Ah, the croissant! The crunchy, airy, light, delicious French pastry so many people around the world fall in love with. If only you could learn how to make it at home! But, wait—what if you can?
Making a croissant from scratch is by no means easy, so prepare yourself for a few days of work. (Yes, you read that right.) Even advanced bakers fear the dreaded lamination technique, but that doesn’t mean you can’t tackle it yourself.
To make the perfect croissant, here are five key things to keep in mind:
- French pastry baking is extremely: In addition to a good (preferably, digital) scale, many professional chefs use rulers and other measurement tools so their dough maintains the exact shape and size.
- Use the proper ingredients: There are no substitutes when making French pastries. If the recipe calls for all-purpose flour, don’t use bread flour or whole wheat. If your butter needs to be at least 83 percent fat, don’t reach for the low-fat substitutes—it simply won’t work.
- Puff pastry is delicate: Be gentle with the rolling pin so you don’t crush or tear the hard-to-get layers the croissant is so famous for.
- Timing is everything: It only takes a few minutes to overproof or burn your pastry, as well as harden or break the butter. Be careful, and always keep an eye on the dough during every step.
- Don’t be discouraged if you fail: You can’t master French pastry overnight. Some chefs say you can’t master it at all. Be prepared to try again and again.
Like the master of croissants and famous French pastry chef, Dominique Ansel, said: “Making croissants is a labor of love and dedication—a lifelong baking project.”
Making the Levain
Croissants begin with the levain, the most essential part of leavened bread baking. It’s widely used to make sourdough and other leavened breads. In croissants, however, it balances out the richness of the fatty butter and gives it a more tangy, acidic flavor.
Making levain is fairly easy, but it takes time and patience. The fermentation process cannot be rushed. Plus, its success depends on many things, from the temperature of your kitchen and where you store it, to the type of flour with which you make it.
You can use the same flour throughout, or start with one, and then continue “feeding” your levain with another. It just depends on which type of dough you want to make. To make a croissant, stick with all-purpose flour the entire time.
To get started, in a large bowl, combine 50 g of all-purpose flour and 50 g of water, and mix until evenly combined. Cover it with a towel, cheesecloth, or plastic wrap and leave it at room temperature for 24 hours or in a cooler place for 48.
After 24 hours, you’ll probably notice some bubbles forming. This means fermentation has started. With a clean spoon, throw away 20 percent of the levain and add another 50 g of flour and 50 g of water. This process is called feeding. Mix thoroughly and leave in the same spot for another 24 hours.
Repeat the feeding process (with the same amount of flour and water or higher) for a few more days (or more). Wait until the levain is bubbly, light, and has pronounced fermentation with a large number of “bubbles” throughout. Sometimes, it can take up to 10 days to grow a levain, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t see the desired results soon.
When your levain is ready, the croissant baking can begin.
Day 1: Making the Dough
On the first day of your croissant-baking journey, you’ll only make the dough by combining all the ingredients, and then leave it to rest in the fridge overnight. You can do it by hand, or make your life much easier with a Kitchen Aid or equivalent stand mixer that has a dough hook attachment.
You’ll need the following ingredients:
- 560 g of all-purpose flour
- 68 g levain
- 29 g of butter that is least 83 percent fat
- 70 g of sugar
- 1 large (or 2 medium size) egg
- 15 g heavy cream
- 12 g salt
- 12 g dry instant yeast
- 200 g water
Place the yeast and water in a small bowl, and stir them together until the yeast is dissolved. Dump all the other ingredients into the stand mixer. Pour in the yeast and water mixture, and then mix on the lowest speed for one minute. Increase the speed to medium for three to four minutes until the dough is formed. Be careful not to overmix, as the gluten will then overdevelop, and the dough will be too hard and lose its elasticity.
Lightly grease a medium bowl and transfer the dough to it. Cover the dough directly with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out. Set it aside to proof for about two hours, or until it doubles in size. If your kitchen is really warm, it might double sooner, so keep an eye on it.
Meanwhile, take a piece of parchment paper and draw a seven-inch square. Flip it over and spread 285 g of butter to fit the size of the square. Cover it with another piece of parchment paper and gently shape it into a butter block. You can use a spatula or bench scraper to make it neater and straighter. Place in the fridge overnight.
When your dough has proofed and doubled in size, remove the plastic wrap, and gently push down on it to release all the gas. Invert the dough onto plastic wrap and shape it into a 10-inch square. Cover it with another plastic sheet to prevent it from drying out and place it in the fridge overnight.
Day 2: Lamination
Now that the dough has rested, it’s time for the fun part: lamination! This is the reason croissants have those wonderful, delicious layers. To start, remove the butter block from the fridge and let it sit for five to 10 minutes, or until it becomes pliable. It should be easy to bend without breaking, but not so soft that it’s melting.
Once the butter is ready, take out the dough and lightly flour your work surface so it doesn’t stick. Place the butter block in the center of the dough, rotated 45 degrees so it looks like a diamond. Pull the corners of the dough toward the center and over the butter. Pinch them together and seal the butter inside the dough.
Make sure the dough doesn’t stick to the surface. With a rolling pin, use steady, even pressure to roll out your dough from the center upward and downward, so that it triples in length. Be gentle to prevent the butter from breaking. Keep rolling until it’s at least 20 inches long by 10 inches wide.
From the top side, fold one-third of the dough toward the center, keeping the edges aligned. From the bottom, fold the remaining one-third toward the center and over the existing fold, keeping the edges aligned. This technique is called the “letter fold,” as it resembles a piece of paper being folded so it fits inside an envelope.
Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and place in the fridge for one hour.
Repeat the folding process two more times. Each time, stretch the dough with the seam facing right, so you work it in all directions. After each fold, refrigerate it for one hour.
Once the dough has rested for the third and final time, gently roll it out with the seam facing right. Once you’ve reached 25 inches, rotate it 90 degrees, so it’s horizontal on your work station. Trim off the top and bottom to clean it up. Then, score the dough every three inches along the bottom edge, until you reach the end.
On the top, start with a 1-1/2-inch score on the left and continue scoring every three inches until you reach the end. These are your triangle marks. Grab a cutting knife and connect each upper score with two at the bottom, cutting out triangles of the same size and shape. Place them on parchment paper, wrap them in a plastic sheet and place them in the refrigerator to rest for one hour.
Next, working with one triangle at a time, grab the base of it with one hand and gently stretch the dough with the other, using stroking and pulling motions to create longer triangles. This relaxes the dough and creates more space for rolling.
Once done, gently roll from the base toward the tip, avoiding any pressure. Place the croissants with their tips down and just touching the pan (so they don’t unravel). Cover them with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Day 3: Baking
Finally, after three days (or more if you count the levain), your croissants are ready to be baked and devoured. Take them out of the fridge and let them proof for about two to three hours at room temperature. They’ll double or even triple in size and become jiggly and fluffy.
Once they do, it’s time to make the egg wash. Combine two eggs, a pinch of salt, and a dash of milk in a bowl. Gently brush each croissant with it, but be careful not to overdo it or the egg will start spilling over the sides. Place them in the center of your oven and bake at 375 degrees F for 12 to 15 minutes. Watch them carefully to make sure they don’t burn.
Croissants are best when they come straight out of the oven, and they should be eaten the same day. Of course, it’s highly unlikely you’ll have any leftovers!
Making a croissant isn’t easy, but it’s most definitely possible! Through a little trial and error—and lots of dough rolling and folding—you’ll build up your skills! With every attempt, you’ll learn something new.