cup of water to your quart jar. Stir it vigorously and put it in a warm (or not overly cold) spot overnight. To be honest, I don’t actually measure the flour and water anymore. I simply aim for a consistency that is about as thick as pancake batter. Make sure the jar isn’t too full as it will overflow if you have a vigorous starter.

Cinnamon Roll Dough
In a large glass bowl, sift together:

3 1/4 cups flour (I adjust the amount of flour as needed to make sure the dough is very wet at this stage)
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Make a well in the center.

In another bowl, beat:
2 eggs
2 cups of sourdough sponge
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup scalded, then cooled milk

Pour into well of dry ingredients and mix. Let rise till double in bulk. Turn out onto floured surface and add more flour if needed. Then roll it out to a 1/2 inch thick rectangle.

Cinnamon Filling
1/2 cup softened butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1-2 tablespoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger

Combine the filling ingredients so that the filling is a spreadable consistency. Spread it with a knife on the rolled out dough. Now roll up the long side of the rectangle. Gently cut into ¾-inch slices with a serrated knife. Place slices on greased baking pan, cut side down. You can either let the cinnamon rolls rise at room temperature until they double in bulk, or you can refrigerate them overnight and remove them at least an hour before baking them. 

1 cup powdered sugar
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)

Mix together all the glaze ingredients and spread on the cinnamon rolls after they have cooled slightly.

Sourdough cinnamon rolls are endlessly adaptable and variations can easily be added to both the dough, filling, and glazes and you can easily adapt non-sourdough recipes to this sourdough recipe if you simply adjust the flour. I generally take recipes as suggestions and this also works seamlessly with sourdough as opposed to yeast recipes. In fact, it’s been easy to adapt most yeast recipes for sourdough without having to use specific sourdough recipes. All that’s necessary is subtracting a bit of the liquid portion of the recipe and then completely ignoring the measurements for flour.

Once you have a sourdough starter and are familiar with it, you might find yourself branching out into other recipes. You can find more sourdough recipes in Alaska Magazine’s Cabin Cookbook or UAF Extension’s publication.

Previously published in the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer December 23, 2018.