Lessons from Saturday Baguettes
Having recently finished  a six month long baguette quest, I wanted to reflect a bit on what I've learned. The pictures above tell the story--from my initial hamhanded attempts, through my disasterous return to using Stone-Buhr flour, through the last few weeks when everything started to come together. Here's a few thoughts about home baguette making--perhaps they can guide anyone else foolish enough to tilt at that most challenging of home baking windmills:
- Practice Matters: My baguette shaping and scoring skills improved mostly with time--over six months I made 81 demi-baguettes (27 batches of 3), with something like 270 slashes, making up more than 44 pounds of dough. Mind you, this is less dough and slashes than our good TFL member Larry does in a day at his bakery job (though maybe a few more discrete baguettes, since they're smaller).
- Consistency Matters: All those things that you read in baking books and on this forum about getting "the feel" of the dough? It really takes sticking with one dough for a while to get it. Knowing that the dough remains the same takes the guesswork out of the inevitable variations in dough consistency. I think I learned more about "feel" in the last 6 months than I did in the 2 years previous. By the last few weeks, when the dough was unusually slack, or tight, I knew something was amiss and needed to be compensated for.
- Flour Matters: This one surprised me. Certain flours seem to do better for different fermentation methods. My old standby, Stone Buhr bread flour, performs beautifully with delayed fermentation formulas, like pain a l'ancienne. Really, if you can find some, try it for a pain a l'ancienne or similar recipe; the flavor is amazing. But my old standby performed terribly in a poolish. Who knew?
- Equipment Matters: While home bakers are limitted in their choices for the most important piece of equipment--the oven--there are a lot of small bits of equipment which are cheap and quite helpful. I found the lame, flipping board, and linen couche that I ordered from SFBI/TMB  to be invaluable in transfering and scoring my baguettes without degassing them too much. The total cost was something like $40 for those three.
- Everything Matters: This sounds more glib than it is. When it comes to baguettes, all the little pieces have to fall into place. I'd read about this before, but making them every week really brought this home. Part of it is that the shape itself is hard to do, part of it is that the traditional scoring is even harder, but part of it is just that baguettes are less forgiving. A slightly dense batard with slightly chewy crumb is still quite tasty, wheras a baguette, with the higher crust-to-crumb ratio, will be downright unpleasant. Getting a baguette to have crisp crust and an open crumb requires a good bake with steam, and proper scores. But if you don't shape it with a tight enough gluten sheath, it won't rise well, and will impossible to score. And if you don't pre-shape properly, shaping is difficult. And preshaping correctly requires the dough have been mixed and folded sufficiently. And...you get the idea. All of this is true of other shapes, of course, but the finicky baguette magnifies all flaws.
That's all I've got. Finally, for anyone who's interested, a review of my final baguette method:
- 150 g. bread flour
- 150 g. water
- .18 g. yeast
- 300 g. bread flour
- 150 g. water
- 1.9 g yeast
- 9 g. salt
- Mix Poolish night before, let sit ~12 hours
- Mix all ingredients with wooden spoon, let sit 5 minutes
- Knead on counter ~2 minutes until the dough windowpanes
- 30 folds in the bowl with a rubber spatula (I actually do this on the bench with my hand, so I can oil the bowl).
- Ferment 1 hour, stretch and fold
- Ferment 1 hour more, divide into ~250 g. pieces, pre-shape oblong (I do a modified version of Hamelman's pre-shaping technique for boules--fold in half, then tuck the dough into itself with the fingers. For an oblong, on the last tuck I twist my wrists inward such that it turns into a stubby torpedo shape)
- Rest 10-20 minutes
- Shape as baguettes--I settled on the "fold over the thumb and press" technique, twice in one direction and then once in the other, sealing the last against the work surface.
- Place on couche, cover with the folds
- Proof 1 hour, then start checking for full proof
- Pre-heat oven and stone to 525 degrees (note, my oven runs at least 25 degrees colder than it says) at least 45 minutes before baking. Place two metal loaf pans in the oven on a rack below the stone.
- Transfer baguettes to parchment on a sheet pan.
- Pull the loaf pans out of the oven. Soak two towels in a bowl of very hot water (my tap water gets plenty hot), transfer to the loaf pans and put them back in the oven.
- Score the baguettes. Using oven mitts, slide parchment onto stone, throw 1 cup hot water onto the oven floor lower temp to 485.
- Bake 26 minutes, removing the steam pans and turning the baguettes around after 13.
- Turn off the oven, crack the oven door and wait 8 minutes before removing the baguettes.
Happy baking everyone