Know Your Sweets: Cinnamon Rolls

Robyn Lee

The Basics

Cinnamon rolls (aliases: coffee scroll, cinnamon bun, cinnamon snail) are the perfect year round breakfast treat. They combine a belly-warming, spicy center with a stick-to-your-ribs pastry exterior.

Similar Desserts

Sticky Bun, Chelsea Bun, Honey Bun, Cinnamon Toast, Coffee Cake, Boston Cake, Korvapuusti, Skillingsbolle

Key Ingredient Spotlight: Cinnamon

Max Falkowitz

Cinnamon is the inner bark of a tropical evergreen native to Sri Lanka. It's harvested during monsoon season when the bark is soft, then prepared either as small "quills" or ground into a powder.

It is, perhaps, the spice that single-handedly launched a thousand ships and put the Age of Exploration into motion, as explorers and spice traders began to sail around the world is search of this precious commodity. Having been introduced to Europeans by Marco Polo in the 13th Century, cinnamon quickly became the go-to spice for wealthy landowners aiming to impress. (Until this point, and throughout most of the Roman Empire, pepper had been the preferred seasoning for both sweet and savory dishes.)

Ceylon cinnamon—also known as "true" cinnamon—is the premier cinnamon in the world, though the majority of cinnamon used in western food preparations is the harsher, less full-bodied cassia cinnamon.

Key City: Federal Way, Washington

In 1985, the cinnamon bun world was revolutionized with the opening of the first-ever Cinnabon just outside of Seattle. Almost 30 years later, there are over 750 stores operating in over 30 counties, including Libya, where Cinnabon had the distinct designation of being the first franchise to open after the fall of Gaddafi in 2011. If you think you could easily put away several Cinnabons in one sitting on your next trip to the mall, think twice: the classic Cinnabon roll has 890 calories a pop.


Each European country seems to have its own special spin on the cinnamon roll, with Swedes adding cardamom and pearl sugar to their version while Finland's variety, the mammoth korvapuusti, measures up to 8 inches in diameter.

Chelsea Buns
British Chelsea Buns. Sydney Oland

In the United States, the cinnamon roll has taken on several variations, including the coffee scroll in the Northeast and the honey bun in the Southeast. The coffee scroll is topped with a fondant glaze lightly flavored with coffee—just in case your morning breakfast needs some extra added caffeine. The North Carolina-created honey bun, which has become more of a vending machine favorite than a bakery delicacy, is a fried yeast pastry with a swirl of cinnamon then covered in a honey syrup.


While yeasty breads have long been produced, it wasn't until a perfect storm of sugar, carbs, and spice converged in the 17th Century that the cinnamon bun as we know it today was born.

Egyptians and Romans recorded eating various types of sticky buns for centuries prior to the first cinnamon roll, with honey, raisins, and dates providing most of the sweet flavor and gooey texture. In Egypt, cinnamon was scarce and primarily used not for culinary purposes, but as an embalming tool for royalty.

Dutch explorer Joris van Spilbergen meeting with King Vimaladharmasuriya in Sri Lanka in 1602 via Wikipedia

The Age of Exploration made cinnamon a more readily available spice throughout Europe, as the Dutch took over the island of Sri Lanka and became solely responsible for the exports of its cinnamon bounty. Bakers began to add cinnamon to their already-sugary fritters, creating an early version of the cinnamon roll—including the English Chelsea Bun—which quickly spread to bakeries across the continent as a breakfast treat.

The cinnamon roll remains one of the least-changed cultural pieces brought by German and Swedish immigrants to America since their arrival in the 17th Century. German settlers around Philadelphia created their own spin on the baked good, adding brown sugar, honey, and raisins to their buns—a morning-time version of their famous Shoofly Pie.

In 1956, the Pillsbury Company began packaging and selling cinnamon rolls in refrigerated tubes, allowing generations of kids to wake up to the sweet smell of sticky dough wafting through the house.

Pop Culture

The European Union is cracking down on the amount of cinnamon allowed in cinnamon rolls in 2014 amidst concern that a natural substance found in a common variety of cinnamon, coumarin, can cause liver damage if one ingests too much. The new rules would limit bakers to using 50 milligrams of cinnamon per kilogram of dough, for seasonal pastry, or 15 milligrams per kilogram if it's an everyday pastry. The head of the Danish Bakers Association lamented, "It's the end of the cinnamon roll as we know it."

Make Them at Home

Get the recipe for classic cinnamon buns, Norwegian cinnamon buns, British chelsea buns and more here

Like what you read? Check out more histories of your favorite sweets.