The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

What defines a bread? or, Is a baguette, a baguette, or just a shape?

davidg618's picture

What defines a bread? or, Is a baguette, a baguette, or just a shape?

This morning I baked a variation of Anis Bouabsa baguettes. The changes are minor: 72% hydration vs. 75%; I bulk fermented the dough at 55°F vs. 41°F for the prescribed 21 hours; and I added distatic malt powder. Otherwise, my formula and applied techniques were essentially the same as those in the Anis Bouabsa's Baguettes thread. The changes were made for the following reasons. I don't trust my skills yet with a 75% hydration dough. I'm sneaking up on it. Over the weekend I made a 70% hydration sourdough (or pain au levain), and today's baguettes. Furthermore, my refrigerator maintains a 37°F temperature on the only shelf that will hold my bulk proofing container, and I was concerned that temperature would severely change the yeast's reproduction rate. (That's not a guess, I've got an erudite paper written by a couple of microbiologists on the subject of yeast reproduction rate vs. temperature as a reference.). I have the convenience of a wine closet--its too small to call it a wine cellar--that maintains a steady 55°F. Lastly, I added the diastatic malt powder to give the yeast all the edge available.

However, messing with the hydrations of these doughs got me thinking. If I changed the shape I could pass this bread off as a ciabatta, or a foccacia, or a pain rustique, and no one would challenge me: perhaps criticise, but not challenge what I called it. On the other hand, if I offered the pain au levain, to a reasonably knowledgeable eater, as a slice of boule, or batard they'd raise an eyebrow at least.

So what classifies a dough? Content (Ingredients)? Preferments? Shape? Weight? All of the above? All of the above, but not necessarily everytime?

My curiosity grew when I checked three published baguette formulae (DiMuzio, Hamelman, and Hines), and two for pain au levain (DiMuzio, Hamelman).  Their doughs' hydrations are within 2% percent of each other, as well as similar ingredients, percentages, and techniques. "Is there a "secret" crib sheet these guys aren't sharing with us?" I wondered. Yet I was baking a baguette dough that was essentially a straight dough, with hydration 9% pecentage points higher than prescribed by "common practice", using atypical techniques. Is Anis Bouabsa a rogue baker?

My interest in things that ferment isn't limited to bread baking. I also brew beer, and make wine. Among brewers there is a crib-sheet. It contains approximately two-dozen beers, and describes each of them by the same attributes which are defined both in scientific precision, e.g., specific gravity, International Bittering Units (IBU's); Lovibond (color) rating; and in subjective terms of taste, smell, and appearance. If there are specialty additives or techniques they are also described, e.g., lambics (a beer made sour by lactobacteria). Wines, of course, are mostly defined by their primary varietal (or mixtures of varietals) ocassionally by craft processes, e.g., malolacticfermentation, ice wines; and a subjective vocabulary codified by a Univerity of California at Davis, professor.

Does anyone know if bread types have been classified, or catergorized and written down, and where is it written? How are bread-baking competitions judged? What are the competitive rules, i.e., do they contain de facto categorical or classifying ingredients, technniques, etc.?

David G


wally's picture


Good question. For which I have no answer.  However, as an apprentice baker I've used poolish baguette dough to make baguettes, focaccia, ciabatta, muffaletta rolls, and yes, even white dough panini.

In these cases, it's the shape that determines the designation.  Last summer I took a wonderful course on the classic french breads at King Arthur Flour.  One day when we worked with poolish baguette dough, we had home-made pizza for lunch.  When I asked what dough was used, Jeffrey Hamelman smiled and replied, "the same dough you're making baguettes with."


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

look different but taste the same.  More is expected.  Almost every large loaf has a corresponding smaller version.


wally's picture

if you look, for example, at Hamelman's recipes for baguettes, ciabatta and focaccia, you'll find that the focaccia recipe calls for ciabatta dough, and the only difference in the baguette and ciabatta recipes is the hydration of the dough.

Fact is, a lot of rustic/hearth white-dough breads are distinguished mainly by their shape and not their ingredients.

Ryeblossom's picture

I've found that though ingredients may be the same, the different technique used makes the difference in flavor and texture. 

davidg618's picture

I don't want to be arguementative,but can you offer a specific example--without changing the hydration, only the techniques?

David G

Ryeblossom's picture

(Sorry for not replying earlier)

I meant that you can't, for example, make a decent croissant/ danish by adding the butter directly to the dough, and you'll also see a difference if you bake at 350F instead of 425F, if you bake in a covered pan, proof only once and bake vs. preferment or-what-have-you. 

More specifically: I have a certain wet dough that I use to fry, make pita, or a different bread in a covered, greased pan. It can also be made into rolls. Granted, it's a rustic traditional kind of bread, nothing too fancy, but I can assure  you the results are quite different, in looks as well as in flavor. 

Here's a good example if you ever tried to make pocket pita- you really really have to watch the temperature and the proofing time, as well as how you roll it, or you won't get the pocket. 

dmsnyder's picture

Hi, David.

On pg. 46-47 of BBA, Reinhart has a huge table with a typology of bread doughs. The sidebar on pg. 46 defines his terms. Note that this immense table does not deal with loaf shapes, only the dough.

There is a huge number of loaf shapes, many of which are specific to particular locales. Most shapes are associated with particular dough types, but there are numerous exceptions to just about any generalization.

My advice is: Relax and enjoy it.


davidg618's picture

....I'm relaxed. My favorite mantra is " When you're retired every day is Saturday...except Sunday."

It's just that I've never stopped being curious.

But not yet curious enough to buy another bread-baking book, and, sadly, I don't own Reinhart's BBA. At the moment I'm being arrogant enough to abandon established authors, and rely on The Fresh Loaf, the Internet, and what I've learned from all three to  formulate my "own" formula. I place ownership in quotes because, admittedly, my formula are very reminiscent of Dan DiMuziio's or Hamelman's, or yours--and probably Reinhart's.

Nonetheless, I'm relaxed, having fun, and enjoying it.

David G.


proth5's picture

I used to show dogs and I really see similarities in bread baking.

Each breed has a standard that describes in detail the look and aspect of the dog.  You may have a dog with papers that state that it is a poodle and your dog may be cute as the dickens, but if it doesn't have dark eyes and the proper coat texture, it is not a good example of the breed.

If you've ever watched dogs in the "best of show" ring, they are not being judged against each other, but against the perfect standard of the breed.  It was a couple of years ago that a beagle took best of show at Westminster.  Now beagles are not my favorite breed (apologies to beagle fans, but I say this to make a point), but I took one look at that little guy when he entered the ring and gasped in awe.  He was the beagliest beagle that I had ever seen.  And sure enough, the judge put him up.  It was only right.

It is very similar with breads.  If you attend La Coupe du Mode de la Boulangerie (the World Cup of Bread Baking - and you really should - it's something else) you will find that a baguette does have some requirements.  It can only contain wheat flour, salt, yeast, and malt.  It must weigh a certain amount (250 gms, I believe).  And it will be judged on the aspect of the bread - is it proportional - are the slashes even and pleasing - does it have a good taste of wheat - is the crumb open and translucent?  There are more things I'm sure.  But no matter how it was done, and no matter what the small variations in taste might be, it will be judged by the theoretical standard for the perfect baguette.  If you up the hydration to 75% to get "big holes" and sacrifice aspect because of the slackness of the dough, you will be deviating from perfection (and proper fermentation is really our goal, but I digress.)  The name baguette itself means a stick - so if the bread is not like a stick in aspect - if it is too thin or too thick (these being ficelles and batards) it cannot be a baguette.  Many of the classic bread forms have very specific requirements for aspect. Ciabatta, for example means "slipper" in Italian and so we expect a ciabatta to have its distinctive slipper shape.   Focaccia should be flat or dimpled so that it might receive toppings.  Here the shape (as well as other things of which I am unaware becasue I obsess mostly about French breads) is the characteristic that is part of the "breed standard" for the bread. If we taste rye in a bread - no matter how artfully it has been formed to produce a baguette shape - no matter how delicious - it is not strictly a "baguette."

So, short answer (and this is working out to be not so short!) is: Yes, there are standards, but they are more loosely codified than the ones you mention and vary according to the organization that sets itself up to judge.  In fact after last year's judging of the "best baguette in Paris" there was a measure of controversy because the judging resulted in a winning baguette that was not the "most delicious" but was all around the "best" because the "most delicious" was not very attractive.  Also there are French laws around the content/weight of a "baguette" which bakers can get around by using various descriptors on the word "baguette."  But I think no standards are quite as precise as those you are used to in other areas of endeavor.  After all, it is only bread - to be baked and eaten today - not treasured or aged (or taxed) in quite the same way as beers or wines.  (And let us not open the argument about California "Champagne".)

As for technique - you can use a poolish or not - use a levain pre ferment - use a combination of preferments - pre ferment more or less of the flour - use a pate fermentee as the pre ferment  -mix by hand - mix using an intensive method - mix using gentle mechanical means.  And I personally have seen more different ways to shape a baguette than I care to (or can) remember.  Scoring - one big score down the middles? 5 scores?  7 scores?  To retard or not to retard?  There are many ways to vary technique without varying hydration. Each makes its own subtle difference.  But in baking it is not the route but the destination that defines the bread.

All this is a bit esoteric and applies almost not at all to us home bakers (although fun to mull over).  Which brings me back to the dog show equivalent.  A serious breeder who is attempting to win Westminster needs to "put aside" the dog who isn't a nearly perfect specimen of the breed.  That same "reject" may be a smart, loving animal that will bring delight to a family.  And while it is fun to think about the more rigorous aspects of baking, in the end, most of us are happy with our pets and happy with delicious bread. 

Well that's a lot of deep thought, but I am away from my oven for an intolerable period of time and thought is the best I can do.

Coming to you from overlooking the East China Sea...


wally's picture


I think that is just a fabulous analogy!  Thanks for putting it in other terms.

Mary Fisher's picture
Mary Fisher

I understand what you're saying, Pat, although I know absolutely nothing about dogs.

But I used to be a honey, wax and mead judge and the definition of 'mead' varies according to what 'authority' the pedant uses. Mead proper is fermented honey and water but there are variations even in show schedules which, to purists (like me) are wrong. They have different properties, produce different flavours and other attributes. While all might be good they are not mead and can't be judged against one another. 

To me 'bread' is a generic term meaning flour and water leavened by yeast. There are hundreds of variants but they're determined by far more elements than shape. Mead is always shown in a particular style of bottle or it's eliminated from a show. Then the finer points are judged. 

By the way, 'bread' which is leavened by other raising agents, such as Irish soda bread, isn't a true bread. In my opinion :-)