A few years ago I was stuck in an airport terminal that had a Cinnabon. While waiting for a giant cinnamon roll, I realized I was the only American in the line. Everyone else was talking to each other in other languages while pointing at the giant, gooey cinnamon rolls with amusement. I got the feeling they were trying them as a joke, whereas I was purchasing one for comforting nourishment. It was a bit like being at a zoo, this giant, insanely indulgent American food openly gawked at—and I suppose, by extension, me along with it.
Nevertheless, I got my cinnamon roll. And let me tell you something: it was amazing. I don’t want to brag, but I make a pretty mean cinnamon roll myself. I use a Cinnabon-adjacent recipe from King Arthur Baking called “Cinna Buns.” They’re wonderful but time-consuming, so I reserve the effort for special occasions.
Of course, there’s a much faster, more convenient way to get a cinnamon roll than being stuck in an airport terminal or stuck proofing dough in. your kitchen. Enter: the refrigerated section of the grocery store. But which store-bought cinnamon rolls stack up to—or even come anywhere near—the magnificence of a freshly made ooey-gooey bun?
For this experiment, I bought five different cinnamon buns. Three of them are Pillsbury, a company that has a lot of name recognition in this sphere and dominates the grocery store facings. Here the full list of products I was working with and how much each cost:
- Annie’s — $5.99 for five
- Pillsbury Grands — $4.89 for five
- Pillsbury Cinnamon Rolls — $3.49 for eight
- Pillsbury Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cinnamon Rolls — $3.49 for eight
- Hannaford — $2.29 for eight
For the purposes of comparison, I’m breaking these up into two groups. Annie’s and the Pillsbury Grands each baked at 350 degrees and each came with only five in the package. I’ll call those the “big buns.” They’re similarly sized (large!) and exist in a different class of bun than the others. They come in short, wide cans and are more akin to the kind of cinnamon roll you’d get at a bakery (or airport). They’re heartier; they’d be a meal on their own.
The other three, which baked at 400 degrees, come eight to a pack, sold in longer, thinner containers. These buns are smaller; you might eat one on the side at brunch, or you might eat several in one sitting. We’ll call these the “small buns.” It’s in the small-buns space where comparisons get interesting, so stay tuned.
At first glance, I expected a big taste difference here. As you can see from the photo below, the Annie’s cinnamon swirling was much darker, and its dough was lighter than the Pillsbury Grands, which had a more yellow dough and a seemingly thinner application of cinnamon sugar.
They both rose great in the oven, and each roll’s taste was similar enough that there wasn’t a terribly clear winner. I thought the Pillsbury Grands had a more buttery crumb and lighter cinnamon flavor than the Annie’s. Though butter is not on either product’s ingredient list, the Grands are advertised as having “extra rich butter cream frosting.” Still, the Annie’s were also good. I ate both with the frosting, but my six-year-old doesn’t like frosting, and she said the Annie’s was a little dryer than the Pillsbury Grands.
Both of these buns had a true cinnamon bun construction, which means it was clear that cinnamon was put on a flat square or round of dough, which was then rolled up like this before being sliced into individual buns:
That rolling technique results in a beautiful spiral, with a center piece that is absolutely covered in butter and cinnamon.
For the price differential, I’d say you can definitely go with Pillsbury. For what it’s worth, I have a dairy-allergic family member who buys Annie’s instead, because that brand don’t contain milk, whereas the Pillsbury “contain wheat and milk ingredients” (despite milk not being listed in the ingredient list).
Let me start by saying that the store brand buns were the clear winner here. Mine are from Hannaford, which shares its parent company, Ahold Delhaize, with Food Lion, Fresh Direct, The Giant Company, Giant, Stop & Shop, and Peapod. I am just as surprised by this result as you are.
The reason the Hannaford store brand wins out is bun construction. (I put that in bold because it’s important.) They were indeed the kind of rolls that started as flat dough and then had cinnamon added before being rolled and sliced, like the YouTube video above.
Both Pillsbury options, here—its standard cinnamon bun offering and the Cinnamon Toast Crunch version thereof—do not have a true cinnamon roll construction. (I put that in bold because I’m yelling.) They are more like biscuits with cinnamon chips inside. The top does have a little bit of a spiral to it. After cutting them open and analyzing their shape, I am convinced it’s just a little cut to trick you into thinking they’re spiraled. And then on the package, they show the frosting in a spiral shape. But it is all a farce.
Here is a photo of the bottoms of the store brand versus the Pillsbury:
And here is a photo of their insides:
With the store brand, though the cinnamon layer is thin so it’s not hugely defined, you can clearly see a spiral of cinnamon. On the Pillsbury one, you just see a flat, bread-like surface with cinnamon chips. That means, for my money, the “roll” in “Pillsbury Cinnamon Roll” is referring to like, a dinner roll, not the act of rolling dough to make a spiral.
This difference in construction is so egregious to me that I almost don’t even want to bother with flavor, but I will. The store brand ones had a better dough and more clearly defined cinnamon presence. They are the winner in flavor and construction. As far as the two Pillsbury options go, they tasted the exact same as one another except that the Cinnamon Toast Crunch version came with Cinnamon in the frosting, which in theory makes them a little more cinnamon-y.
While the Pillsbury Grands are a great option for your next cinnamon roll endeavor, I do not recommend their non-grands, regular old cinnamon rolls. If you want a smaller cinnamon bun, you’re better off to try the store version. It’s significantly cheaper and, at least in my experience, it ended up being the much better option.
The Pillsbury cans all had air fryer instructions on them. I made them the old fashioned way for this experiment, but I’m intrigued. Has anyone tried cinnamon buns in the air fryer? Are they good? Sounds like another taste test is in order.