Your first forays into baking were probably simple things like brownies and cookies, but now you're ready for something more advanced. So what's next? I would highly recommend you dip your hands into a technically complex but totally rewarding project: laminated dough. What is this mysteriously-named dough, and how does it all work?
What is laminated dough?
Laminated dough gets its name from how it's made. "Laminating" dough refers to the process of folding butter into dough multiple times to create very thin alternating layers of butter and dough. The gluten in the flour also gets developed during the folding and rolling process.
This is unlike other baked goods where butter is creamed in with the sugar and flour, so the result when baked is a pastry with hundreds of flaky, airy layers.
What pastries use laminated dough?
The two most common types of laminated dough are puff pastry and croissants. Puff pastry is the simplest form of laminated dough, with just butter folded into a basic dough of flour, water, and salt. Croissants take it one step further and add yeast and milk to the dough, which make the pastries richer, rise more, and end up more bread-like. Danishes, palmier cookies, kouign amann, and sticky buns are also pastries made with laminated dough.
What makes laminated dough so special?
If done properly, a well-laminated piece of dough will have hundreds of alternating layers of butter and dough. When the heat of the oven hits this dough, the water in the dough and in the butter converts to steam. The steam puffs up each layer of dough before it evaporates, create separate layers of delicate, flaky pastry. If you cut a croissant in half, you'll see perfect examples of all the layers.
How do you make laminated dough?
Since the ingredients in laminated dough are pretty basic and a cornerstone of many other baked goods, it's technique that makes this dough stand out.
To make laminated dough, you first make and roll out a lean dough, meaning a dough with little to no fat. Then you place a flattened piece of cool but pliable butter on top of the dough — the temperature of this butter is important (around 60 degrees) because it needs to be cool enough that it doesn't melt into the dough, but soft enough that it can be flattened and rolled out. (While laminated dough can be made with other fats such as shortening, the classic version uses butter for the best flavor.)
The dough is folded over the butter and then carefully rolled out again. This process is called a turn. The dough is carefully wrapped up and refrigerated or frozen briefly to firm up the butter again before it is rolled out and folded again.
The more turns completed, the more layers of butter and dough are formed. The more layers formed, the flakier the finished product. But there is a delicate balance of doing enough turns to produce flakiness, but not so many turns that the butter ends up completely incorporated into the dough. Croissant dough, which goes through six turns, will end up with 729 layers of dough separated by 728 layers of butter!
Keeping the dough at the right temperature throughout the whole process is also key — when we made puff pastry in culinary school, it was a hot day and the kitchens were scorching, so needless to say, our pastries didn't turn out very successfully!
Why should I make laminated dough?
The whole process of making laminated dough is definitely complicated and requires a bit of finesse and practice, but it's super-satisfying to watch just a few simple ingredients like butter, flour, and water turn into an amazing pastry with structure and delicious buttery flavor. Also, many commercial puff pastries aren't made with all butter, so making your own means you know you are using only real butter.
Carve out some time on a weekend to tackle this fun project and get rolling — I promise the results will be oh-so-worth-it!