Get ready. Seriously, take a moment. Because once you meet the croissant loaf—a light-as-air-on-the-inside, layered-and-crispy-on-the-outside wonder bread—you’ll never be the same. I’ll admit right out of the gate, this is a process on the longer side, a weekend project, for sure. That said, it’s not non-stop, with few “set it and forget it for a bit” moments. It’s also super freezer-friendly, so even though it’s a project, you can save it for a special occasion. Plus, the dough will yield enough for 2 loaves. You will put it to use.
Ready to tackle this beauty for yourself? Here’s what you need to know:
Why Do Croissants Look And Taste The Way They Do?
What makes croissants different from some other baked goods made from puff pastry, like palmiers? They’re yeast-risen. A yeasted dough is used as the base, then butter is layered into the dough through a process the pros call lamination.
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Here’s how it works: the butter gets wrapped in dough (this is called “locking in” the butter), then rolled out. When the dough is rolled out, the butter layer becomes thinner, like the dough (which it is trapped inside). The dough is folded after it’s thinner, creating layers of dough and butter. This process is repeated; each time, the dough and butter are rolled thinner and folded to create more layers. When the dough finally hits the oven, the butter inside the dough begins to evaporate and lets out steam that, combined with the yeasted dough, creates the signature light, fluffy interior of a croissant.
But remember, the yeast is alive (!) and this is a long process. For this reason, it’s important to keep the dough chilled between steps so that the yeast doesn’t rise too quickly and over-proof before you’re ready for it to hit the oven. It’s possible to do the method in two days. Day 1: Mix the dough and refrigerate it overnight. Day 2: Laminate the dough, shape the croissants, and bake. If desired, you can stretch the process to 3 days, performing lamination on day 2, then refrigerating the laminated dough overnight, saving shaping and baking for day 3.
The dough is similar to a yeasted sweet dough, and uses the slow-rise method (the previously mentioned overnight refrigeration). One to two days before you want to bake your loaves, mix the dough. Start with bread flour—don’t try to sub for all-purpose; the extra protein in bread flour will play a crucial role in the elasticity of the dough (aka, its ability to easily be rolled out and folded several times). You’ll also need to throw yeast, a little sugar, salt, and a bit of room temperature butter in there. Milk serves as the liquid in the recipe. Since this dough is slow-rising, there’s no need to warm the milk; you can use it straight from the refrigerator.
Place all the ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment. Mix on low speed for 3 minutes, then raise speed to medium and mix for 3 minutes more. Transfer the dough to a large greased bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 10-12 hours. If you don’t have a stand mixer, this can be a trickier dough to make by hand, but it is possible. Mix the ingredients together in a large bowl with a wooden spoon, and once it comes together into a shaggy mass, turn it out onto a clean work surface and knead it until it’s very smooth, 10-12 minutes.
The Butter Block
The butter block is what really makes puff pastry so wonderful. To make the butter block, mix a hefty amount of room temperature butter with a little bit of bread flour. The flour helps make the butter block more pliable, giving it a bit of structure when you roll it out and fold it. You can mix the two in a mixer, or just by hand. Cut a piece of parchment about the size of a half baking sheet (13x18 inches), and place it with one of the shorter sides facing you. Scoop the butter mixture onto the lower third of the paper, and spread it into a rectangle about 1/2-inch thick (about 6x9 inches). Try to square off the edges as much as possible. Fold the upper part of the parchment down over the butter block. Transfer the butter block to the refrigerator to chill until firm but still pliable. (It should physically bend, easily, not break or shatter.) If you over-chill the butter block or make it ahead of time, let it sit at room temperature until it reaches this “firm but pliable” state before proceeding (for reference sake, the ideal temperature is around 65–70° F).
To perform the “lock in” and all subsequent steps of the folding process, it’s important that both the dough and butter are the correct temperature. That “firm but pliable” thing I just mentioned with the butter block is exactly how you want the dough to feel, too. The idea is, if the two are at the same temperature, they’ll both roll out the same. Take pie dough, for example—if the dough is too cold, it’s hard to roll out. If it’s chilled, it rolls out easily, and if it’s too warm, it’s a big old sticky mess. The same goes here: Chilled (but not overly firm) dough and butter will roll out easily and stay locked in uniformly. When the dough is too cold, the dough will be harder to roll out and the butter inside might shatter. This will lead to uneven layering. If the dough is too warm, the butter mashes itself into the dough, eliminating the layers entirely. Once you get the feel of it, it’s easy to do by sight, but if you’re nervous, you can use a thermometer at the beginning to test the two.
Remove the dough from the fridge and roll it out on a lightly floured surface, into a rectangle about 10x12 inches (and about 2/3 inch thick). Usually, the process of rolling it out will get it to just about the right temperature for the lock-in, but if it feels soft, refrigerate it for a few minutes before proceeding. With one of the shorter sides facing you, prepare to add the butter. Peel the parchment paper away from the top of the butter block, but leave it on the paper; this way you can use the paper to help you put the butter onto the dough and place it. Invert the butter block (still-papered side up) onto the lower half of the dough, positioning it so that there is a 1/2-3/4-inch margin of dough around the sides and bottom of the butter block. Peel the paper away and discard it. Fold the top portion of the dough down over the butter block. If it isn’t quite long enough in any place, gently stretch the dough with your hands until it reaches the dough on the base. Press the edges together all the way around to seal, then fold the excess dough at the bottom and edges under itself. You should now have a rectangular package of dough (about 6x10 inches). Usually, the dough is still chilled enough at this point to proceed with the first fold, but if it or the butter feels warm, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 15-25 minutes.
First Fold (images below): The folding is where it can get a little tricky. There are two kinds of folds, and the first is called a four fold. To make the four fold, roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface into a rectangle about the size of a half baking sheet (13x18 inches) and about 1/2-inch thick. (I like to use my bench knife to keep the edges of the dough squared off while I roll; this makes for better layering.) When you’re done rolling, brush any excess flour away from the surface. Now, you’ll want to fold the outside edges inward, having them meet slightly off center. The result will look a little like an open book with an off-center spine. In other words: Fold the edge on the left toward the center, about 3/4 of the way across the dough. Fold the edge on the right, 1/4 of the way across the dough, and make sure the edges meet. (Even though it’s important for the edges to meet, don’t be tempted to squish them into place—the warmth of your hands combined with the pressure could muck up the formation of layers or warm up the butter.) Now fold the larger half over the shorter half (the edges should meet to make a clean rectangular shape), and transfer the dough back to a parchment lined baking sheet. Refrigerate for 15-25 minutes (until firm but pliable) before starting the second fold.
Second Fold (images below): The second fold is a little easier to describe. Remove the dough from the refrigerator, lightly flour your surface, and roll the dough out again into your 1/2-inch thick rectangle (about 13x18 inches). Fold the one short edge 1/3 of the way over the dough. Fold the other short edge 1/3 of the way over the dough as well, resting on the piece you just folded over. Think of it like folding a piece of paper to fit into a standard size envelope. Same rules apply, as they did to the first fold: brush away excess flour, try very hard to keep the dough rectangular in shape, and try to make the ends meet up as closely as possible. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 15-25 minutes (until firm but pliable) before starting the next fold.
Third Fold: The third fold is a repeat of the first fold, so just follow those instructions again. Sometimes, the dough is still cool enough after completing the third fold that you can proceed right onto the final fold. However, don’t rush it if you think your dough has warmed up—your flaky layers will suffer the consequences. But often (mainly because you’re more comfortable with the process at this point), you can work quickly enough to complete the final fold right away. Otherwise, wrap it up and chill for 15-25 minutes.
Fourth Fold: The fourth and final fold is a repeat of the second fold, so just repeat that step again. At this point, you can wrap the dough and chill it for 15-25 minutes (or up to overnight!) before continuing with the recipe.
Rolling + Shaping
Before you shape your loaves, grab two 9x5-inch loaf pans. Grease generously with nonstick spray. Divide the dough in half (totally OK to just eyeball it) and refrigerate one half while you work with the other. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to a 9x12-inch rectangle, then rotate if necessary so one of the 9 inch sides is facing you. Square off the sides, if needed, by trimming away a small piece of the edge of the dough to make straight lines. Cut the dough into 5 strips vertically, 1 3/4-inches across each. Starting at one end, roll up each strip into a spiral and place it into the prepared loaf pan, seam side down. The spirals will be packed relatively tightly, but may not fully touch. Don’t worry. As the dough rises, it will fill in the pan and get taller. Repeat with the second half of the dough (or try croissant “rolls” with the second half). If you want to flavor the inside of your croissant loaf, add the toppings (such as melted chocolate or a blend of mustard, ham, and cheese—recipes included below!) to the strips before you roll them up.
You’ve come a long way. I know it’s tempting to throw your perfect, shaped loaf into the oven RIGHT NOW, but you’ve got a little more waiting to do. Cover the dough inside the loaf pans with a piece of greased plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until it almost doubles in size, about 40 minutes to an hour. Don’t skimp here, a nice rise time ensures a particularly lofty loaf. If you’re working in a very warm place, it may take less time. Use your judgement!
Yeasted puff pastry items generally bake at slightly higher temperatures, but since this loaf is larger and thicker than the usual croissant shape, it’s important to lower the temperature to allow for the longer bake time. 375°F is my preferred temperature, and I like to add a coat of egg wash to the surface of the risen dough. Transfer the loaf pans to the oven and bake until golden brown on the outside, and the inside registers at a temperature of 190°F, about 35-40 minutes. Cool completely inside the pan, then invert—it should easily pop out. Slice the loaf and devour it, or use it to make toast for egg sandwiches, or French toast, or bread pudding, or for an epic grilled cheese!
Freezing Baked Loaves
Since this recipe is a bit of a doozy, but worthy of special occasions, I want to recommend freezing the final, baked loaves. Unmold the loaves and wrap them tightly in two layers of plastic wrap; they can be frozen for up to 2 months. To serve the loaf, unwrap it from the plastic wrap and wrap it in foil. Transfer the foil package to a baking sheet and warm the loaf in a 300°F oven for 15-20 minutes until fully thawed. Remove the foil and return to the oven for 3-5 minutes to lightly crisp the loaf.
I always carry three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's pie. My first cookbook, The Fearless Baker, is out on October 24, 2017.