My childhood memories of growing up in the Swiss Alps include waking up each morning to the sweet, yeasty aroma of bread, Danish, and croissants drifting into our house above my parents’ bakery. Since then I’ve made thousands of croissants—at my own bakery in Petaluma, California, and teaching at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in the Napa Valley—but I got the chance to get really obsessive about creating the tastiest, best-looking ones while preparing for this year’s Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie (World Cup of Baking) in France.
During the year-long preparation for the competition (where my team won first place), I refined a recipe for light, flavorful, flaky croissants—the best I’ve ever made. The keys are a pre-fermented dough (also called a sponge), fresh top-quality butter, working the dough on a cool surface, and rolling, turning, and cutting the dough precisely.
A pre-ferment enhances flavor
Croissants belong to the family of doughs called laminated doughs because you’re actually layering, or laminating, butter between sheets of dough when you make them. Depending on the number of turns—the process of folding the dough and butter layers over themselves—laminated pastry can have many, many layers. When they’re baked, laminated doughs rise because the moisture in the dough turns to steam. The steam, trapped between layers of butter, makes the dough layers puff up. (I’ve heard theories that it’s the moisture in the butter that causes the steam, but because you can make good puff pastry with shortening, which contains no moisture, I’ve concluded that the moisture in the dough is what causes steam.) The result is a delicate dough with buttery layers and a remarkably flaky texture that shatters with every bite.
A pre-ferment needs a head start. This croissant recipe differs from traditional formulas because I’m using a pre-ferment, also known as a sponge, which I make the night before and let rise for twelve hours. It’s a lot like the technique used for sourdough breads, where a fermented starter gets added to the final dough. The pre-ferment gives the yeast time to flourish and multiply, which gives good rise and added flavor to the finished croissants.
Great croissants need great butter. In addition to the pre-ferment, it’s butter, of course, that gives croissants their unforgettable flavor and texture. For a lighter result, I’ve developed a recipe that’s only 25 percent butter in relation to the final dough, which is much less than what’s traditionally called for (croissant recipes can consist of anywhere from 30 to 60 percent butter). I’m not anti-butter by any means—after all, I’m a pastry chef—but thanks to the complex flavor that the pre-ferment provides, I can get away with using less, which makes for a lighter, less greasy result.
But—and that’s a big but—butter still plays a crucial role in making delicious croissants, and it should be the freshest and the best-quality butter you can get. I like to use a European-style butter, such as Plugrà, made here in America, or Président, made in France. These are more pliable than other butters, and they give great flavor to the finished croissants.
Make the dough and give it a rest
In a small pan or bowl, combine the water and milk (photo below left). Pour the liquid into a large mixing bowl and add 1 tsp. of the sugar. Sprinkle the yeast over the warm liquid, stir to dissolve, and let sit until it starts to foam, about 2 minutes.
Add the flour, the remaining sugar, the salt, and the softened butter, along with the pre-ferment, and mix. If using a stand mixer (photo below right), knead with the dough hook, stopping to push the dough down the hook. Knead until the dough pulls into a translucent sheet without tearing, about 12 minutes. (If working by hand, knead for about 15 minutes.) The dough will be soft and supple.
Use a heavy rolling pin and a chilly countertop
Both the butter and the dough must be well-chilled so the dough doesn’t get sticky or slippery as you roll and turn it. A cool kitchen and a cool work surface are essential.
• Use all-purpose unbleached flour. There’s no reason to use imported. I’ve had good results with Giusto’s, King Arthur, and Cook brands.
• A chilled countertop helps prevent butter meltout. If you don’t have a stone countertop or if your kitchen is especially warm, set ice packs or a baking sheet filled with ice on your counter to keep it as cool as possible before rolling out the dough. (Be sure to wipe off any condensation before you start working.
• A large, heavy, ball-bearing pin makes quick work of rolling. The weight of the pin makes it much easier to roll out buttery doughs quickly.
• Pounding butter makes it more pliable. I use a simple tapered rolling pin to pound the butter into a 12×7-inch rectangle that’s uniformly thick all over and half the size of the dough into which I’ll be rolling it (see the photo above right). Again, I like European-style butter, which is more pliable after you pound it and doesn’t crack when you roll it. (Lower moisture and higher butterfat make butter less apt to break during rolling.).
Turning creates layers; precision keeps them even
When rolling and turning the dough, you’ll need to work quickly to prevent the butter in the dough from softening too much. If the dough is getting very soft, lay it on a baking sheet and refrigerate it for 15 minutes or so to firm up. If the dough has hardened too much during chilling and begins to break during rolling, leave it out for 10 minutes or so to soften.
To maintain square angles and even edges, periodically switch from rolling vertically and horizontally and roll diagonally from the center out toward the four corners. Work on a lightly floured surface and use a pastry brush to sweep excess flour off the top of the dough as you roll it.
To ensure even layers of pastry, take the trouble to even out edges and line them up squarely each time you fold the dough. Otherwise, some areas will have fewer layers than others and the croissants won’t rise properly.
For optimal lift and flakiness, I do three turns, which, for a recipe containing this amount of butter, is just right (with laminated doughs, the more butter you use, the more turns you need to make). A finished pastry with too few turns will have large, uneven layers and the butter will melt out during baking. Too many turns will destroy the layers: the butter will become incorporated into the dough, and you’ll end up with croissants that aren’t as flaky and nicely risen as you want them to be.
After each turn, wrap the dough in plastic and put it in the refrigerator to rest. I like to make a small indentation with my finger to remind me of how many turns I’ve done and how many are left to go.
Until you get used to it, this dough can be hard to handle—it’s quite elastic and the butter can melt through the layers as you work—so you may want to roll out half at a time before cutting and shaping. After completing the turns and letting it rest, cut the folded dough in half lengthwise. Roll each half into a 9 1/2x 25-inch strip.
Shaped croissants begin with precisely cut triangles. To roll, you’ll start with the base of the triangle, folding it and then rolling it toward the tip. It’s key to position the rolled croissant so that the triangle tip is under the roll and the roll’s lines appear to converge toward you. You’ll then curve the roll toward you (croissants curved the wrong way may unfurl during baking).
Freeze shaped croissants to bake them fresh in the morning
Mixing the dough, making the turns, and shaping the croissants does take a bit of time, and you have to spread the process out over several hours to let the dough firm up and to let the gluten relax between the steps.
Don’t worry, though, about keeping crack-of-dawn baker’s hours to serve these delicious croissants in the morning. I usually make the pre-ferment on the first day, mix the dough, make the turns, and shape the croissants on the second day, and bake them the morning of the third day. I shape and egg-wash the croissants, arrange them on a baking sheet, stash them in the freezer, and then cover them with plastic wrap after they’ve frozen a bit, which keeps the wrap from sticking to them. The night before I want to bake them, I defrost them, uncovered, in the refrigerator. The next morning, I let them rise until almost doubled in bulk (one to two hours) at room temperature before baking.