The Curious History of the Croissant (& How It Became France's Favorite Pastry) (2023)

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The Curious History of the Croissant (& How It Became France's Favorite Pastry) (1)

There’s something mysterious– maybe even alchemical— about the qualities that have to come together to yield the “ideal” croissant. To fit the bill, it should be buttery and tender, but never mushy or overly moist. It requires a delicate flakiness-to-chewiness ratio that’s hard to achieve, and the layers of all-butter puff pastry should be well differentiated, without falling apart into a crumby mess when you bite into them. The bake should be golden, but not overdone. In short, it’s a true art: one that the French in particular are very proud of.

But how did this love affair start? Keep reading for a brief but fascinating history of the croissant– and to learn how France came to embrace the crescent-shaped pastry as a de facto national emblem, then became the global standard-bearer for how it should be made.

Oddly enough, and as you’ll learn shortly, the original pastry that inspired today’s typical butter croissants (croissants au beurre) bear only a moderate resemblance to the ones we gobble down today.

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It All Starts In Vienna & Eastern Europe

The Curious History of the Croissant (& How It Became France's Favorite Pastry) (2)

You may have already read the shocking news elsewhere: croissants weren’t invented in France. As with every aspect of tracing the croissant’s tortuous history, however, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that.

Most food historians trace the origins of the croissant to Austria and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, where small pastries called kipferl had been made since at least the 13th century, according to numerous records.

(Video) Croissant: The History, Origins, Facts You Never Knew

{Related: The History of the French Macaron, From St-Emilion to Paris}

While little is known about their original composition, kipferl were simple pastries that might be served plain or laced with nuts. They bore a resemblance to rugelach, consumed widely in Eastern Europe and a staple of Yiddish cuisine. Rugelach, however, were probably invented in the 17th century.

The Curious History of the Croissant (& How It Became France's Favorite Pastry) (3)

(Side note: rugelach literally means “little twists” in Yiddish, which seemingly substantiates its connection to the modern-day croissant, given the dough’s twisted appearance. )

Similar to what the French today call pains au lait or “milky breads”, often eaten for breakfast or afternoon snacks, kipferl are now traditionally made with milk, wheat flour, sugar, butter, and a bit of salt. Some even bear a resemblance to bagels, though they’re not first dipped in a boiling baking-soda bath before being put in the oven.

The Curious History of the Croissant (& How It Became France's Favorite Pastry) (4)

And unlike today’s croissants, which are made from puff pastry, kipferl are sweeter, denser, and less buttery than your emblematic French croissant au beurre. In Austria and Germany, they’re now often flavored with vanilla or other ingredients and enjoyed as Christmas cookies or sweet accompaniments to coffee.

From Kipferl to Crescent: The (Dubious) Legend of the Ottoman Attack on Vienna

The Curious History of the Croissant (& How It Became France's Favorite Pastry) (5)

How did the kipferl get its crescent shape, and become, well, a croissant? Here’s where things get hazy and a bit problematic, since legends and rumors have muddied the waters for centuries.

Popular lore has it that a group of Vienna bakers invented the prototype for the croissant in 1863, during an Ottoman siege on the Austrian capital. Ottoman troops, who dug a tunnel to enter the then-walled city from underground, were supposedly reported to the authorities by one or more of the city’s bakers, who typically worked in cellars and thus heard the approaching attack.

The Ottomans were expelled from the city, the story goes, and to commemorate the victory– and the heroic alert triggered by a baker named Adam Spiel– he and others concocted a crescent-shaped pastry called Hörnchen (little horns).

These were similar to the traditional kipferl but shaped into the form of a crescent moon, which appeared on the flags of the Ottoman Empire from the 14th century.

(Video) How Authentic Croissants Are Made In France | Regional Eats | Food Insider

However, many have put this theory into strong doubt, noting for example that crescent moon-shaped breads and cakes, including kipferl, had been mentioned in poems and other texts for centuries prior to the Vienna attack.

The Curious History of the Croissant (& How It Became France's Favorite Pastry) (6)

And as food historian Jim Chevallier notes, origin stories for both the bagel and the yeasted Kugelhopf cake also mention the 1683 Ottoman siege of Vienna as the moment of invention for two other enduringly popular baked goods. This multiplication of origin stories suggests that the one around the croissant’s invention is partly– or wholly– untrustworthy. To be nice about it, let’s settle on “apocryphal”.

The Croissant Comes to France

The Curious History of the Croissant (& How It Became France's Favorite Pastry) (7)

The story of how Austrian kipferl or Hörnchen arrived in France is, as you might guess, another disputed one. For years, it was casually asserted that Queen Marie Antoinette, a a native of Austria and daughter of the powerful Empress Maria Theresa, introduced it to the court at Versailles in 1770 after her marriage to King Louis XVI.

The Curious History of the Croissant (& How It Became France's Favorite Pastry) (8)

But historians generally say this account is incorrect, and that the baked good only became popular in France during the 19th century. They attribute the arrival of the kipferl to a bakery opened in Paris in 1837-1839 by Austrian-born bakers August Zang and Ernest Schwartzer.

Called La Boulangerie Viennoise (or simply “Zang’s”), it offered a variety of Austrian-style baked goods, including kipferl. Zang had a patented steam oven that resulted in the characteristic shiny surface of the finished creations– a quality that’s still considered ideal to this day on a good croissant.

While the bakery at 92, Rue de Richelieu only operated for two years, the French craze for viennoiseries (literally, Vienna-style baked goods) was born. The term, of course, has stuck: any sort of pastry that has a bread-like base, from pain au chocolat to pain aux raisins and croissants, are (strictly speaking) not patisseries, but viennoiseries.

(Video) Why people are so in love with his croissants ? | The Secret will be revealed 🙌 #cedricgrolet

The Curious History of the Croissant (& How It Became France's Favorite Pastry) (9)

The word croissant began appearing in dictionaries and other texts from the mid-19th century in reference to butter and flour-based, crescent-shaped breads. And from 1840 or so, bakers in Paris– then around France– whipped up their own versions. By the 1870s, the term had crossed the channel, referenced by Charles Dickens and others in relation to French culinary delights.

However, it wasn’t until the early 20th century, as Chevallier notes in his book on the history of Zang’s contributions to French viennoiserie, that the butter croissant as we know it was born. Evidence strongly suggests that it was only in the first decade of the 20th century that bakers started using puff pastry (pâte feuilletée) to assemble their croissants.

The Curious History of the Croissant (& How It Became France's Favorite Pastry) (10)

In an innovative move, they added yeast to the puff pastry (something that hadn’t been done for its use in vol-au-vents, pastry shells, etc). This changed the texture and mouthfeel of the croissant significantly, yielding an airier, puffier, crispier specimen than the one introduced by Zang in the 1830s–this time with flaky, buttery, well-differentiated layers.

{Related: Tasting Pastries at Du Pain et des Idées, a Lauded Parisian Boulangerie}

In this sense, French croissant au beurre purists could get away with arguing that it’s really a Gallic invention– one that draws heavily on its Austrian predecessor. “Today’s viennoiserie is far more French than Viennese”, Chevallier concludes in his book.

Of course, the origins of puff pastry itself are disputed, too– but I’ll leave that story for another day.

20th Century Evolutions: The “Ordinary” vs. All-Butter Croissant

The Curious History of the Croissant (& How It Became France's Favorite Pastry) (11)

By the beginning of the 20th century, the butter croissant made with puff pastry had all but completely eclipsed its Austrian predecessor, with scores of boulangeries around France expanding their repertoires beyond bread to include viennoiseries. Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a French bakery that doesn’t also specialize in the latter.

If during the nineteenth century, the croissant was essentially a luxury good reserved for the bourgeois and aristocratic classes, by the First World War it became more accessible and widely available.

The Curious History of the Croissant (& How It Became France's Favorite Pastry) (12)

Interestingly, though, consumption habits fell along subtle class lines. Two different versions of the puff-pastry croissant emerged: one, more expensive and made with pure butter (croissant au beurre), and another, often made with margarine or other cheaper fats, called the croissant ordinaire (ordinary croissant). Some bakers call the latter a croissant nature (plain croissant).

To this day, you can still find both versions in most boulangeries. Curiously, only the croissant ordinaire is typically presented in a crescent shape; the croissant au beurre is baked into a semitriangular loaf, with straighter edges. This is a distinction that many visitors find confusing when trying to navigate a boulangerie order, for obvious reasons.

(Video) The Chocolate Croissant Controversy

By the mid-20th century, croissants became familiar fixtures in everyday French life, and increasingly appeared as a national emblem for France itself– alongside the baguette, beret, cigarette, and existential philosophy, to name only a few.

The Curious History of the Croissant (& How It Became France's Favorite Pastry) (13)

In the wake of rapidly advancing industrialization and the advent of the consumer-goods revolution, croissants began to appear as mass-market products produced by big corporations for distribution in supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, airports, etc.

And with the advent of chain bakeries in France, pre-molded, frozen croissants shipped from factories and delivered to lower-quality boulangeries became the norm in many places.

While this may come as a surprise, many French people purchase croissants not from the family-owned, corner bakery, but from the supermarket, neatly packed into plastic bags and filled with preservatives.

The Curious History of the Croissant (& How It Became France's Favorite Pastry) (14)

Just as many Americans’ first encounter with croissants were courtesy of the Pillsbury Dough Boy— and cardboard tubes filled with refrigerated dough for quick home baking– French people aren’t necessarily the croissant purists many believe them to be.

The industrialization of the croissant isn’t something that particularly cheers those who hold the baked good to high standards– but it’s nevertheless an important moment in its history. From Vienna and Eastern Europe, to Paris, and then the world, the humble little bread-slash-pastry has come a long way, to say the least.

Tasting Excellent Croissants in Paris: Where to Head?

The Curious History of the Croissant (& How It Became France's Favorite Pastry) (15)

If you’re visiting Paris, there are plenty of excellent examples to taste, most for little more than pocket change. To start, I recommend beelining to La Maison d’Isabelle, a family-owned boulangerie in the Latin Quarter that won the top prize for its all-butter croissant in 2018. Laurent Duchene also makes superb croissants, sometimes with interesting and creative flavors.

{Related: Where to Taste Some of the Best Pastries in Paris}

Looking for more good places to satisfy a craving? I make several other suggestions in this piece (at TripSavvy), and this list is also excellent.

(Video) UPCT - Food: The Evolution of the Croissant

Happy tasting, and bon appetit!

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The Curious History of the Croissant (& How It Became France's Favorite Pastry) (16)

FAQs

What is the curious history of the croissant? ›

The real birth of the croissant is more accurately attributed to August Zang, an Austrian entrepreneur who opened a Viennese-style boulangerie in Paris in 1838. It was here, known locally as simply “Zang's”, that Parisians first encountered what would become the croissant.

When did croissants become popular in France? ›

Many sources report that the first croissants to be sold in France were at 92, rue de Richelieu in Paris from 1837 to 1839. This is where Austrian bakers August Zang and Ernest Schwarzer opened a Viennese bakery.

What is the history of the French croissant? ›

In 1915, Sylvain Claudius Goy recorded the first-known French version of the croissant recipe. Instead of brioche dough, as August Zang used, Goy transformed the recipe to use a laminated yeast dough. Lamination involves folding butter and dough to create thin, flaky layers of pastry.

Why are croissants so popular in France? ›

Marie Antoinette popularized the croissant in France by requesting the royal bakers replicate her favorite treat from her homeland, Austria. Then, August Zang, an Austrian artillery officer that founded a Viennese Bakery in Paris in around 1839.

What are some facts about croissants in France? ›

The Croissant became the French national product in 1920. The Croissant started as a luxury product, but by the end of the nineteenth century, it was middle-class (the rich preferred a good brioche). Before the modern croissant, puff pastry was used as a garnish or shell, not to eat on its own.

What is an interesting fact about croissants? ›

The croissant actually originated in Austria.

The legend attributes the invention of the croissant to a young baker who saved Vienna from an Ottoman siege — either in 1529 or in 1683. Marie-Antoinette is also credited for introducing the pastry from her native country to Versailles.

Who brought croissant to France? ›

The first verified evidence of the croissant in France is due to a baker named August Zang. Zang had an upscale patisserie in Paris in the early 1800s, named the Boulangerie Viennoise after his native Vienna and serving many of their famous treats — including kipferl.

How do the French often eat their croissants? ›

Another very French habit is to dunk your croissant briefly in your favourite hot drink – we recommend a nice milky coffee – before each bite. OK, some pastry flakes in your coffee, but not all over you! Some people advocate eating your croissant with a knife and fork.

What does the croissant symbolize? ›

The history of the croissant

It is believed to have been created in Austria, specifically Vienna, in the late 17th century, to commemorate the lifting of the siege of Vienna by the Turkish army in 1683. The shape of the croissant, which resembles a crescent, is said to symbolize the crescent on the Turkish flag.

What is the history of pastry? ›

Pastries were first created by the ancient Egyptians. The classical period of ancient Greece and Rome had pastries made with almonds, flour, honey and seeds. The introduction of sugar into European cookery resulted in a large variety of new pastry recipes in France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.

What does croissant French mean? ›

Word Origin for croissant

French, literally: crescent.

Did France create croissants? ›

The origin of the croissant can actually be traced back to 13th century Austria, where it was called the kipferl, the German word for crescent. However it was an Austrian artillery officer August Zang who founded a Viennese bakery at 92, rue du richelieu in Paris.

Do French people like croissants? ›

Let's start with the most famous French breakfast food: croissants. And yes, they're a big part of the breakfast meal in France! The French love to eat them for breakfast.

Do French people love croissants? ›

What do French people usually eat for breakfast? The stereotypical daily French breakfast is a croissant, but this is not quite the reality. Croissants and other buttery pastries are more often a special treat, reserved for weekends and holidays.

Why is croissant so popular? ›

A croissant exemplifies refined simplicity.

The more you bite into a croissant, the more depth you discover, not only in terms of it's physical layers and textures but also in terms of the waves of flavors that rise within your palate one after the other: salty, sweet, buttery, fermented flour and on and on.

How popular are croissants in France? ›

Croissants are popular traditional breakfast in France made of a layered yeast-leavened dough through laminating technique. Perhaps next to baguette, the buttery and flaky croissant is the bread mostly associated with France.

Why are croissants so tasty? ›

But what makes croissants so delicate, fragrant and delicious? The secret is butter, and always butter. A good croissant is made using high-quality, very high-fat butter. That's what gives croissants their golden colour, their crispiness, and most importantly, the flakiness that we all know and love.

Why is it called a croissant? ›

The croissant gets its name from its shape: in French, the word means "crescent" or "crescent of the moon." The Austrian pastry known as a Kipferl is the croissant's ancestor—in the 1830s, an Austrian opened a Viennese bakery in Paris, which became extremely popular and inspired French versions of the Kipferi, ...

What is croissant dough called? ›

Croissant and Danish pastries, typically served for breakfast, are examples of laminated yeast doughs, while puff pastry, also known as pâte feuilletée or mille feuille (meaning one thousand layers), is an unleavened type.

What pastry is used for croissants? ›

Croissants are made of laminated dough. There are two main differences between classic puff pastry and croissant dough: Puff pastry doesn't contain any yeast while croissant dough does. To make puff pastry, you need to make 5 single turns, and to make croissants, you need only 3 single turns.

What is the famous food in France croissant? ›

Croissant
TypeViennoiserie
Place of originAustria, France
Associated cuisineFrench
Main ingredientsYeast-leavened dough, butter
VariationsPain aux raisins, Pain au chocolat, Pain aux fraises
3 more rows

Do French people have croissants everyday? ›

No! Most French people eat breakfast at home so don't eat fresh croissants from the 'boulangerie' on a daily basis. Croissants and pain au chocolat are popular on more relaxed days for example at weekends or on holiday. Many people also eat them for breakfast on the run.

What is a croissant and how is it best eaten? ›

Croissants are a traditional French pastry, best enjoyed at breakfast time fresh and on their own, or accompanied by coffee. If you've ever eaten a croissant, you know how messy they can be!

Why do croissants taste better in France? ›

It's The Butter That Makes Them Taste So Good

Maybe it's because the demand for croissants is higher in France than anywhere else so they're more likely to be fresher and hotter and so, way more tasty.

What is the cultural of croissant? ›

While the croissant is often associated with France, it is said to have been invented in Vienna. Legend has it that it was created in 1683 to celebrate the Austrian army's victory over the Turks while Vienna was under siege, and that the pastry's shape represents the symbol on the Ottoman flag.

Why are French pastries so famous? ›

Most people adore French pastries due to its light and fluffy texture. With these delicacies, there is no denying that French desserts are not only popular around the world, but also widely appreciated, celebrated, and intimated.

Why is France known for its pastries? ›

When the gods and goddesses of pastries and desserts came down to earth, they settled down in France. With their glorious blinding presence and golden spoons and ladles, they taught the locals how to make fluffy meringues and mousses, luscious cakes, and divine crème brûlées. The result is French pastry as we know it.

Is croissant a bread or pastry? ›

The dough used to make pastries usually contains much more butter, shortening, or oil, and has a higher fat content as a result. Because of this distinction, a croissant is not just bread. A croissant is considered a pastry.

Which country has the best croissant? ›

The best croissant may be Australian, but the know-how is French. Kate Reid was trained in France in the Parisian bakery Du Pain et des Idées. She studied the art of French pastry at this establishment known as one of the best bakeries in the capital, located in the X arrondissement in Paris.

What food French people like the most? ›

The 10 most famous french foods over the world are:
  • The croissant.
  • The baguette.
  • The coq au vin.
  • The ratatouille.
  • The boeuf bourguignon.
  • The quiche Lorraine.
  • The escargots de Bourgogne.
  • The onion soup.
Jul 3, 2021

What is the number one food in France? ›

1. Bread. When you imagine French food, the many different types of bread may come to mind. From baguettes to the various pain graines-céréales options which have a wide variety of grains mixed with different types of seeds.

What gender is croissant in French? ›

croissant {adjective masculine}

crescent {adj.}

What is the secret to a good croissant? ›

Stoneground organic flour is recommended by chefs for the perfect croissants. Since one of the key ingredients in croissants is butter, chefs recommend using a high quality butter which is 84-87% fat with no additives or extra water.

How popular is croissant? ›

The study states that 42% of retail bakeries now carry croissants. That is a higher percentage than the perennial favorites, donuts and bagels.

How did the croissant get its name? ›

It served Viennese specialties including kipferl and the Vienna loaf. This bakery inspired imitators and the French version of the kipferl was named after the shape given to it: a crescent – the French word being croissant.

Why is croissant special? ›

They are one of the most popular pastry items worldwide. The croissant is synonymous with a crunchy texture and an irresistible taste, qualities that have made it a product that few can resist. A crescent-shaped bun that you always desire. This is the croissant, one of the most successful pastry items in the world.

What animal was a croissant mistaken for? ›

They suspected it was an iguana. The inspectors arrived in the street and inspected the tree from a distance. "It is difficult to help something when the sight of it almost knocks us off our feet... an attack of laughter," KSPA said. "The iguana turned out to be... a croissant, a croissant made of puff pastry.

What is the science behind croissants? ›

When making croissants, butter and dough are folded into hundreds of individual layers. As a croissant bakes, the butter melts and the water content in the butter turns into steam. It's that steam being trapped by the gluten in the dough that creates the delicate, flaky layers in a perfect croissant.

What are croissants called in France? ›

Croissant – There are actually two croissants; a croissant au beurre and croissants ordinaries. A croissant au beurre is the one you want to get which is made with only butter. Croissants ordinaires can contain margarine and are typically crescent-shaped.

Do French people eat croissants every morning? ›

Let's start with the most famous French breakfast food: croissants. And yes, they're a big part of the breakfast meal in France! The French love to eat them for breakfast.

Which country has the best croissant in the world? ›

The best croissant may be Australian, but the know-how is French. Kate Reid was trained in France in the Parisian bakery Du Pain et des Idées. She studied the art of French pastry at this establishment known as one of the best bakeries in the capital, located in the X arrondissement in Paris.

What gender is croissant? ›

croissant {adjective masculine}

crescent {adj.}

Who eats croissants? ›

Croissants are a traditional French pastry, best enjoyed at breakfast time fresh and on their own, or accompanied by coffee.

Is A croissant Mexican? ›

A croissant (French pronunciation: [kʁwasɑ̃] ( listen)) is a buttery, flaky, viennoiserie pastry inspired by the shape of the Austrian kipferl but using the French yeast-leavened laminated dough.

Why are croissants twice baked? ›

The reason they're twice-baked is because… they're stale day old croissants that need to be refreshed. Letting croissants go stale means they lose moisture overnight which makes them easier to cut for the twice-baked appearance.

Why do croissants have holes? ›

If product is over-proofed the yeast will eat the sugar in the dough and it will not brown correctly. Generally, there will be honeycomb holes in the dough or a cavity will form in the center of croissants. Over-proofed products will often fall in the oven.

Why do croissants smell? ›

The croissants might look done on the outside, but they might still have too much moisture inside. This causes a rancid smell / taste.

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