The Trouble With Croissants

Croissants are hard, I mean really hard and not just because of the technical skill level needed to make good ones. You see croissants, for us british at least, are a holiday thing. Ok, perhaps not any more, you encounter them everywhere, including bland chain coffee shops and large super markets (both of which serve really crap ones). But, really good croissants are still hard to find, they’re still something special and still, to me at least, hold very happy memories. Memories of childhood holidays in France, or of the 6 months I lived in the Ardeche. Warm weather, beautiful buttery pastry and fun times, something that can be hard to replicate in Liverpool. That is the crux, not only the technicality of the baking but trying to match the nostalgic feeling of comfort that lots of us associate with a good croissant. 

First attempt, dense and soggy, worthy of the nearest bin.

First attempt, dense and soggy, worthy of the nearest bin.

With all this in mind over the last eight months I’ve managed to make batches and batches of really shit croissants. This was more an issue of skill level than nostalgia, dense, cakey, soggy, dry, rock solid, I’ve done it all. Finally however the last few months have been a whole lot better, to the point where we sell croissants and pain au chocolat every Saturday.  This was quite a relief, because constantly throwing away batches of croissants gets quite expensive, and we don’t sell anything we’re not happy with. So I thought I’d share what we do, not a full formula or process but the elements that where most important for us on our way to making something half decent. 

I think my 6th or 7th attempt, getting better but not perfect. 

I think my 6th or 7th attempt, getting better but not perfect. 

Firstly, croissants should be slow fermented, there needs to be a good use of pre-fermented flour, either poolish or sourdough starter, this is very important for the flavour profile, croissants made with straight dough taste flat to me. All the butter in a croissant needs balance, the flavour from poolish and acid from a starter are an essential balance to richness of butter. We pre-ferment 35% of the flour in the dough, 25% as an ambient temperature poolish for 24 hours and 10% as a sourdough starter for 12 hours at ambient temp. We prove the dough when mixed for 3 hours at ambient temp before chilling for at least 2 hours at 2 degrees. 

Secondly is the lamination, I certainly can’t call myself an expert on this, I do what works for me after reading lots and lots of different methods and approaches. The lamination, is a series of folds that generates lots of alternating layers of dough and butter, this causes the flakiness and lightness that is characteristic of croissants. Standard croissants have 81 layers, some bakers will increase this well up into the hundreds, although so far I’m happy with 81 or three letter folds. Actually the number isn’t that important, what we’ve found so far is the rolling process is the most important and the key to success is doing it right. This is where many methods diverge, on temperature of the butter or the dough and length of rest periods. We use cold dough from the fridge and ambient temperature butter, the butter block is encased into the dough and left to sit for 15 mins, this means the dough and butter equalise in temperature. For us hard cold butter is the death of good croissants, the butter needs to be pliable and extendable, but still cool so it doesn’t melt into the dough and getting this balance is vitally important. This warm butter and cold dough seems to get the butter to the right temp and pliability.

Our current version, much more how we want, slow fermented and made with only french butter. 

Our current version, much more how we want, slow fermented and made with only french butter. 

Rolling for us is fairly straight forward, we use a hand cranked pastry roller, so its quick and even. After the 15 minute rest we do two letter folds back to back, then after a 20 minute rest in the fridge we do the third and final roll. At this point the gluten is pretty tight, to be able to roll out into a sheet to shape we give it a minimum of 30 minutes rest in the fridge, then we roll to 5mm and cut and shape. 

This really isn’t a full method or formula, just a covering of the points that have been useful for us, things we’ve learnt over the last few months. Pre-fermentation is vital for flavour and getting the butter to the right temp (not to cold not too warm) is the one thing we’ve found most important. What I can clearly say is I’m very happy with our croissants, the flavour is good and so it the texture, we sell them at weekends and they’re going down well. Are they perfect? No, they’re still not the croissant of far-flung warm summers I remember, and in all likelihood never will be. The best food you ever eat lies only in distant memories.