Baguettes. Crusty, golden… unattainable-except-from-an-artisan-bakery baguettes.
Not so. And we’re here to prove it to you.
The late Prof. Raymond Calvel, France’s acclaimed “godfather of bread,” visited this country and did a “blind” baguette baking, using a variety of American flours to make his signature crusty loaf. The result? King Arthur Flour was Calvel’s choice as being most similar to his beloved French flour.
Flour is the baguette’s main ingredient: it makes up nearly 60% of the bread, by weight, so it’s a critical element. And guess what? The best American baguette flours are right here at your fingertips: King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, and King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour. They’re also available in any major grocery store. The only other ingredients are yeast, water, salt… and time.
For sure, the baguette isn’t the very first loaf you’d tackle as a beginning bread baker, no more than you’d expect to step into the box at Fenway Park the first time you held a baseball bat in your hands. But it’s something to aspire to, once you’ve gotten your feet wet (and your hands floury).
The feeling of accomplishment you’ll get from pulling a deep-brown, crackly-crisp baguette out of your own oven is indescribable. Even the loaf itself celebrates your success: hold it up to your ear to hear its signature “song” as it cools. (What, you’ve never done that? Try it…)
The path to homemade baguettes is long, but not rocky. You’ll spend most of the time going about your business as the flour, water, and yeast quietly make their magic. Some initial kneading is followed by lots of resting and rising; a minimal bit of shaping precedes the finale, 25 minutes in a very hot oven. And that’s it: baguettes.
Ready? Let’s make Classic Baguettes and Stuffed Baguettes.
First you’re going to make a starter. Mix flour, water, and just a pinch of yeast, and let it rest for about 14 hours at room temperature.
The picture above shows what it’ll look like after its rest: soft and bubbly, kind of like a pancake when it’s ready to flip to the other side. If you’re planning to bake on a Saturday, make the starter late-afternoon Friday, and it’ll be ready to go Saturday morning. This first rest gives the yeast a chance to start growing.
Next day, place the starter, flour, and salt in a mixing bowl (or bread machine bucket). Then, pour the designated amount of water into your starter container; you don’t want to waste any of those stuck-on bits of starter. If you’re using active dry yeast, stir it into the water, as pictured above.
Then switch to the dough hook, kneading for about 5 minutes on speed 2; the dough will still be a big “gnarly.” If you’re kneading by hand, knead till the dough is soft and elastic, but not totally smooth. In the bread machine, let it knead for about 10 minutes.
Gather the dough into a ball; notice its surface is fairly rough. You don’t want to knead it too much, as the gluten will continue to develop during its long rise. If you kneaded the dough till it was absolutely smooth, it would be over-developed by the time it was done rising: too stiff, difficult to shape.
Divide the dough into three pieces, flatten into rough ovals, and let them rest for 15 minutes. This gives the gluten a chance to relax. Gluten can be recalcitrant; the more you stretch it, the tighter it gets. Letting dough relax before shaping makes it MUCH easier to work with.
And working your way out to the edges. Don’t press down hard; just gently roll the dough under your cupped fingers, and it’ll lengthen on its own. If it doesn’t, give it a 15-minute rest, while you work on the other two pieces, then come back to it.
Or do what they do in France: let them rise on a couche, a flour-rubbed towel. Sprinkle flour heavily on a linen couche or smooth cotton towel; I’m using a towel here. Rub the flour into the cloth.
And here are the risen loaves. Don’t let them rise TOO much; they should be puffy, but nowhere near doubled in size. If you let them rise too much, they’re hard to handle, and they won’t rise well in the oven.
Spritz heavily with warm water. This mimics the effect of a steam oven, and will help give the baguettes a slightly shiny, crunchy crust. If you’ve made baguettes before and like to a) spray water into your oven, b) throw ice cubes into a hot pan on the oven floor, or c) make steam via some other method, go for it. Whatever works for you is fine. I find spraying with water easiest, as I don’t have to keep opening the oven (and letting heat escape) once the baguettes are in.
Next, you’re going to make three diagonal slashes in each baguette. Hold the sharp knife at a 45° angle to the bread, be quick, and use firm strokes.
Notice the lovely air bubbles inside the slash. The yeast has been doing its work for probably 18 or 19 hours now…
Here’s a cross-section view. For larger holes, make a softer dough by adding more liquid. The challenge is to find that “sweet spot”: more liquid, more holes; too much liquid, the baguettes flatten out.
Buy vs. Bake
Buy: Artisan bakery 9-ounce baguette, $2.95
Bake at home: Homemade 9-ounce baguette, 43¢
Check out our recipe for Classic Baguettes and Stuffed Baguettes.