Learn the science behind:
Kouign Amann – Science of a French Pastry
The first time I heard of Kouign Amann, an intricate, French pastry was when watching the Great British Bake Off some time ago. In the episode, contestants had to recreate this challenging style of French patisserie, and it wasn’t easy.
Kouign Amann is less well known than its well-traveled cousin the croissant, but is made using very much the same principles. It’s all about layering fat and sugar. Add to that a bonus of caramelized sugar and you’ve got Kouign Amann in a nutshell. The crux to getting this delicate pastry right is patience, as well as some proper time and temperature management.
- To laminate you need dough & fat
- Keep the dough & butter separate
- Creating layers by folding
- Butter shouldn't be too hot, nor too cold
- Dough needs time to relax
- Fold in extra sugar
Kouign Amann is a type of laminated pastry
Kouign Amann is a type of laminated pastry, just like croissants and puff pastry. The baked pastry contains a lot of thin layers which are responsible for its final flaky, tender texture. Creating layers in pastry is an advanced skill and one that requires a good amount of practice and/or equipment.
What sets Kouign Amann apart from other similar laminated pastries is that it contains (even) more butter, has sugar layered in, and has crunchy caramelized sugar on the outside. This makes for a very rich pastry. We’ll have a look at both of these crucial components in more detail, but not before considering where it even comes from in the first place.
The origin of Kouign Amann
Kouign Amann originates from Bretagne (Brittany) in France, a region known for its dairy and butter production. This at least partially explains the (very) high amounts of butter incorporated within! In the local breton language, ‘kouign amann’ literally means ‘butter cake’. Kouign amann uses a lot of different techniques, most likely borrowed from other pastries, but is often claimed to have been ‘invented’ by a specific patissier: Yves-Rene Scordia, in the late 19th century.
Concept 1: Lamination – of both fat and sugar
A good kouign amann relies on proper ‘lamination’. During lamination you create a lot of alternating layers of fat and dough (aka flour + water). You do that by simply folding the dough over and over again. With every fold, you’re creating additional layers.
To laminate you need dough & fat
A laminated pastry consists of two distinct components: fat and dough. The dough is a mixture of mostly wheat flour and water. It’s flexible, it can be stretched, rolled, pulled, etc. Dough for a kouign amann also contains some other ingredients such as fat, sugar, yeast, and salt. The yeast especially is important since it helps to create a light pastry by proofing the dough.
The second component of laminated pastries is fat, or, more precisely: butter, which is about 80% fat. Butter is hard and firm in the fridge, but softens at room temperature and melts around body temperature. Instead of butter, you could also use a plant-based butter or margarine, which behaves similarly, though might give a slightly different taste and texture.
Keep the dough & butter separate
During lamination you want to create layers of butter and dough. As such, you want to make sure they don’t completely blend together. It’s why you don’t knead or mix the butter and dough, instead, you fold them together. Lamination starts by placing a slab of butter on top of a slab of prepared dough. Next, you encase the butter in the dough. You’re wrapping it up, like a little present. Once the butter has been wrapped, it’s time to fold.
Creating layers by folding
Every time you fold the wrapped block of butter you’re creating additional layers in the dough. In betwee nevery fold, you roll out the dough to make it thin enough to fold again. As such, the layers of butter – dough keep on getting thinner. There are several common ways to fold kouign amman pastry, but the most common ones are the letter (3 layers) and book fold (4 layers). In the recipe below and photo above we use a series of letter folds.
It’s an exponential process. Everytime you fold the dough using a letter fold, the number of layers goes times three. So after a mere 4 folds, you’ve created approximately 3 x 3 x 3 x 3 = 81 layers! Keep in mind that there definitely is such as thing a too many folds. If the layers get too thin, the pastry will become too flaky and be prone to breaking.
Butter shouldn’t be too hot, nor too cold
During this folding process, time and temperature management are crucial. To create all those thin layers, the butter needs to be flexible enough to be folded. However, the flexibility of butter is highly dependent on its temperature. A very cold slab of butter will simply break when you try to bend it whereas a very warm slab of butter will just ooze away. This is all related to the melting behavior of the fatty acids in your butter. They slowly melt over a range of temperatures, so you want to find that sweet spot where enough are molten for increased flexibility, but not yet so many that it becomes liquid and oozy!
Not every butter behaves the same!
Keep in mind that there can be quite a lot of variation between different styles of butter. Some butters are softer than others, they might contain slightly more or less fat, or fat of a slightly different composition. This all depends on the diet and life of the cow that produced the milk to make the butter. The different behaviors affect how and when the butter behaves best for laminating. Some butters may need to be colder than others for optimal results.
Dough needs time to relax
To some extent, the same applies to the dough, though the effects are slightly more nuanced. A colder dough will be firmer than a very warm dough. However, a more crucial aspect for handling the dough is time. The dough contains gluten proteins. These are what make the dough flexible and easy to roll and stretch. However, when stretched too much, they become very ‘tight’ and will resist further rolling and folding. It’s why you will need to let kouign amann pastry rest in between folds. This gives the gluten time to relax again.
Fold in extra sugar
Kouign amanns are made with a yeasted dough. Yeast feeds on sugar to proof and rise the dough. If you add too much, the yeast will go into overdrive, overproofing the dough. However, kouign amann does need some extra sugar for sweetness. To prevent the yeast from eating all, it’s folded in towards the end, during the last fold. Simply sprinkle (a lot of) sugar onto the dough after rolling it out and before folding it up. This sugar won’t create a layer as the butter will, it will mostly just dissolve in the dough, but it does add extra sweetness and texture.
Sugar causes the kouign amann dough to sweat
During this phase, the kouign amann dough can become quite sticky, it seems to sweat. This is because the sugar has started to dissolve into the dough, making it liquid and possibly even pulling out a little moisture from the dough. It’s not harmful and perfectly natural to occur. However, once the sugar has been added, it’s important to advance to the baking step reasonably fast. If you want to freeze the dough before baking, it’s best to do so just before this step.
Concept 2: Sugar caramelization
Creating all these delicate buttery layers is crucial for a kouign amann, but, a kouign amann wouldn’t be a kouign amann without a crispy outer layer of caramelized sugar. It’s what sets it apart from many similar pastry styles.
Sugar only caramelizes at very high temperatures, around 160-180°C (320-355°F). And, it only occurs if not too much water is present. A complex set of chemical reactions results in a nice brown color and a very different (less sweet) flavor than just plain white sugar.
To ensure caramelization happens, the outside of a kouign amann is sprinkled with a lot of sugar, especially the bottom. Caramelization won’t happen within the pastry, it won’t be hot and dry enough in there. Instead, it happens on the outside, especially at the bottom where sugar has a chance to gather and react and directly touch the hot pan.
A-brest, Le Kouign Amann, link, discussing various possible origins of the Kouign Amann (in French)
Eater, Meet the Kouign Amann: The Obscure French Pastry Making it Big in America, link
France Today, Taste the terroir: Kougin-Amman, Brittany’s pastry of choice, link
Great British Chefs, A history of pastry (with a focus on British pastry though), link
David Lebovitz, Kouign Amann recipe, link – he was into making Kouign Amann long before others were, great photos and illustrations
I’ve been looking for French pastry recipes and this one gives me all the steps I need.