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What Is a Baguette?
A national symbol of France, the baguette is a long, thin loaf of bread made from white wheat flour. It has a crispy, golden-brown crust and a chewy interior marked by very large holes and an open crumb structure (caused by the steam that’s added at the beginning of baking). According to French law, baguettes must be made with just four ingredients: wheat, water, yeast (starter), and salt.
The baguette was likely developed during the nineteenth century, when longer breads and white flour became more popular and both Viennese steam-oven baking and compressed yeast were introduced to Paris. The word baguette, which means wand or stick, was not used to refer to the French bread until the mid-20th century.
7 Tips for Making Baguettes at Home
- Many bread recipes call for a poolish, a portion of wet dough that gets fermented ahead of time and helps kick-start fermentation. You can make a poolish for your baguettes up to three days ahead of time.
- Resist the temptation to add too much extra flour—baguette dough should be pretty wet. Dampen your fingers with water to prevent sticking when working with the dough.
- The “windowpane test” is a way to check the gluten development of your dough during kneading. Break off a small piece of dough, and gently stretch it out until it’s thin enough to see through. If you can indeed see through it, you’re done kneading. If the dough breaks before you can stretch it out that thin, keep kneading.
- Use a baker’s lame (or make your own by attaching a razor blade to a small stick) to cut the slashes into the top of the dough ahead of baking, which allows the bread to expand rapidly. Unless you have a very sharp knife, cutting can tear the dough and break gas bubbles.
- Using a specialized baguette pan can help you get the best crust. If you have a baking stone or baking steel, now’s the time to use it. If not, use unrimmed baking sheet or turn a rimmed baking sheet upside-down.
- Professional bakers use special ovens with steaming functions to get their baguettes to expand quickly at the very beginning of the bake, creating the large holes and open crumb distinctive of a good baguette. To replicate this at home, set an oven-proof baking dish or cast-iron pan on the very bottom rack of the oven before heating. When you’re ready to bake, pour boiling water or ice cubes into your pre-heated pan to create steam in the oven. Keep a spray bottle of water on hand to spritz the loaves as they bake.
- You want your oven to be super hot by the time the baguettes go in, so heat it at least an hour before you plan to bake.
How to Shape Baguettes
Shaping baguettes involves a pre-shape, which creates tension in the dough. To pre-shape:
- After bulk fermentation, divide the dough into the number of baguettes you will make.
- On a clean work surface, pat each chunk of dough into a rectangle.
- Stretch out the two short sides and then fold them in to meet in the middle of the dough.
- Press to seal.
- Then fold the top and bottom (the “open” sides) in to meet, and press to seal.
- Let the dough rest 10 minutes after the pre-shape.
For the final shape:
- Fold the long ends of the rectangle into the middle, and press to seal. Repeat until a log forms.
- Seam side-down, roll into logs and allow to proof in a couché (a special floured cloth), a clean kitchen towel, or a piece of parchment paper that has been lightly floured.
- Fold the towel or paper up between the loaves to create ridges that will support the shape of the baguette during proofing.
How to Keep a Baguette Fresh
Baguettes go stale very quickly and should ideally be eaten the day they are baked—there’s really nothing like a fresh, still-warm baguette. But if you need to, you can keep a baguette from drying out by wrapping it in aluminum foil for up to two days. If you need more time, try freezing and then reheating the frozen baguette in the oven.
You can attempt to rescue a dried-out baguette by placing it under running water to get the crust wet, and then baking in a 300–325°F oven until crisp, about 6 to 12 minutes. If you can’t bring it back from the brink, use leftover stale baguettes to make French toast (pain perdu—literally “lost bread”), bread pudding, croutons, breadcrumbs, or knödel.
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Homemade French Baguette Recipe
Prep Time9 hr 15 min
Total Time9 hr 40 min
Makes 3 baguettes
For the poolish:
- ¾ cup unbleached bread flour or all-purpose flour
- 6 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon lukewarm water (90-100°F)
- ¼ teaspoon instant yeast
For the bread:
- 1 cup poolish
- 2 tablespoons whole wheat flour
- 3 ½ cups unbleached bread flour or all-purpose flour
- 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
- ¾ teaspoon instant or active dry yeast
- 1⅛ cups lukewarm water (90-100°F), plus more if needed
- Semolina flour or cornmeal, for dusting
- Make the poolish. Make the polish at least six hours and up to three days before you plan to bake. In a large bowl, combine flour, warm water, and yeast, and let stand at room temperature, covered with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap, 6 to 10 hours. Remove poolish from the refrigerator to let it come to room temperature, about one hour, before you start baking.
- In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, combine 1 cup poolish, the flours, salt, yeast, and water, and stir with a spoon or the paddle attachment of a mixer on low speed until a ball forms. The dough should be soft, not sticky. Add a little more flour or water if needed.
- Transfer dough ball to a floured counter, and knead until dough passes the windowpane test, about 10 minutes by hand or six minutes on medium speed in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. (If you have an instant-read thermometer, the temperature of the dough should be 77–81°F.)
- Transfer kneaded dough to a large, lightly oiled bowl, and roll to coat with oil. Cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature until the dough nearly doubles in size, about two hours.
- Remove dough, and lightly knead by hand for about a minute. Return to bowl and re-cover. Let dough rest at room temperature until it doubles in size, about two more hours.
- Transfer dough to a lightly floured counter and divide into thirds using a bench scraper or serrated knife, being careful not to deflate any air bubbles. Shape each piece into a long baguette loaf.
- Transfer shaped baguettes to a couché (a special floured cloth), floured towels, or parchment paper. Proof at room temperature until the baguettes have grown to one-and-a-half times their original size but still spring back when poked, about 46 to 60 minutes.
- An hour before you plan to bake, prepare the oven: Place one oven rack in the lowest position and one in the middle position. Place an empty loaf pan, cast-iron skillet, or other heat-proof pan in the bottom rack. Heat oven to 500°F.
- With the seam side down, score baguettes using a bread lame or razor blade. Cut three to five ¼-inch deep evenly spaced diagonal slashes on the surface of the baguette.
- Dust the back of a sheet pan with semolina flour or cornmeal and gently transfer loaves to the back of the sheet pan. Place the sheet pan with the baguettes on the middle rack. Pour 1 cup hot water into the empty loaf pan on the bottom rack, and close the oven door. Wait 30 seconds, then spray the oven walls with water, and close the oven door. Repeat spraying after 30 more seconds, then repeat again. Lower oven temperature to 450°F and bake 10 minutes, then rotate 180 degrees. Continue baking until golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the loaves reads 205°F or higher. If the loaves are browning too quickly, reduce oven temperature to 350°F or turn it off.
- Remove loaves and let cool on a wire rack, at least 40 minutes.