Photos by John Rockwell

If you’re making sourdough bread for any extended period of time, it might occur to you that you are throwing out most of your starter each time you refresh it. New breadmakers want to keep it all—at least I did. But as you will find out, if you don’t throw out a bunch, you will end up with more starter than you can use. Also, if you keep a large amount of starter in your jar, over time it will acidify and become unpleasantly astringent. It might also occur to you that if your starter works for bread, it should work for any other “rising dough” recipe. It does.

The most common “starter discard” recipes I see are for English Muffins and croissants. Laminated croissant dough takes a long time to learn (I have not yet tried, but will someday), and English Muffins are actually pretty simple (they are both grilled and baked), but difficult to get fluffy and light. Cinnamon rolls, however, do not require expert-level finesse to get right, and with a little bit of starter and basic ingredients, you’ll be baking these crowd-pleasers in no time. They’re a hit at family breakfast gatherings, especially around the holidays.

When doing rolls, I let sourdough teach me some lessons in patience—naturally leavened bread works on its own mysterious timetable. There are two logistical possibilities for morning cinnamon rolls—make the dough night before and retard in the fridge overnight, or make them all in one shot, which can make for a pretty early and long morning (about 5-6 hours total).

I follow the standard recipe for the dough, but leave out the baker’s yeast and substitute 1-2 cups of freshly activated starter:

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups bread flour

½ cup sugar

1 cup milk

1-2 eggs

1/3 cup margarine

1 tsp salt

1-2 cups active sourdough starter

The goal is to create a pliable dough that you can work with. Don’t be too strict on ingredient amounts. After mixing these ingredients (you may want to slightly melt the margarine into the milk), I let the mixed dough sit for 30 minutes for—you guessed it—autolyse. The most important lesson in patience I learned from breadmaking was this step. Allowing the dough to hydrate properly makes it workable, and tells you a lot about what it’s going to feel like several hours down the road. The dough should not be firm, but it should be shapeable and pliable for kneading. My kneading process for rolls is in-bowl, just enough turns to get a few glutens going without too much stretchiness. You’re not looking for a dough with sourdough-strength gluten strands, but you do want a dough that is able to catch some air. After kneading, I dust the bowl with flour and let the dough mass rise for a few hours—at least 2-3 hours, depending upon room temperatures and starter activity. Just watch the dough; it will tell you when it’s ready.

The next step is to roll out the dough and add your cinnamon sugar mixture. About 1½ cups of brown sugar tightly packed, 1/3 cup of melted margarine, and between 2-3 tablespoons of cinnamon will do the trick with the filling. I mix it with a fork or a pastry blender so it is crumbly and open. I recommend margarine for the filling instead of butter because butter will liquefy your cinnamon mixture, run out of the rolls, and burn at baking temps. The margarine creates more of a syrup, which is what you want.

The rolled dough should come out to a 15 inch by 9-10 inch rectangle. Keep your surface floured to keep the dough from sticking when you roll it out and don’t be afraid to pull the corners square with your hands. You do not want the dough to be too thin—thin rolls keep the dough from puffing outward and that loose unraveling in the final bake is what makes cinnamon rolls great eats. Spread the cinnamon over the rolled dough, leaving the upper lip without cinnamon sugar (about ½-1 inch). Roll it up uniformly, but not too tightly.

When you cut the rolls, I begin by cutting the length in half and then each half in half again. Each quarter should yield three rolls, to total 12. Cut smoothly with a sawing motion so the rolls don’t smash down. Move them to a greased pan—I prefer a steel pan—and leave plenty of space between them. If you are making them the same day, let them proof for another hour like this while you preheat your oven. If you are making these the night before, cover the pan and stick it in the fridge. In the morning, pull them out about an hour before you begin baking so they come back to around room temperature.

Baking is simple: 25 minutes in a preheated 425-degree oven. What little space there was should now disappear entirely during the baking process. The frosting can be a simple butter frosting, about a stick of butter or margarine to 1½ cups powdered sugar, about half a cake of cream cheese, a squirt or two of vanilla extract and a pinch or two of salt. Of course, if these are frosted when hot or warm, the frosting melts, which is pretty special. They will be devoured, and probably nobody will notice the slightly sour flavor in the dough. Once you’ve had these with natural yeast, chances are you’ll toss those old packets of baker’s yeast.

The cinnamon mix is crumbly, the dough is doubled and ready to roll and the mat generously floured.

It’s important to keep the dough square as you roll it out, otherwise you will lose rolls! Keep it as uniform as possible!

Dump the crumbly cinnamon mix on the dough when it’s rolled. Don’t roll it too thin, though! You want the dough to puff for you.

Leaving a lip at the top (I roll upward) will give you space to “pinch” the lip closed before or after you cut the roll.

The first cut down the middle should reveal a uniform dough width and clear cinnamon sugar layers.

Cut each half in half and then each one in thirds, yielding 12 rolls. Be sure to saw gently with the knife—don’t squash!

Spread those out in the pan—you want to give them space to grow for the next hour or so. Or stick in fridge overnight.

Simple buttercream frosting has never changed, has it? Add ½ cake of cream cheese for a nice little kick if you want.

The baked rolls should now touch, and if you’re lucky, some may pop upward. I haven’t mastered this upward-popping yet.