Beyond Bread: Learn to Make Croissants, Brioche, Popovers, and More

Congrats! You've graduated from sourdough school. Time to level up.

How to make croissants
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For many of us, bread baking has become child's play. Sourdough was the pantry staple we never knew we needed and the fun we had with focaccia feels like a lifetime ago (it was). Even our homemade pizza dough obsession is getting a little old.

We're ready to move on to more advanced carbs, which is why we consulted Paul Baker, the expert baker and co-founder of St Pierre, America's fastest-growing European Bakery brand. He provided us with tons of helpful pastry tips and baking techniques that will improve any homemade brioche, croissants, popovers, and French baguettes. (The first step? Start stocking up on butter.)

01 of 04

How to Make Brioche

Handle the Dough Carefully

Brioche is an enriched dough (meaning it contains sugar, egg, and butter), so it can be very soft. Be prepared to handle the dough with care. Baker recommends dusting flour on your workbench and using a floured scraper to manipulate the dough.

Balance Your Ingredients

Nailing the balance and ratios of ingredients is key to avoiding brioche that's either too crusty or over-enriched. "Don't think that more of everything will make it taste better, like more sugar, egg, or butter," Baker says. "This will upset the balance of the ingredients, and you'll end up with a sticky mess that won't rise in the oven or taste good."

Use Fresh Yeast

Is the grocery store out of active dry yeast? For once, you don't have to worry. "Fresh baker's yeast is best because it will result in more of a cake-like texture," Baker explains. You can pick some up from your local bakery or natural food store or find it online.

Don't Over-Mix

If you're using a stand mixer, make sure to use the hook for mixing dough—never a blade or whisk—to avoid over-mixing and causing a too-tough texture. The dough should be smooth and silky when mixed. If you see the dough starting to shred, you've overdone it. "And if kneading by hand, be prepared to have a serious workout," says Baker. The type of flour will determine how much kneading you have to do. White flour means more kneading; rye flour means less.

02 of 04

How to Make Croissants

Make Thin, Even Layers

According to Baker, the key to a good croissant is the lamination (or layering) of dough and butter. What you need to achieve through the rolling-out process is multiple thin layers of butter and dough. However, the more "turns" (where you create the layers) you perform, the more likely the butter will split through the dough.

Try to roll out the butter and dough evenly; otherwise, you'll form a homogenous dough, which leads to a bready texture and no layers in your croissants. "This will also lead to a flattened, dense croissant, as there will be no layers to lift apart during baking."

Buy Quality Ingredients

Baker recommends using a French T45 pastry flour and butter with a high-fat content (84 percent). "Once in the oven, the butter will melt, and steam will create those distinctive, delicious flaky layers of a croissant." Those buttery layers are what make dishes like croissant and chocolate bread pudding so decadent.

Use Cold Butter

Make sure your butter is cold (but not frozen). When adding the butter, cut it into thin, flat slices and lay it across the dough. When rolling out the croissant dough, fold the butter and dough together three to four times, advises Baker. "Be careful not to combine the butter and dough during the rolling process. If you press too hard on the rolling pin, you will push the butter into the dough. Instead, try to roll out your croissant dough evenly when combining it with butter," he adds.

Don't Forget the Classic Croissant Shine

After proofing your croissants, mix together a couple of eggs, a pinch of salt, and a dash of milk. Use a soft bristle brush to lightly wash each croissant with the mix evenly and all over. Pop them in the oven to bake, and you'll find shiny croissants—just like you would buy in a French patisserie—when they're done.

Keep Everything Cool

Ensure the room temperature, your work surface, and your rolling pin are all as cold as possible. If you can't achieve this, try making your dough in the evening and "rest" your croissant dough (in cling wrap, not too tightly covered to allow for a bit of expansion) in a fridge overnight before shaping, proving, and baking the next day.

Nail the Proofing Process

Baker says a common mistake when baking croissants is over or under-proofing, which will ruin the airy, flaky texture key to making a quality croissant. "Ideally, you should prove your croissants at around 80 F/26 C, which is slightly warmer than room temperature; 75 to 90 minutes is recommended," Baker says.

Keep the air in the room—and, therefore, your croissants—from drying out by placing a saucepan of water in the same place you are proofing. "The humidity from the water will help to keep the dough surface moist and prevent the surface from drying out and becoming hard."

Towards the end of the proving time, place your finger lightly on a croissant. If there is some slight resistance and the dough springs back, then you're good. "You want the dough to have a bit of power left in it for the oven. If the dough does not spring back, it indicates the yeast is toward the end of its gassing stage, and you may have over-proved the croissants."

03 of 04

How to Make Popovers

Bring Ingredients to Room Temperature

Use room-temperature ingredients to create a light, airy popover. Cold ingredients will cause the popover to be dense. You could also warm the milk a little before mixing it with the eggs and flour.

Don't Use Your Mixer

Hand-whisk your batter, being careful not to over-mix. Overbeating will give the bread a texture that's too even and regular, so it won't "pop" into the cloud-like puffs that popovers are famous for. According to Baker, the batter should be thin and runny.

Be Conservative When Filling Your Cups

"Be sure to grease your pan well, being careful not to overfill the cups," says Baker. If using a muffin pan, fill every other cup so the popovers have plenty of room to rise." Aim to fill the cups to ⅔ to ¾ full.

Don't Open the Oven Door

Place the pan on the center oven rack, and as tempting as it may be, don't peak. The oven door should remain closed while the popovers bake. Each time you open the door, some pop-producing heat escapes.

Also, don't skip preheating. You want the popovers to expand as much as possible before their crusts set, so the oven should be ready. The faster the liquid evaporates, the more chance the popovers have to expand. And the hotter the oven, the more they rise.

Eat Them Hot (Right Out of the Oven)

A popover's airy puff will start to settle the moment you pull the tray from the oven. And as they cool, the crust softens, which can leave them slightly tough and leathery. The longer you wait, the less crispy the crust will be. Straight out of the oven is the best way to eat popovers. Failing that, try to eat them within four hours of baking.

04 of 04

How to Make French Baguettes

Use the Right Type of Flour

Selecting just the right flour is one of the essential tips for making homemade bread. For baguettes, try to get your hands on Type 55 flour. According to Baker, this is a standard, hard-wheat white flour used to achieve that crunchy crust and perfect interior chew. French bakers typically use this flour, which contains less protein than all-purpose flour.

Invest in a Baker's Couche

Wrap your loaf in this 100% linen cloth for proofing. The linen wicks away some moisture from the surface of the dough, but it doesn't dry it out. This enables the baguette to have a chewy, crunchy crust.

Enlist a Baking Stone

Because a baking stone (or a pizza stone) is porous, it draws moisture from the dough as it bakes, which will help you create that crusty exterior. Since stone absorbs heat from your oven, you are putting your loaf directly on the heat source. And stone evenly distributes the heat, so you won't have to move the bread around as often during baking. For all these reasons, bagel-making is also among the clever uses of a pizza or baking stone.

Don't Forget Water

Steam is key. When pre-heating the oven, put a baking dish on the bottom rack, and when ready to bake the bread, pour a small amount of water into the preheated baking dish.

Knead, Let It Rest, Then Knead Again

Knead the dough per your recipe's instructions. Then let it rest for 20 minutes, and knead it again. Your dough will be softer and smoother because you've redistributed the gluten.

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