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The Best Sticky Bun Recipe Ever Thanks to 'The Food Lab' Cookbook

J. Kenji López-Alt's The Food Lab: Better Cooking Through Science is out now.

Simply the best sticky bun recipe out there right now.
Courtesy of J. Kenji López-Alt and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

There's not a lot to say about these perfect sticky buns except that if you haven't made a recipe by J. Kenji López-Alt, Serious Eats' managing culinary director, you're in for a trip. The title of his new cookbook, The Food Lab: Better Cooking Through Science says a lot: Over the past decade, the name "Kenji" has become synonymous with obsessively tested recipes that often break the rules but yield dishes that not only work, but also surprise in their efficiency and consistent efficacy.

This recipe from the new cookbook is an ideal weekend project. Mix up the dough sometime on Saturday afternoon and by Sunday morning you'll have pillowy, nutty, perfectly burnished cinnamon-scented rolls, coated in a deeply flavorful caramel. Don't be put off by the recipe's length: Read on to learn not only how, but why.

The Food Lab: Better Cooking Through Science is out now, and one of this year's most important new cookbooks.

Sticky Buns

About once a year, whenever I feel that my marriage needs an artificial 
shot of undying devotion and true love, I'll wake my lovely wife up with the unmistakable scent of gooey sticky buns baking in the oven. I figure this act alone is enough to get me off the hook for a whole year's worth of minor marital infractions—or major ones, if I include a ramekin of orange-cream-cheese glaze for dipping on the side. Seriously, these things are awesome. Awesome enough that I decided to include them to wrap up this chapter despite the fact that there's not all that much as far as "new" kitchen science goes here. Aside from minor tweaks to perfect the recipe, these sticky buns are pretty standard. But sometimes some minor tweaks is all it takes to perfect a standard.

Rolling in Dough
Sticky buns are made with what is called an enriched dough, meaning that in addition to the flour, water-based liquid, salt, and leavener found in most doughs, you've also got fat—in this case, eggs and butter; ingredients like milk and yogurt provide both water and fat. The fat plays a vital role not only in the flavor of the buns, but also in their texture. In lean doughs made without fat, gluten formation is exceptionally strong, because the flour proteins are easily able to come into direct contact with one another, rapidly forming a thick, sticky network of gluten. Because of this, lean doughs tend to have larger air bubbles trapped in them (stronger gluten means the dough can stretch longer and thinner before bursting), as well as a tougher, chewier structure. With enriched doughs, the fats act like a lubricant, preventing proteins from bonding too tightly.

Think of flour proteins as a group of hippie revelers forming a dance circle during a rare dry, sunny moment at Woodstock 1969. As they run into each other, they clasp each other's hands (as hippies are wont to do). Eventually, they're all linked together quite tightly. The circle can stretch out very far before any link breaks. Now let's imagine the same group of hippies in the same field, but this time in the pouring rain. If coated, as they are, with mud and water, clasping hands tightly becomes much more difficult. Perhaps small circles form here and there, but they are nowhere the size and strength of the dry circle. So it is with fats: they prevent large hippie circles of flour from forming in your dough, so to speak.

Because of this, enriched doughs tend to be more delicate than lean doughs, with a softer texture and smaller air bubbles. Of course, fats also add color and flavor to doughs. What fun would sticky buns be if they weren't golden and buttery?

There are recipes for sticky buns that use chemical leaveners like baking powder to induce a rapid rise, but this technique compromises flavor. Yeast is the only way to properly develop flavor and texture in a sticky bun. See, yeasts, like pretty much all living creatures, have a strong desire to procreate, and in order to do that, they must consume energy. This energy consumption comes in the form of sugars, which they digest and let off as both carbon dioxide and alcohol, along with numerous other aromatic compounds. It's the carbon dioxide getting trapped in the network of gluten formed by the flour that acts to leaven yeasted baked goods. The process takes time, however. There's only so much procreating a yeast can do, you know? A properly leavened sticky bun dough can take several hours to produce.

Well, why can't I just add more yeast to start? you might ask. The problem is that yeast has a flavor of its own, and it's not a particularly pleasant one. Start with a ton of yeast, and its slightly bitter, funky flavor will dominate the dough. The flavor of properly risen dough comes from the by-products of the yeast's actions: the complex array of aromatic chemicals that are produced as yeast slowly, slowly digests the sugars in the dough. For the best flavor, you must start with a relatively small amount of yeast and allow it plenty of time to perform its magic. This is as true for sticky buns as it is for pizza dough or baguettes.

If you've never made sticky buns, you'll probably find the process pretty much fun. You shape them by rolling a large piece of dough into a cylinder, then slicing it up to create shorter cylinders with a spiral pattern inside them. To keep these spiral layers separated from each other, a layer of butter and cinnamon sugar is spread over the flat sheet of dough before rolling it up.

There are really no two ways about it: sticky buns are a project involving multiple stages and plenty of time in the kitchen. (Hey, didn't I tell you I only make these about once a year?) But if my still-going-strong marriage is any indication, the results are definitely worth the effort.

The World's Most Awesome Sticky Buns

Notes: Being a night owl and a late riser, I like to prepare the buns and let them rise overnight in the fridge so all I have to do is bake them off in the morning. To do so, place the buns in the refrigerator immediately after covering them in step 6 and allow to rise for at least 6 hours, and up to 12. The next day, remove the buns from the fridge while the oven preheats, then proceed as directed.

For a nut-free version, the pecans can be omitted from the sauce.

Makes 12 sticky buns

For the Dough
3 large eggs
⅓ cup packed light brown sugar
¾ cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons kosher or 1 teaspoon table salt
2 teaspoons instant yeast
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
20 ounces (4 cups) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
For the Pecan-Caramel Sauce
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
⅔ cup packed light brown sugar
3 tablespoons buttermilk
4 ounces (about 1 cup) toasted pecans coarsely chopped
Pinch of kosher salt

For the Filling
⅔ cup packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
For the Orange-Cream Cheese Glaze (optional)
4 ounces cream cheese
¼ cup buttermilk
1½ cups confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon grated orange zest (from 1 orange)
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
Pinch of kosher salt

1. Make the dough: Whisk the eggs in a large bowl until homogeneous. Add the brown sugar, buttermilk, salt, yeast, and melted butter and whisk until homogeneous (the mixture may clump up a bit—this is OK). Add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon until a cohesive ball of dough forms.

2. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 2 minutes, or until completely homogeneous, smooth, and silky. Return to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise at room temperature until roughly doubled in volume, about 2 hours.

3. Make the pecan-caramel sauce: Cook the butter and brown sugar in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture is bubbling, about 2 minutes. Add the buttermilk, pecans, and salt and stir to combine, then pour the mixture evenly over the bottom of a 13-by-9-inch glass baking dish.

4. Make the filling: Combine the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and set aside.

5. Roll out the dough: Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and lightly flour it. Shape into a rough rectangle with your hands and then, using a rolling pin, roll into a rectangle about 16 inches long and 12 inches wide, with a short end toward you. Brush with the melted butter, leaving a 1-inch border along the top edge. Sprinkle with the cinnamon and sugar mixture and spread it with your hands until the buttered portion is evenly coated. Roll the dough up jelly-roll-style into a tight cylinder, using a bench scraper as necessary to assist you. Pinch the seam shut and turn the dough so that it's seam side down. Use your hands to even out its shape.

6. Use a sharp knife to cut the roll into 12 even slices: The easiest way to do this is to cut it in half, cut each half in half, and then cut each section into thirds. Nestle the 12 rolls with the swirl pattern facing up in the prepared baking dish, making sure the slices from the ends of the log go cut side down. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise until roughly doubled in volume, about 2 hours (for overnight instructions, see Note above). The rolls should be well puffed and pressed tightly against each other.

7. While the dough is rising, adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350°F. Transfer the baking dish to the oven and bake until the buns are golden brown and well puffed, about 30 minutes, rotating the dish once. Allow to rest for 5 minutes, then invert the buns onto a serving platter; scrape out any excess goo from the pan and spoon over the buns.

8. Make the (optional) glaze: Combine the cream cheese, buttermilk, confectioners' sugar, orange zest, orange juice, and salt in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until simmering and homogeneous. Spoon half the glaze over the sticky buns, reserving the rest in a bowl to pass tableside. Serve immediately.