Up there with the beret, Eiffel Tower and marinière or tricot rayé (‘striped sweater’), the French “stick” or Parisan baguette is a French icon. I was surprised therefore to discover that the baguette is actually a relatively modern bread. Before the early 1900s, boules (round loaves) were the de facto French bread, hence the French word for baker: boulanger.
Over the past year, I have tried my hand at making baguettes a few times. The results were not bad, nor were they brilliant either. A lockdown II consolation purchase to myself of Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson changed all that; this book has improved my bread game no end.
I still have much to learn about the art of making baguettes, and I am sure that many more attempts are sure to follow in the following months as I have a bee in my bonnet about baking the ‘perfect’ French stick. Nevertheless, in this post I will share the things that I have discovered so far. Several factors are important in making good baguettes: the incorporation of preferment, the use of soft all-purpose wheat flour in addition to strong bread flour (which is typically made from hard wheat), shaping, the importance of steam during baking, and of course the baguette’s distinctive scoring (slashes).
To make baguettes, you will need a mature starter and a few pieces of equipment, detailed below.
After shaping, baguettes need to be rested during their final proof on a cloth that supports them and helps to keep the shape.
Thrifty by nature, my frugal mind reasoned that as an amateur baker, I could make do with ordinary tea towels for my first few attempts at making baguettes. My first few attempts were therefore characterised by howls of dismay at finding that my hours of toil fermenting and shaping beautiful loaves of dough were for naught; during the final proof, the dough and fibres of the tea towel had become firmly stuck together! I turned my kitchen blue with curses as I painstakingly attempted to extricate the loaves from fabric, destroying the delicate crust and meticulous shaping in the process.
And so it was that I relented; my most recent bulk order of flour from Shipton Mill also included a bakers couche, a 70x100cm square of organic fairtrade cotton. When dusted and folded between the baguettes, the couche helps support and shape the loaves during proving. It also absorbs a little of the dough’s outer moisture to help develop a skin, hold the final shape and develop a crisp crust.
Dear readers: please take this lesson through my own painful experience. If you are going to invest hours (if not days) into making your own baguettes from scratch at home, a good couche is a small and worthwhile investment!
Porte lames / razor blades
Once your baguettes have proofed, they should be scored just before baking. The classic slashes of baguettes is not just an aesthetic feature, it also allows you to control how the bread expands during baking and therefore its final appearance.
Scores can be made with different utensils. Traditionally, bakers used metallic blades (lames in French) with a variety of curves that created different effects. Today, razor blades are commonly used. They can be used stand alone or mounted on metal handles (porte lames). To ensure precise and neat cuts, it is important to use a sharp and clean blade.
Baking stone / peel
I do not, as of yet, own a baking stone or peel. I have found that it is still possible to produce delicious baguettes without either of these pieces of equipment. However if you do have these in your kitchen, skip my instructions to use a baking tray. At the point when you preheat the oven, you should place your baking stone inside, and use your peel to load the baguettes into the oven to bake.
Makes 4 baguettes
- 200g all-purpose flour
- 200g water
- 3 grams active dry yeast
- 400g leaven
- 500g water, 23C to 24C (74 to 76F)
- 400g poolish
- 650g all-purpose flour
- 350g bread flour
- 22g salt
- Rice flour, for dusting
- The day before you want to make the baguettes, ensure you have fed your levain.
If you have been regularly feeding and using your levain, discard everything but 100g of the levain. Add 100g wholemeal flour, 400g white flour and 400g water at 29C to 32C, depending on the season.
If you haven’t used your levain for a while and have been keeping it in the fridge: remove your levain from the fridge and let it come to room temperature for 30 minutes – 1 hour. Leave 200g of starter in the original tub and discard the rest. Give your remaining starter a feed with 100g wholemeal flour, 400g white flour and 400ml water at 35C.
- The night before you want to make the baguettes, make the poolish. Mix the flour, water and yeast in a bowl. Let it stand overnight at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator.
- About 24 hours after previously feeding the levain, discard everything but 100g of levain, leaving the remainder in your container. Add 400g of white flour, 100g of whole wheat flour, and 400g of water at 29C to 32C (85F to 90F) and mix by hand until incorporated. Cover and let rest at room temperature for 6 to 8 hours before mixing the final dough.
To mix the baguette dough, you will need 400g of leaven. Leave the remainder in your levain container to refresh and maintain as your starter.
- Pour the warm water into a large bread mixing container. Add the poolish and the leaven and stir to disperse. Add the all-purpose flour and the bread flour. Using your hands, mix thoroughly until no bits of dry flour remain. Initially, the baguette dough will feel a little stiff, but it will soften during bulk fermentation. Let the dough rest for 25 to 45 minutes.
- Baguettes require 3 to 4 hours of bulk fermentation. Begin the bulk fermentation at a temperature of about 24C (75F). Add the salt with the first turn, then turn the dough about every 40 minutes.
By the end of the third hour, the dough will feel aerated and softer. A well-developed dough is more cohesive and releases from the sides of the container when you do the turns. The ridges left by the turn will hold their shape for a few minutes. You will see a 20 to 30 percent increase in volume. More air bubbles will form along the sides of the container. These are all signs that the dough is ready to be divided and shaped into loaves. If the dough seems to be developing slowly, extend the bulk fermentation time. Watch your dough and be flexible.
- When the bulk fermentation is complete, use a dough scraper to pull all the dough out of the container onto a unfloured work surface. Lightly flour the surface of the dough and use a bench knife to divide the dough into four pieces. Shape each piece into a rectangle with rounded corners.
- Let rest on the work surface for 30 minutes. This stage is called the bench rest. Make sure the dough is not exposed to drafts, which will cool it too much. A draft can also cause a dry skin to form on the top of the dough, compromising the final shaping. You may need to lightly flour the dough and cover it with a kitchen towel.
- Meanwhile, during the bench rest, drape a baker’s couche over a baking sheet and dust it with rice flour.
- Working with one dough rectangle at a time, fold the third of the dough closest to you up and over the middle third. Holding the ends of the dough, stretch it horizontally so that it doubles in width. Fold the third of the dough farthest from you over the middle of the elongated rectangle as if closing the flap of an envelope. Press on this flap to develop tension in the dough. Using your palms and fingers together, roll the dough towards you; with each successive roll, press with the outer edge of your palms and fingers to further develop tension in the dough. You should end up with a cylinder of dough shaped like a French rolling pin. Place both palms on the dough cylinder and roll it back and forth, stretching the dough to elongate the shape and taper the ends, while keeping in mind the size of your oven.
- Place the loaves of the floured couche seam-side up and separate them with folds in the fabric. Bring the sides of the couche over the loaves to support the outer edges. Let rise at a warm room temperature of about 21C – 24C (70 to 75F) for 2 ½ to 3 hours, or wrap it inside a proofing / clear polythene bag and place the tray with the couche and the baguettes on it in the refrigerator for a longer time period (i.e. overnight).
- When you are ready to bake the baguettes, place a baking tray on the middle rack of the oven and preheat the oven to 260C (500F). When baking baguettes, the trick is to saturate the oven with steam when you start baking. The best way to get as much steam as possible into a home oven is to place a rimmed baking sheet lined with water-soaked kitchen towels in the bottom of the oven as it is preheating. As the oven heats, the moisture in the towels produces steam. Ideally, you want the oven to be steaming for 15 minutes after you load the baguettes to bake. Take care to get the baguettes into the oven quickly and shut the door; the more steam that stays in the oven during the first part of baking, the better the oven spring, or volume, of the finished loaves. The steam will also help develop a thin, crisp crust with a slight sheen.
- With a razor / lame, score each loaf down the centre with a series of slightly overlapping lines (aim for 4 to 5 scores).
- Make sure your oven is fully saturated with steam; you’ll notice steam escaping from openings around the oven. Oven the oven door, remove the preheated baking tray. Place the baguettes onto the tray and place back in the oven. Be quick to shut the door as quickly as you can to retain as much steam as possible. Immediately reduce the oven temperature to 245C (475F).
- Once the baguettes start to colour, after about 15 minutes, carefully remove the pan with the kitchen towels, which should be dry. Continue to bake the loaves until a deep golden colour, 5 to 10 minutes. Allow the baguettes to cool slightly on a wire rack and serve warm from the oven.