It's probably a good thing that croissants are so fussy to make or I'd be eating them every day. As it is, the whole process of making the croissant dough, layering it with butter (and then more butter), shaping the rolls, and baking them to crispy perfection is at least a two-day affair.
But, friends, I have to tell you — it is so very worth it. You will never have better croissants than the ones you make yourself and eat fresh from the oven while standing over the kitchen counter. And here's how to do it.
Why Croissants Are So Glorious
Croissants are the love child between puff pastry and yeast bread. Let's just let that sink in for a minute. Buttery, flakey, cloud-like puff pastry. And fresh, yeasty, chewy bread. The best of both baked goods, all rolled up in one perfect little breakfast bite.
The basic idea is to make a regular yeasted dough, something not too different than sandwich bread, and then fold it around a block of butter to make a neat package. Croissant dough then gets "turned" just the same as for puff pastry — the package is rolled out, folded up like a letter, and rolled out again. This happens a total of six times before the dough is finally cut into individual croissants and baked.
As a result of all that rolling and folding, we get hundreds of layers of butter separated by hundreds of layers of dough. In the heat of the oven, the combined force of the yeast and the evaporating liquids in the dough cause the croissants to spring up into lofty, folded, golden-brown layers. That sounds pretty glorious to me.
Better Croissants with a Poolish
A poolish is like a mini-dough that you make the night before making the final dough. It's pronounced "pooh-leash" (yes, it's fine to laugh), and it gives the croissants a deeper, more complex yeasty flavor along with better texture in the finished pastry. You can skip it if you're pressed for time or if you forget — just add the ingredients that would have gone into the poolish along with the rest of the dough — but it's worth the extra step if you can swing it.
Also, if you have a sourdough starter going, try replacing the commercial yeast in the poolish with a tablespoon of your active starter. So good!
The Butter Needs Some TLC
The butter in this recipe deserves a little extra explanation. It gets folded into the dough through the "turns" we talked about before, and this means that it needs to be both pliable enough to fold without cracking but not so warm that it melts into the dough.
Those two characteristics are obviously at odds with each other, but we can reconcile them by pounding the butter with the business end of a rolling pin. Use a French rolling pin or a tapered rolling pin for this; the ones with handles and a free-spinning roller won't work. Pound the butter flat, then scrape it up with a pastry scraper. Pound it flat again and repeat until the butter still feels cold to the touch, but you can fold it in half without it breaking. This will happen, I promise.
How To Make Croissants
Makes 14 to 16 croissants
What You Need
One batch croissant dough, such as Fine Cooking's Croissant recipe
Cold butter (as specified in your recipe)
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon whole or 2% milk
Rolling pin, preferably a french-style rolling pin without handles
Pizza cutter or a sharp knife
Silpat or parchment
- Prepare the Dough: Follow your recipe to prepare the dough. Remember, an overnight rest in the refrigerator will improve the flavor and texture of any dough.
- Prepare the Butter Block: Just before you're ready to start laminating the dough, pound the cold butter to make it pliable. Without this step, the butter could break and shatter as you try to fold it into the dough. The Tartine recipe (which we picture above) calls for cutting the cold butter into pieces, but after trying this, we find it easier to leave the sticks whole. Pound the butter with your rolling pin, smacking it flat and then gathering it back into a pile with a bench scraper. If your recipe doesn't already specify this, working about 1/4 cup of flour into your butter during pounding can help make it easier. If you see the butter starting to melt, wrap it in parchment paper and refrigerate it for 10 minutes. The butter is ready when it stays together in a cohesive mass and is easily folded, but still feels cool to the touch. Shape it into rough square, wrap it in parchment paper, and refrigerate while you roll out the dough.
- Roll Out the Dough: Roll the croissant dough into a rectangle double the size of your butter block. If you've been chilling the dough in the refrigerator, you can roll it out directly from the fridge without waiting for it to warm.
- Seal the Butter Inside the Dough: Place the butter block to one side of the rectangle, making sure to leave a inch or so of dough as a border around the edge. Fold the dough over the butter and gently press the edges closed. (In classic French baking, you would put the butter block in the middle of the dough and fold the corners inward instead. We've tried both ways and either works fine.)
- Begin Laminating the Dough: Turn the dough 90° and roll it out so that it's about the same width as your rolling pin and a few inches longer in length. Fold the top toward the middle and the bottom up, as if you were folding a letter. Wrap in plastic or parchment and refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour and no more than 1 hour (or the butter will get too cold). This is your first "turn" of the dough. Repeat this turn 5 more times for a total of 6 turns, remembering to rotate 90° between each turn. Refrigerate for 30-60 minutes every 2 turns, or between every turn if your kitchen is very warm. After the final turn, chill the dough for for an hour before shaping.
- Roll Out the Dough and Shape: Roll the chill dough out to a rectangle roughly 1/2-inch thick. Using a bench scraper, pizza cutter, or sharp knife, slice it lengthwise (the long way) down the middle. Cut each half into 6-8 equal triangles. Roll up each triangle, starting at the wide end. Transfer the rolls to baking sheets and space them about 2 inches apart.
- Let the Croissants Rise: Let the croissants proof (rise) until they are about 50% larger in size. They should look puffy and you'll be able to see the layers in the cut edges. Alternatively, you can refrigerate the croissants overnight to develop their flavor and let them proof in the morning. And to save yourself a lot of labor in the wee hours if you're planning on serving these for breakfast!
- Bake the Croissants: Preheat the oven to 425°F. Whisk together the egg and milk in a bowl, and brush each of the croissants with a thin coating. Bake until the croissants are deep golden brown, very crisp, and feel light when you pick one up, about 30 minutes. Rotate the trays halfway through baking.
- Let Cool and Eat! Let the croissants cool for a few minutes and then eat right away. They are at their very best straight out of the oven. Leftovers can be re-crisped in a toaster oven or for a few minutes in a warm oven.
- Add fillings just before rolling the croissants (Chocolate! Fruit preserves! Ham and cheese!). Place a small amount of the filling on the widest part of the croissant and roll it up into the dough.
(Image credits: Emma Christensen)