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 remarkably 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 an 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…
It All Starts In Vienna & Eastern Europe
You’ve probably already read elsewhere the shocking news: croissants weren’t invented in France. (Ok, you’re probably just curious about the factoid, but never mind). 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.
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.
(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 baking-soda bath before being put in the oven.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
In this sense, purists of the French croissant au beurre 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Happy tasting, and bon appetit!