In my 20s, I made the leap from working at an environmental nonprofit to becoming a full-time baker at Neighbor Bakehouse in San Francisco, a bakery renowned for its croissants. After three years there, I learned the ins-and-outs of a busy bakery kitchen and the time-intensive precision that is traditional croissant-making. Now, with a mere glance, I can tell if a croissant will truly be worth my time.
I’m no longer a professional baker, but the croissant savvy stuck with me. These days, I often evaluate croissants for fun at any bakery I set foot in. So I decided to set out on a mission, to put several East Bay bakeries to the buttery traditional croissant test. For the sake of journalism I ate all the croissants I judged… eight, well 10, accounting for a photo mishap. It’s a tough job, but someone had to do it. To narrow down the list of bakeries, I only visited brick-and-mortar shops and selected those that are the most well-regarded. I ordered each croissant as a regular customer without letting anyone know that I was writing this article so that the experience would be authentic to one you might encounter. I took appearance, texture and flavor into account in my evaluation.
But before we get to the results, what goes into making a croissant and what are the criteria on which an ideal croissant is judged?
A good croissant starts with the dough mix, which includes bread flour, milk, sugar, salt, yeast, softened butter and often a preferment (an overnight mix of flour, water and a tiny amount of yeast). After the dough rests and ferments, it heads over to the industrial “sheeter” to be rolled out for the lamination process. There, a large, thin slab of butter is encased in the dough, which is then folded three times, rolling it out long, resting and chilling the dough for several hours between folds.
After its last rest, the dough is rolled out for a final time, nice and thin. The dough is then cut into tall triangles that are stretched and rolled up into a small version of that traditional shape we know — at this point, each croissant is only roughly 2 1/2 by 4 inches. The croissants get an egg wash to keep them from drying out before heading to a warm, humid proofer to double in size. They get one last egg wash, being careful to wash only the “shoulders” and not the side of the dough that has been cut where the layers are exposed so that they can get a final unencumbered lift in the oven. That’s the basic run-down. Admittedly, I’ve made croissants at home once… and never again.
When judging a croissant through a pastry case, look for:
- Lift, roughly three to four inches tall — too flat and it either didn’t get enough rise time or had way too much.
- Defined, step-like shoulders; something that looks like a cartoon slipper is likely over-proofed.
- Thin, even layers. Dark bands indicate too warm of a temperature when folding in the butter, allowing it to break through the delicate dough layer, and lots of space between layers indicate that it was over-proofed.
- A rich brown color — too light and it’s undercooked, too dark and it will be crunchy.
- Nice shaping with the center point, the “nose,” tucked under the base and even length on both sides. Poor shaping will look lopsided and the nose will be slouched over.
- Straight across in shape. A crescent shape traditionally indicates that it is made with margarine
Now, once you have your croissant in-hand, a good croissant should have:
- A crisp exterior that gives off some flake when you give it a gentle squeeze — no flake and it’s probably underbaked, a hard crunch and it’s overbaked.
- A light and tender center (the “crumb”). You want a croissant that has an open, even structure in the middle that feels light and not dense.
- A flavor that is a beautiful balance of yeasty, buttery and lightly sweet and salty.
And finally, here are my findings, listed in order of my favorite to least favorite.
This is exactly what a croissant should look like. Pâtisserie Rotha’s croissant ($3.25) has that rich brown color, perfect layers, an outstanding lift from a great proof and a textbook egg wash and shape (minus a slouched nose). This one has a beautiful exterior crispiness with a tender layered crumb inside. It has that classic sweet yeast smell and taste with the ideal amount of butter. Overall, superb flavor. Pâtisserie Rotha, 1051 San Pablo Ave. (between Marin and Dartmouth), Albany
Fournée’s offering ($3.25) has a beautiful color with an excellent lift. The layers look nice but are a touch over-proofed on this one. The shape and egg wash look attractive. The croissant is marvelously crispy on the outside and delicate in the middle. It has a mild yeast flavor, is lightly sweet and a touch salty. This one also has the perfect amount of butter. Fournée Bakery, 2912 Domingo Ave. (at Russell), Berkeley
The layers of the Crispian croissant ($3) are impeccable, and this one has an outstanding lift although it looks a little stout in shape. It is a little over-baked resulting in a darker brown color and a near crunchy exterior. It appears as though it might have missed its final egg wash — note the lack of extra shine on the shoulders. It has an exquisite internal structure with exceptional layers. The croissant has a lovely delicate flavor that is not too strong but has a good balance of yeast, salt and butter. Crispian Bakery, 1700 Park St. (at Buena Vista), Alameda
The Market Hall croissant ($3.50) has lovely layers with skillful egg wash. The shaping in this one is a little on the short side but overall excellent. It has a great lift, and the color and bake are pleasing. In-hand, the pastry is crisp with a soft give, and it’s flaky and light. It smells a little sweet and sour from the yeast. The center has beautiful, defined open layers and is nice and soft. The flavor is very buttery (borderline too much), yeasty and lightly salty. Market Hall Foods, 5655 College Ave. (at Keith), Oakland
La Noisette Sweets
La Noisette’s traditional croissant ($3) has a superb egg wash shine, with an excellent lift considering its longer-than-average shape. The layers show some thick bands and a lot of separation, indicating that it is over-proofed slightly, which also contributes to some poor definition in the shoulders. In-hand, it has a lovely crispy exterior and inside has a nice open, soft crumb. On the sweeter side of an average croissant, this one boasts a sweet yeasty aroma and flavor. La Noisette Sweets, 2701 Eighth St. #116 (at Carleton), Berkeley (9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesdays); Kensington farmers market (10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sunday)
Feel Good Bakery
Feel Good’s traditional croissant ($3) has a great lift but is too light in color. The layers look nice but are slightly over-proofed, and the egg wash looks ok. The shaping is stout and the nose is blown over. In-hand, the pastry is soft with only the tiniest crispiness. Inside, we find open layers, but the feel is somewhat dense. It has a strong yeast flavor, is lightly salty, buttery and not that sweet. Feel Good Bakery, 1650 Park St. (at Buena Vista), Alameda; Encinal Shopping Center, 3215 Encinal Ave., Alameda; various Bay Area farmers market
Firebrand Artisan Breads
The Firebrand croissant ($3) I received was over-proofed resulting in a fairly flat pastry. You can see thick banding on the layers showing a warmer dough handling temperature. The egg wash looks rushed, and the exterior is a little on the crunchy side. The cross-section looks fine but is a bit dense inside. Despite the textures, this one offers a satisfying sweet yeast flavor that is lightly salty and sweet. Firebrand Artisan Breads, 2343 Broadway (at 24th), Oakland
Masse’s croissant ($3.25) looks incredibly flat, the color is satisfying and the layers look ok. It has a spotty flakiness on top (perhaps from the butter breaking through the top dough layer) without much shine from its egg wash. Once holding the pastry, the croissant is very heavy. The exterior is crunchy, and the internal structure is very tight and dense. It has a tangy yeast flavor that is subtly salty and overwhelmingly buttery. Masse’s Pastries, 1469 Shattuck Ave. (at Vine Street), Berkeley
Of course, baking is a science, but nothing is perfect. As a former professional baker, I know all too well that off-days happen; these were my particular butter-filled experiences around the East Bay. Hopefully, you now feel a little more prepared to spot a stand-out croissant in the crowd and perhaps speak about it with the authority of a sommelier waxing poetic about wine.