As a pastry chef, there are two questions I get asked allll the time:
- What is your favorite dessert to eat?
- What is your favorite thing to make?
I don’t have an answer to the first question because it really depends. Sometimes I want a “symphony” (who says that? Gross.) of textures and flavors that push the outer-most boundaries of modern gastronomy, sometimes I want a Snickers. But the second question is a no-brainer: My favorite thing to make in all of pastry over the span of my entire career is croissants.
I love to make croissants because I love to eat them. I don’t think of them as dessert, but they are the one and only thing I don’t get tired of eating day after day in my pastry kitchen. I love to make croissants because I can’t help but admit there’s a romantic connection to the dough as you work with it. It’s alive, it has moods. You use your hands, get dirty and craft something beautiful (somewhere out there, a hipster just got a hard on). I love to make croissants because they’re so damn challenging to do well consistently, and if you lose focus anywhere along the way, they can be ruined.
Hold on there, don’t leave just yet! A little hard work and difficulty is part of what makes it fun. With some practice you’ll be knee deep in ‘ssants in no time. And when you start to feel frustration build, just remember: if Kim Kardashian can operate a vehicle, you can roll, shape and bake some dough.
I’m going to give you two slightly different methods for croissants. One method is for any pros out there that have a sheeter in their work kitchens. The other method is for any weekend warriors who want to make croissants at home. The difference between the two methods is really just mixing times in order to manage the amount of gluten development and in turn how firm your dough is.
In pro kitchens a dough sheeter is pretty standard, and it’s infinitely stronger and more efficient at rolling out dough than two arms and a rolling pin, so it can handle much colder, tougher dough in order to A. actually roll it out and B. not overwork it which would cause it to shrink up. At home, you’ll have at most a stand mixer with a dough hook to work with and all of the rolling and shaping will be manual, so the “home” recipe requires less overall mixing for a softer, more manageable dough. Yes, technically a stronger, more developed dough will have a better oven spring (the initial rise during baking) and a lighter honeycomb (the term for the internal crumb of a croissant) but don’t worry, both recipes will give you some bomb-ass croissants. And for all of you pros out there that make your croissants 100% by hand at work (you know who you are) you have my official stamp of badass approval.
Croissants fall in a family of laminated dough and a good croissant hinges on good lamination. Lamination is the process of creating lots of thin, alternating layers of butter and dough. When baked, the butter separates the layers of dough creating a uniform flakiness. This means that one of the most important things to remember when making your croissants is to keep the dough as cold as possible while you work with it. Once you start to laminate the dough, you’ll be dealing with paper-thin layers of butter. A little heat can mash those butter layers into the dough and into each other, ruining the honeycomb of a good croissant. The last stage of the game, where you cut and shape your croissants, is the most critical time to keep that dough nice and cold. When in doubt, chill!
Croissant dough will require proofing more than once throughout the recipe. Just to get real basic for a minute, proofing is a controlled rise of your dough in an environment that is warm and humid, conditions that promote yeast development which in turn promotes development of gasses. Those gasses are what create lightness and volume in your dough. In short, proofing and proofing right is absolutely crucial to making a good croissant.
This can be the biggest challenge for a home baker, and I myself have resorted to using a steamy shower to help dough rise. There are plenty of small, home use proofers you can buy on the market, but I don’t recommend them, only because there’s a much cheaper and easier alternative that you already own: your oven. Generally, adding a pan of just-about-to-boil water to your oven will both increase the humidity and the temperature enough to proof your dough. If you need a little extra heat, you can turn the oven on for a minute or two to give it just enough kick to warm it up for proofing. I use a hygrometer (cheap and easy to find) to monitor both the humidity and temperature of the oven while proofing, and simply switch out steamy water if either condition drops too much.
To make the base croissant dough (also known as the detremp; say “deh-tromp”), you will have to hydrate it with whole milk. There are times when you may need to add more milk to the dough or reserve some, depending on how humid the weather may be. In the winter, I almost always add a bit more milk and then in the summer almost always reserve just a bit. What’s key is knowing the proper texture of the dough to know that it is fully hydrated. Properly hydrated dough will allow full, strong gluten development. If your dough lacks enough water to fully develop gluten, the overall structure and rise of the croissant will suffer. Too much hydration and the dough will be soft and won’t laminate well with the butter. Nicely hydrated dough will feel slightly moist to the touch and have good flexibility but still maintain some tension. The best thing you can do is take careful note of the dough and how it feels with each batch of croissants you make and adjust as needed the next time around.
Definitely take the time to source a good quality bread flour and high fat, unsalted butter (82% minimum). I’ve really liked using plugra, and amazingly you can find it in grocery stores all over. I’ve also liked elle and vire, which even makes dry butter blocks specifically for laminating, but as you can probably imagine, they are expensive and hard to find.
Adding flour to your butter to create your butter block is a trick I learned from a much better baker than myself – Benjamin Sevinn – which helps to simulate the beurre sec or dry butter that is ideal to use for laminated doughs but basically impossible to find on a regular basis in regular stores.
There are a ton of variations to croissants out there, some calling for eggs, other whole wheat flour. Some use a levain starter, some (like this one) a poolish. I think of this recipe as a pretty classic, French dude in a striped shirt and beret on a bicycle kind of croissant. Try it to start and change it as you like from there!
Most importantly be patient, grasshopper, croissants take time. This will be a two-day process with lots of dough resting. Yes, there will be a lot of waiting, but that’s why humans invented beer and bourbon.
15g dry yeast
152g bread flour (A)
235g whole milk*
82g butter (A) at room temp.
690g bread flour (B)
453g butter (B) for butter block
100g all purpose flour for butter block
*more may be needed/added depending on ambient humidity
To start, you need to create a butter block. This will serve as basically all of the butter in the recipe and will be the butter that is rolled thin and layered to create flakiness. Combine the 453g of butter (B) with the all purpose flour and mix until they are well incorporated.
Place a piece of plastic wrap down and your butter mixture on top. Use your hands or a spatula to spread the mixture and approximate a block that is 10×7″/ 25x18cm.
Use a rolling pin to gently smooth and even out the butter block, making sure it’s even in thickness. If the block is the correct size, it should wind up being about 1/2″/1.27cm thick. Chill the block in the fridge until you’re ready to use it.
To start your dough, combine the water (at room temperature), dry yeast and bread flour (A). Whisk the ingredients together until homogenized and let sit, undisturbed, in a warm place for 30-40min. This pre-fermentation is known as a poolish, and letting the mixture rest will activate the yeast and help develop flavor.
Add the remaining whole milk, butter (A), bread flour (B), salt and sugar and mix on low speed with a dough hook for about 3min or until the dough comes together and begins to develop. At this stage you’ll see that the gluten is still quite weak, and the dough will easily tear.
If making the dough in a pro kitchen, increase to medium speed for the second round of mixing. At home, keep the speed on low and develop the dough until it forms a strong gluten network. You can check the dough by gently stretching it out until a “window” of dough thin enough to see light through is created. If the window tears before it is stretched thin enough, more mixing is needed. The key word for this test is gentle. If you’re rough with your dough, it will tear no matter how strong the gluten may be. Dough is no match for you.
When making the croissants at home, the mixing time will be anywhere from 3 to 6 minutes. Over mixing the dough will form great gluten but make rolling a nightmare down the road. On the other hand, if you’re making this recipe in a professional kitchen, I mix anywhere from 12 to 14 minutes to develop a strong gluten network.
Place the dough in a bowl with plastic wrap loosely covering to touch. Proof the dough for 1 hour or until it doubles in volume.
Press the dough down, expelling any gasses that have formed during proofing, and spread it out evenly onto a non-stick baking mat. I’ve worked my recipe so that if you roll the dough to the inner edge of a baking mat border it will be the perfect size to add your butter. That being said, you’re looking for a rectangle of dough that is 10×15″/25x38cm.
Again, loosely place plastic wrap over the dough to touch* and rest it in the freezer for 1 hour and then the fridge for 1 hour until it is thoroughly chilled. Alternately, you could leave the dough in the freezer at this point and defrost it to the same chilled temp. when you are ready for the next step.
*Wrapping the dough too tightly will trap gasses that continue to develop during proofing which can alter the flavor or final texture of the croissant.
Now it’s time to combine the dough and butter to start laminating! First, remove the butter from the cooler and let it temper slightly. The butter should be cold but flexible. If the butter cracks when you try to flex it, it’s too cold. If it feels warm…well…it’s too warm. Lightly tapping the block of butter with the length of a rolling pin can help to temper it quickly and evenly.
Place the butter in the center of the dough block and fold the dough over the butter on either side to meet in the middle, like closing the doors of a cupboard. Lightly pinch the dough together down the center line where it meets to create a seal.
If you’re making these at home, then using the right technique to roll the dough out is very important at this stage. This is where the butter and dough have the most tenuous relationship, because they haven’t truly fused together yet. The wrong way to roll croissant dough is like you would for a pie; pressing the pin down on one edge of the dough and pushing across the dough to the other edge. This method will push the butter out from the dough, instead of simultaneously thinning the dough and butter together.
The right method is to press straight down and roll back and forth in a tight section of the block of dough. Then lift up the pin, move further up the block of dough and repeat. Once you’ve rolled the dough out enough that the butter and dough have well fused, you can go back to a more traditional method of rolling.
One way or the other, roll the dough to three times its length (which will bring the dough to somewhere between ½”/1.27cm and ¼”/6mm. At work we roll the dough down to #7 on our sheeter or ½”/1.27cm.
Once the dough is rolled out, you’re ready to give it its first fold. How you fold your dough and how often is an art form (or science depending on how you look at it) in and of itself. Giving your croissant dough folds will exponentially increase the amount of layers of butter and flour, creating flakiness. There will be lots of time and croissants for you to experiment with your folds, but for this recipe we’re going to give the dough three single folds.
To make your first single fold, envision the length of dough in three equal sections – left, center and right. Fold the left section in toward the center like closing a book. Fold the right section over the first two…like closing a book from the other side I guess. Single fold complete. This will give you a block of dough (or book of dough) with open seems at the top and bottom of the “book.”
For the second, single fold you will roll the dough again to three times its length (with the open seams forming the far left and right edges in the wide photo above) and fold the dough once more in thirds. I figured a little diagram might clear things up for anyone scratching their head.
After the second single fold you want to rest your dough for 1 hour in the freezer and 1 hour in the cooler. This will allow the gluten that has formed to rest and keep the dough chilled. After the rest give the dough a third and final single fold. At this point I generally rest the dough overnight in the fridge (8 to 12 hours). If you need longer than that to begin the next step, simply freeze the dough and defrost until still chilled to make your final roll.
The final roll of dough will draw out its length down to 1/8”/3mm instead of the ¼”/6mm of the single folds (#3 on a sheeter). The length of the dough will vary but it should be 9”/23cm wide. Again, the size of the triangles that you cut and shape is up to personal preference and style. For our croissants, we’re going to cut out triangles that are 9”/23cm long and 4.5”/11.4cm wide at the base.
Measure out 4.5”/11.4cm sections along the length of one edge of the dough, making small cuts to mark them. Move to the opposite edge of the dough and make more 4.5”/11.4cm sections, but this time off centered to the original sections.
Using a long chef’s knife or a pizza cutter, cut out triangles that will soon become your croissants.
Before shaping your croissants, remember that at this point the layers of butter and dough are at their thinnest and so most susceptible to smashing together and ruining good lamination. Handle the croissants as little as possible so you don’t warm the dough too much and always use light pressure.
To shape your croissants, start at the base of the triangle. Tightly roll the base over itself to start to roll the croissant up.
Using light pressure on your ring fingers and pinkies and keeping your hands angled up towards your index fingers, roll the croissant up to the halfway point.
To finish, gently grip the the points of the croissant with your index fingers and thumbs and twist the croissant to roll it up the final point, keeping the point centered in the croissant. The point of the triangle should just fall under the croissant, held in place there. Practice. Practice. Practice. ….and practice.
Once your croissants are shaped, you can move on to the next steps to bake them or freeze them to defrost and bake later. However! The longer the croissants are in the freezer, the slower and weaker the yeast will react. I don’t freeze my croissants for more than three or four days.
Brush the shaped croissants with egg wash and proof them for 2-3hrs. at no higher than 80F and ideally 80-90% humidity. If butter leaks from the croissants during proofing, than your temperature is too high! Knowing when the croissants are properly proofed is tricky. Too little, and they croissants will have weak rise and a dense, chewy center. Too much, and the croissants may puff up but the honeycomb will be tight and spongey.
A properly proofed croissant will obviously increase in volume but will feel soft to the touch while retaining tension. Some people shake the pan a little to see the croissants jiggle a bit then settle. All very high tech, I know.
Give the croissants a second coat of egg wash and bake at 375F for 15 to 20min. They should be a deep brown (none of that blond costco sh*t) and feel light in the hand, which is a good sign that enough water has baked out.
I hope all of you pastry fiends out there see this recipe as a fun challenge and exciting new arena of baking passion. There’s no substitute for lots of practice, and luckily even a bad croissant is pretty damn good. Get baking!
Cheers – Chef Scott