The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

The great baguette quest N°1

Janedo's picture

The great baguette quest N°1

What makes a great baguette? Well, first of all, what's a baguette? It's a post-war, "we're sick of tough pain au levain, we want what the American's have", loaf of very light, white bread. It's made with yeast, very white flour that is very often, believe it or not, a mix of French soft and American hard wheat. Most French bakeries "cheat" and use white flour with stuff in it like ascorbic acid which produces an even light loaf. The baguette "tradition" is the no-cheat version, made with only flour, water, yeast and salt, no additives.

I'm not a huge fan of the baguette but it definitely has its uses. It makes great sandwiches, it sops up sauce very nicely and when it is very, very fresh, still warm out of the oven, it is quite heavenly!

But it's darn hard to find a really good one these days and no bakeries around where I live make a decent one.

It isn't that hard to make a baguette-style bread. There are loads of recipes, either straight method, on a poolish or even a sourdough version. But the question some of us have been asking is, How do you get those that really light, airy, big holed crumb? Is it the flour? The preferement? The fermentation? The kneading? The proofing? The baking? All of the above?

I have no clue really. I have ideas, suspicions. So, the only thing to do it TRY!

For my first test I simply took the recipe for Baguette Tradition from the web site of the INBP, L'Institut National de la Boulangerie Pâtisserie. I thought I'd try their very straight method before doing some of my own experiments.

Well, I was actually impressed with the results. They don't LOOK that beautiful, but they were very tasty and very light. They look sort of heavy but when you pick one up, it is much lighter than you imagine. The crumb is light and melt-in-your-mouthish. The crust is crackly.

I used organic T55, tap water, Guérande salt and yeast.

Here's the recipe:

Poolish: 150g T55 flour, 150g water, 2 pinches yeast - 15 hr ferment

Dough: poolish, 300g T55 flour, 140g water, 8g salt, 1tsp yeast

The recipe called for fresh yeast and since I forgot to take it out of the freezer, I guessed on the regular yeast.

There is no autolyse. 10 min on first speed, 3 min on second (that's what the recipe says!)

30 min rise, fold, 30 min. Mise en couche oblong shape. 30 min rest, form 3 baguettes, proof 1 hr.

Incisions then 20 min bake with a medium steam at 250°C.

Baguette N°1

Baguette N°1 crumb

So, I let the baguettes proof until I found they were nicely risen and I could see the air pockets under the "skin". I sliced quite deeply, but at baking they didn't get that much spring which I found strange. I followed the instructions and baked at 250°C but wondered if a lower temp wouldn't have been better.

I think the basic recipe is definitely a good one and I'm going to try again changing the variables to see what I can get out of it. Longer/shorter proofing, longer mixing (I read in a French site that baguettes need "agressive kneeding) Any suggestions are welcome! 



Janedo's picture

In any country there is excellence. Those are bakers that take the time and effort to make great bread. Those are bakers that get written up in magazine articles and win contests. But the reality is, and I say this as  French citizen of over fifteen years, that what Joe Blo can buy at his nearby bakery is very often substandard. You may be able to buy a great baguette in a big city if you go hunting or a small town bakery with a very passionate Baker, but what most people would think is generalized in France is NOT. In my vicinity I can't name one bakery that produces great bread.

In France any business is subject to very high taxes and in order to make money, most will cut costs as much as possible. Since the French buying power has lessened it is only a certain population that can afford or be willing to pay a baguette that costs more than 80 centimes. Forget about specialty breads. The average baker will bake his bread with the lowest possible cost. Natural sourdough levains are expensive to maintain because of hygene controls, and they can cause losses as well because they are precarious. Kayser invented his great vat- thing with a spout that keeps his sourdough starter controlled. He is passionate about his sourdough. But most bakers couldn't be bothered! It just isn't profitable. The French miss great bread, but aren't really willing to pay for it.

Pat, I think even those master bakers lament the tides in France on a general level. But often masters in anything group together and probably make themselves feel better by saying, WE do it right! You CAN get good bread in France. But, good bread is no longer a generality by any means.

And this said... I think I'll go make some bread. 

Nice Sunday to all,


Paddyscake's picture

France, Italy, the US or anywhere in this wonderful world there are those masters of the their craft who deliver outstanding products and then there is the average fare, key being "average", which by no means defines them as good. Personally, I think it makes me appreciate more when I find an outstanding product. That's where special memories, holidays, occasions come from. You know, like that special something only your grandmother could make.

proth5's picture

I am aware that price regulations make the French baguette an interesting business proposition indeed.  Because of my experiences I tend not to romanticize the French baguette - I know there are plenty of bad ones out there. France's economic situation, the regulations from the European Union, so many, many factors drive the push to mediocrity (as different factors drive the same in the US.)

I agree that small groups of artisans like to illustrate that they can do something, but I also think that when these small groups get recognition, they actually can change the way that people think.  "Hey! Wait a minute!  The French team won the Coupe du Monde!  Why am I eating this tasteless hunk of whatever? Shoudn't I demand better?" I believe the years of American wins did much to get Americans thinking about artisan bakers and the breads that they could make instead of just buying the standard bagged loaf. (Of course, being good little Americans, we then promptly industrialized this and began producing awful "artisan style" breads in bulk...)(I think a lot about this.  Perhaps too much.)

I also believe you need to be the change you want to see.  That each of us must make daily, seemingly tiny decisions to create the world in which we want to live. (Kind of like making bread, when I think about it.)

But Japan making the best French baguette (ok, yes, they are awesome bakers, I know, I know), oh, I had to speak up for Team France...

Happy Baking!

Janedo's picture

I absolutely agree with you. I just wanted to point one thing out, though. American publicize the kind of thing like international bread competitions, but I personally never even knew that something like that existed until I read it a couple months ago in a Peter Reinhart book. Bread is 'banal' in France while in the States it's more of a movement. It's quite paradoxal in France these days because we have a movement toward artisanal and regional food and at the same time a rush to indutrialized junk. But that's pretty typical of any country, I think.

I'm building up my concentration for my soon to come baguette baking... but this week is hectic with the school "fête", the kid's "grillade", etc, etc. I'll tell you all about it as soon as I accomplish something.


proth5's picture

I see we are in violent agreement.

I really could chat about the dynamics of the food "industry" forever - but I won't.

Next time I am in France I should swing by Catalogne (don't worry, not looking for free lodging...)and we can talk bread. Maybe even make a loaf or two.

Don't work too hard.  Your life sounds very, very busy.

Janedo's picture

That's a deal!