Not all long, thin loaves of bread can be considered to be baguettes, but the shape is definitely one of the most clearly defining characteristics of the popular french loaves. The more important characteristics are the flavor and texture of the bread, and the perfect baguette is something that many bakers – both home bakers and pros – aspire to produce. Trying to be realistic, I don’t think that a home oven is necessarily going to turn out the same quality of baguette that you might find baked in some 200 year old, wood-burning clay oven in Italy, but I’m sure it’s possible to make excellent baguettes at home anyway.
I’ve made and written about baguettes several times in the past, but the ones mentioned in the archives here do not including the dozens of times I’ve worked on trying to get one really good “real” baguette recipe ironed out. When I came across a Paul Reinhardt-derived recipe that was described as the “ultimate baguette recipe,” I knew I had to give it a try.
The ingredients are simple – yeast, salt, bread flour (high-protein flour) and water – and are combined to make a wet dough that allows irregular holes to form in the interior of the baguette while a crisp, study crust forms on the outside. A long, slow rise allows flavor to develop and gives the yeast a chance to fill the dough with air bubbles for a light and chewy texture in the finished product. It is really important that you weigh out yout ingredients for this baguette recipe (and many other artisanal-type breads) because small variances in the makeup of the dough can really change your outcome.
A stand mixer is helpful for kneading the dough because it is quite sticky and you don’t want to add any more flour to the dough than you absolutely have to. The recipe’s originator suggested using a dough scraper on a very lightly floured surface if you want to knead it by hand and I second that. The other piece of equipment you might want if you’re planning to bake baguettes on a regular basis is a couche which will aid in shaping your loaves since the dough should be handled as little as possible. This isn’t absolutely necessary, and you can approximate its effect by rolling up clean dishtowels into long “logs”, cover them with parchment paper or another dish towel, and, leaving a 4-inch or so gap between “logs,” place your dough in the gaps to rise. A baguette pan is another good option. The original post of the recipe gives many other useful baking tips that are worth checking out, too.
And the resulting bread? The crust is thick and has a nice crunch to it when it is fresh and the interior of the bread has a good amount of chewiness to it. The flavor is excellent, thanks to the long rise, and the whole process is quite easy from start to finish – which is a big plus when you don’t have time to sit and work with dough multiple times per day. I wouldn’t say that this is the “ultimate” baguette recipe, but it is a very good one and I have been very happy with my results every time I’ve worked with it.
14 ounces/400g bread flour (not all purpose)
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp active dry yeast
9.8 ounces/280g water, room temperature
Measure flour, salt, yeast and water into the mixing bowl of a large stand mixer (or a large bowl if you prefer to work by hand). Using the dough hook attachment, mix ingredients on low speed until fully combined. Knead on medium speed for about 5 minutes, until dough is smooth and somewhat elastic (this can be done by hand, using a pastry scraper on a lightly floured surface. you can expect that it might take a bit longer to get it smooth with this method).
Turn dough into a lightly oiled container or bowl, making sure that the dough has enough room to at least double in size, and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 12-18 hours*, or until dough has at least doubled in size.
Prepare your couche (or couche substitute, as described above) or baguette pan, before working with the dough again.
Turn dough out onto a very lightly floured suface and divide in half. Gently shape each half into a baguette-like roll and transfer to prepared pan/couche, stretching it gently to fit as you go.
Cover dough with a clean dish towel and let rise for 1 1/2-2 hours, until doubled in size. The dough should come up to room temperature during this time.
Preheat oven to 425F. Use a baking stone if you have one and add it to the oven during preheating. If not, a baking sheet alone will be fine for these baguettes, too.
When the baguettes have risen, they are ready for the oven. If you are using a baguette pan, simply put the pan into the oven. If you are using a couche of some kind, you will need to transfer/roll the loaves onto a parchment-lined baking sheet or baking stone. When the loaves are in the oven, spritz the sides of the oven with water (as from a plastic spray bottle) and shut the oven door. Lower the oven temperature to 400F and bake for 15 minutes. Rotate loaves (and remove from baguette pan directly to the baking stone, if required) to ensure even browning and bake for 15 additional minutes. Loaves baked on a baking sheet may need up to 5 additional minutes.
Check your loaves for donness by inserting an instant-read thermometer into the center of one. The interior temperature should be about 200F. Loaves should be golden.
Cool completely on a wire rack before eating.
Baguettes can be “refreshed” with 5 minutes in a 350F oven if you will not be eating them until later.
Makes 2 baguettes.
*This time window is perfect if you mix your dough before going to bed and take it out the next afternoon to bake it up in time for dinner. An extra hour or two in the fridge will not hurt the dough, so don’t feel pressured to leave work early (unless you want to) to work on it.