This time last year, I was preparing for a trip of a lifetime. I’m the lucky sister of a lucky travel writer, who was invited on a press trip for AMA Waterways Christmas Markets on the Rhine river cruise. Un. Real.
I could spend this whole post gushing about the cruise itself, but you can just read my sister’s article. Instead, I’m going to zoom in on a little side trip I took to Paris. And, specifically, the little breakfast pastry cooking class at La Cuisine Paris where I had the most sublimely delectable, buttery croissants.
When I came home, I scoured local grocery stores for fresh yeast cakes and European butter and went on a mission to remake that flaky perfection. Something inside me needed my family who wasn’t able to join me to know their understated authenticity. I did my research, I floured my bench, and I got to work.
Unfortunately, my first attempt ended up looking remarkably like Pillsbury dough man poop. My second attempt was a big improvement but still wasn’t quite the right texture or taste. At this point, I had already amassed piles of notes in addition to the ones I’d taken in class. Thankfully, the third time was a charm, and we enjoyed freshly baked croissants just as lovely as my Parisian treats. Now I’m paying it forward, and I’m here to help bolster your croissant confidence.
Basic Croissant Concepts
Croissants are notoriously complex creations, but the underlying concept is fairly simple. Alternating layers of elastic yeast-leavened dough and butter, expanding with the help of heat, make a perfectly pockety, crispy and soft breakfast pastry. Absolutely no store-bought croissants do this classic justice.
Admittedly, it may take some time to get the technique down. After all, perfecting these viennoiseries, or Vienesse pastries adapted by the French, takes intense training for aspiring chefs. For me (not a French chef), it took about a dozen batches to reach croissant contentment, and I still have room for improvement.
I’ve experimented with a variety of flours and butter (pastry flour, bread flour, and all-purpose flour each paired with unsalted European style butter, unsalted French butter, and salted Irish butter) in order to find my favorite. The results were all golden (brown). I’ll share authentic techniques and at-home tweaks to consider as you set out to make the quintessential Parisian pastry.
Here are some important notes before getting started:
- Have patience. Give yourself plenty of time, and whatever you do, do not rush this dough. Once you have the hang of it, make more than one batch at a time and freeze it for later.
- Grab a French rolling pin. The utility of this rolling pin became immediately apparent in our pastry making class. Long, solid, and untapered, this style provides great control, even rolling, and helps straighten up even the most meandering dough. I bought one in Paris to bring home. After a near missing baggage disaster, we were reunited and ready to cook! By the way, this is what the pastry class staff recommended in case I needed to find a rolling pin replacement in the States.
- Weigh it all. This is authentically European, after all. While many recipes will not need to be so precise, croissants demand precision. Trust me- it’s worth adding the extra few minutes to grab the food scale off the top shelf.
- Unleash the yeast. I had a hard time finding fresh yeast cakes at first, but after a couple of phone calls, I found them at A.J.’s Fine Foods in Phoenix. I loved the…freshness…of the fresh yeast cake, but dry yeast can be used too! Simply half the amount if using dry yeast. Just don’t make the mistake of killing either yeast with too hot liquid ingredients!
- Cool it. Since the name of the game is keeping butter encased in the dough, croissant making might be more challenging on a hot day. Keep the temperature in mind before setting out on your viennoiserie adventure.
Step By Step
Step 1: Butter Package
The phrase “butter package” might be my second favorite thing to come out of learning the art of croissant making. There’s a variety of ways you can go about getting a butter package (a flattened out rectangular slab of butter). But I agree with La Cuisine Paris’s staff on this one- containing it within parchment paper helps to minimize the mess. Using a sheet of parchment paper, make four creases until you have a rectangle about the size of a half sheet of paper (approximately 6 inches by 8 1/2 inches).
Put your preferred cold butter in the middle of the rectangle and encase it in the parchment paper by folding up the four sides. Then pound it and roll it out with the rolling pin until you’ve got a thin, flat layer of butter. I experimented with the French unsalted Buerre D’Isigny, European style unsalted Challenge brand butter, and Kerry Irish salted butter. Traditional croissants use unsalted, high-fat European butter. However, I found myself enjoying the salted butter. Probably because of the salty tooth.
Whichever version you choose, firm up your complete butter package in the fridge. Thirty minutes should do.
Step 2: Dough
If you’ve never made a dough by hand, I highly recommend it. Getting hands-on can help you get a feel for the necessary texture.
Importantly, be sure the liquids going into the dough are not piping hot. Excess heat will kill the yeast and turn your croissants into crescent-shaped hockey pucks. Lukewarm is okay, but don’t go overboard.
Dump all your (carefully weighed and mixed) dry ingredients out on a clean counter- not too close to the edge but not too far away either. With your fingertips (or the bottom of a small bowl), make circles in the center of your dry ingredients, until you have made a donut-shaped ring with walls of flour. This is called a “well.” Gently pour your wet ingredients in the middle of the well.
If using a fresh yeast cake, break it up a bit and stir it into the wet ingredients here. Then, tracing the inside of the circle, incorporate a little bit of flour at a time (the inner wall), until the dough starts to thicken. Once the dough isn’t runny, you can break the well and incorporate the rest of the flour, using a pastry scraper to help cut and combine the dough if desired. It should be a little sticky to the touch, and you might be tempted to add more flour here- but don’t! The recipe below, if measured carefully, is the perfect amount as is.
Once you’ve got a ball of dough, it’s time to knead. Building elasticity in this dough is essential for successful layers. The butter must be 100% encapsulated by dough in each fold. Without enough elasticity, the dough is more likely to tear.
Take your time to knead the dough adequately (about 10 minutes of kneading should do) and build those gluten strands until it has the right amount of elasticity. The method used in the Parisian pastry class involved some serious whacking on the table, which was both fun and loud, and not recommended if you have a spouse who works night shifts (sorry Boomer!).
Not sure if you’ve got enough elasticity? Very carefully stretch out a small section of the dough in front of a light source. If you can get the dough thin enough to see the light without the dough breaking apart easily, you’re there. If not, keep going!
When kneading is complete, form a ball with the dough and tightly cover it in some plastic wrap. The dough will need to rest a while in the fridge. Thirty minutes should work, but overnight is better. Since we’ll be manipulating this dough quite a bit, resting plays a crucial role. If it feels like your dough is fighting you, or if it starts to tear easily, it may not have been rested enough. Rested dough moves much more easily, and croissants require a lot of manipulation.
Step 3: Butter Meet Dough
Once the dough has had its initial rest, it’s time to place the butter package onto the dough. We’ll eventually be folding the dough and butter in tandem together. The key throughout it all is to keep the butter cool and contained. Butter that peaks out (from any side) will completely escape croissant as they heat up in the oven. Since croissant magic happens with layers of dough and butter together, no butter means no magic.
Using a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out to a rectangle, slightly bigger than the size of the butter package. Not only will the dough need to have about an inch long edge on the sides and bottom of the butter, but you’ll need extra dough at the top of the package. We’ll eventually be folding the dough and butter just like a letter, so a bit of a high-top is needed. I’ve found it helpful to draw a rough outline with my fingertips in the flour before getting started rolling.
To keep the dough level and straight while rolling, try to keep your hands near the center of the rolling pin as opposed to the ends. If you find your dough edges wandering, tap the sides of the dough with the length of the rolling pin to straighten it.
Once you have the right size, open up one side of the parchment paper up and place the butter directly on top of the dough near the bottom of the rectangle. Reminder- you’ll want to leave a little space along the edges. With the rolling pin, gently tap the butter package to implant the butter into the dough (parchment paper in between dough and pin), then remove and throw away the parchment paper. If you can, try to avoid getting butter directly on the rolling pin- this creates sticky spots in the dough. Butter package delivered!
Keep in mind too that butter straight out the fridge will be tougher to maneuver. On the other hand, butter out of the fridge too long may start to soften too much. There is a bit of a sweet spot with your butter temperature where folding and rolling will be relatively easy and mess-free. So, use all your senses to monitor the state of your butter. At any stage, let it warm up or cool down as needed.
Step 4: Folds
From here, we start a series of folds which create those lovely layers. After a fold is complete, we’ll have to refrigerate the dough to prevent tears (as more layers are created the more delicate the dough becomes). Then we’ll need to roll out the refrigerated dough into a long, thin layer in order to make the next fold in the series. After our initial fold which covers up the butter package, the process looks like this: roll out, fold, refrigerate, roll out, fold, refrigerate.
If at any time you see a small tear or opening in the dough, patting it with a little bit of extra flour can help to seal it up. With the color of the butter and dough so similar, it may be hard to spot at first. But the butter will be glossy, shiny and sticky- warning signs for croissant makers.
Giving the dough extra resting time in the fridge can help prevent further tears. Additionally, keeping your work surface well floured throughout each step prevents dough from sticking and breaking open. Occasionally moving the dough around a bit can help you catch problem spots early on. And- even though it might be tricky at first- uniform dough will maximize your croissants. Stretching the edges if needed while folding will help ensure butter and dough is where it needs to be for later folds.
Deep breath. It’s time to complete our first fold- a letter style fold! The top third of the dough gets folded over the top half of the butter package. Then, gently, the bottom third of the dough and butter gets folded over the top (just like a business letter might get folded). The first fold is now done! Wrapping the folded dough and refrigerating for thirty minutes will help to rest the dough and ensure the butter stays cool. If you believe you’ve moved quickly enough through this fold, you can complete the next (but don’t skip further fridge time!).
After taking the dough out, we need to roll it back to a thin rectangle. With the fold’s seam facing your right hand, take the rolling pin and gently press down on both the top and bottom of the dough to help seal the butter. From here, press down along the center of the dough to help disperse and loosen up the butter underneath (they will look like little speed bumps!). Eventually, the butter will give way and let you do your thing- roll out a beautiful long rectangle in preparation for the second fold.
The second fold is a different style of fold- the book fold. This fold takes the top third of the dough down to the center line and the bottom third of the dough up to the center line where they meet. Then, the bottom half comes up over the top half to form a book. Once you’ve completed fold number 2, wrap, refrigerate, rest.
When the dough’s well rested, roll out again using the speed bump technique. The third and final fold is just like the first- letter style. Wrap and refrigerate again, this time a little longer since the butter and dough are making precariously thin layers. And take note- more folds does not equal better. Three folds will get you your perfect croissant.
Step 5: Shaping
Our final rolling is in preparation for shaping the croissants. To make the mesmerizing shape of croissants, we’ll need to cut out long skinny triangles from the croissant dough. And it goes without saying, you’ll want to maximize the number of triangles you can get out of this. With your fingertips on a floured surface, outline a rectangle for where the dough needs to go. Approximately 3/4 the length of a French rolling pin and two times the length of a dough scraper should give you enough space to make 6-8 future croissants (depending on how large or small you cut them).
Trim off any uneven parts of the dough rectangle with a sharp chef’s knife. To avoid tearing the dough while cutting, don’t drag the knife- simply press down.
If you’d like your triangles to be precise, grab a ruler. Using either a 3-inch or 4-inch base on the long side of the dough, make a small notch. On the opposite side of the dough, you’ll be marking the midpoint, using the same 3-inch or 4-inch spacing you chose earlier.
From here, connect the indents you’ve made by cutting across the length of the dough to make individual triangles. The triangles on the sides will be smaller than the ones in the middle. Chef snack!
Gently cut a 1-inch notch at the center of the bottom edge of each triangle. Stretch the base of the triangle apart- it will look a bit like the Eiffel Tower! This spread out base will help to even out and elongate the croissants as you roll them. Starting at the base, carefully roll the dough towards the top of the triangle. Tuck the tip of the triangle (the “key”) on the underside of the croissant. You can keep the croissant in a straight line, or bring the edges together to make a crescent shape. Congratulations- you have a pre-cooked croissant!
Step 6: Baking
Now it’s time to let the yeast do its thing. Proofing the croissants for two to three hours allows the croissants to double in size prior to baking. The perfect proofing temperature is 71 degrees Fahrenheit (22 degrees Celsius). Just don’t get the dough too warm or your hard work will be undone.
Don’t forget the egg wash! A simple swipe of egg wash on the tops of your croissants will prepare your croissants for immaculate browning. Brush from the top center outward to each end so as to avoid getting the egg wash on the fine layers you’ve created.
When proofing is complete, pop the croissants into a preheated 390 (rounded to 400 if needed) degree Fahrenheit oven on a dark, rimmed baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat. It’ll take about 15 to 20 minutes to achieve golden brown beauty but keep a close eye. Immediately when the croissants come out, brush with sugar syrup for a lovely, bakery shop sheen.
So, as you can see, there may be a learning curve with croissants. But these results speak for themselves. Until I can get back to Paris, I can bring Paris any time to me.
Authentic French Croissants
For the dough (détrempe)
- 250 grams pastry flour
- 5 grams fine sea salt
- 35 grams sugar
- 1 packet fresh yeast cake (or 5 grams of instant yeast)
- 115 grams lukewarm water
- 25 grams melted butter
For the butter package
- 125 grams unsalted European butter
For the egg wash
- 1 egg lightly beaten
For the sugar syrup
- 100 grams water
- 50 grams sugar
Dough scraps can be brushed with a little cinnamon and brown sugar, rolled up, and baked as mini cinnamon rolls.
Having a spray water bottle handy to create steam in the oven helps to keep the moisture locked in.
And, if you find yourself in Paris, I implore you to take a class (or two!) at La Cuisine Paris. It was the highlight of my European vacation, and they offer incredible classes on a variety of topics. They also have a very helpful croissant cheat sheet on their blog!