Baguettes

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

Appears in

Making Bread at Home

Making Bread at Home

By Tom Jaine

Published 2005

  • About

The ‘French sticks’ that masquerade as baguettes or bâtards (the name by which they go in Paris) have for too long made a nonsense of the great reputation of France for good bread. Hard and tasteless flours, mechanical processes and an incredible acceleration of the old-fashioned steady fermentation are largely to blame. What you get nowadays is little more than crust and air, with no flavour and little texture.

It is possible to recreate something of the beauty of this everyday, sometimes twice a day, loaf of city dwellers throughout France in your own kitchen. True, the crackle and thinness of the crust is easier to achieve if you have a purpose-built baker’s oven, but the slightly chewy texture of the crumb, and the lightness of the well-proved dough is quite within the grasp of anyone.

These loaves are made with yeast rather than a leaven, but the fermentation is lengthy to give every chance of developing the flavour, and to reduce the amount of yeast needed to give lift. (Remember, the less yeast, generally the better the taste.) The French call the method fermentation ‘sur poolish’, a reference perhaps to the influence of Viennese and eastern European bakers on Parisian breadmaking during the first half of the 19th century.

If you do not have bannetons, you can lay the loaves immediately on a greased baking sheet (crease downwards), and prove them for slightly less time. Or you can buy specially made French baguette tins, which are economical of space. Equally, you can make what the French call a couche, by flouring a linen cloth and laying each loaf between a fold. Be warned that the knack of extracting the loaves from this arrangement and transferring them to the oven is something learnt in time. Disasters are not infrequent.

How the baguettes are baked will determine the character of the crust. Domestic ovens are often not hot enough, nor do they retain enough humidity to give that defined crackle. It is not satisfactory to bake on more than one level, the lower loaves will not be as good, and changing them round halfway through is not entirely successful. So, if your oven is not large enough to take all the loaves at once you can freeze two of the moulded loaves before they have started their final proof. Take them out the next day and carry on from that point.

Ingredients

  • 300 g/10 oz unbleached white bread flour
  • 600 ml/20 fl oz tepid water
  • 15 g/½ oz fresh yeast
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 600 g/ lb unbleached white plain flour

Method

  1. In a large bowl, mix the white bread flour with 400 ml/14 fl oz of the water, the crumbled yeast and the salt. Beat well with a wooden spoon. Cover and leave to rise at room temperature for about 4 hours, until tripled in size. Add the rest of the water, then the plain flour handful by handful, beating with your hand to stretch the gluten. Once brought together into a softish dough, turn out on to a floured work surface and knead for 10 minutes.
  2. Leave the dough to rise in a bowl covered with oiled clingfilm in a warm place (26°C/80°F) for about 2 hours, until at least doubled in size. Return the dough to the lightly floured work surface, divide into four pieces and mould into balls. Leave them to rest for 5 minutes, crease or join side downwards.
  3. Take each ball in turn, flip the smooth side underneath and flatten with the palm of the hand. Fold inwards the right and left sides to meet in the centre, and press to secure contact. Each ball will now resemble an oblong cushion. Let them rest at the side of the table. These rests are necessary to ensure that you do not tear the dough while shaping it. The more it is worked, the stronger is its elasticity. When relaxed, it will form the shape you want very much more easily.
  4. Take each cushion in turn and lay it smooth side down in front of you, the short sides to the right and left. Roll it back towards you, pressing down with your thumbs the whole length of the fold so as to make firm contact. The first roll completed, pinch the join together between finger and thumb. Leave to rest for 4 or 5 minutes, join uppermost.
  5. Roll these squat sausages to and fro with your fingers splayed out across them. Gently tease more length out of them. Do not press or stretch too much. If you encounter resistance, leave well alone, and turn to another loaf. Eventually, you will achieve long loaves of 30 cm/12 inches, with a smooth side unblemished by crease or tear. Flour your bannetons (proving baskets) and lay in each loaf smooth side downwards. Cover the tops with oiled clingfilm and leave for the final proof at 26°C/80°F for about 1½ hours. The tops should not spring back when you press them with a floured fingertip. Meanwhile, heat the oven as hot as possible, at least 230°C/450°F/gas 8.
  6. When the proof is complete, turn the loaves out of the bannetons on to a greased baking sheet. Slash each of them with a sharp, preferably serrated, knife four or five times on a sloping diagonal. The depth of the cut will vary. If they are overproved, shallow cuts will not damage an already delicate structure; if they seem resilient and underproved, deeper cuts will help the loaf expand in the oven. Put the loaves on the upper shelf, and spray them with water immediately, using a garden atomizer or the spray attachment from some household cleaner (scrubbed and purified!). After 2 minutes, spray again, and a third time after 5 minutes. Bake for about 20 minutes. The loaves will sound hollow when tapped.
  7. If you follow this recipe, each of these loaves will weigh 400 g/14 oz before going into the oven. When they are cooked, they should lose about 12 per cent of their moisture, and will weigh 350 g/12 oz. This is a useful check on whether a loaf is cooked or not. Cool them on wire racks.