Today, we are baking baguette, one of the most emblematic and famous breads in the world, and I am not just saying this because I am French!
What is a French baguette?
A baguette is a long and thin loaf of bread with a crispy crust that cracks when you squeeze it. It has a diameter of about 5 centimeters (2 inches) and a usual length of about 65 centimeters (25 inches).
What is the origin of baguette?
The word baguette was not used to refer to this bread until 1920. The word, which originates from the Italian bacchetta, means “wand” or “baton”.
A change in technology was partly responsible for the introduction of baguette. By the 1920s, most French bakeries were equipped with steam ovens that were needed to caramelize the starch on the surface of the loaf and give it a thin golden crust.
The steam allows the crust to expand before it sets. It creates a lighter and airier loaf. It also melts the dextrose on the bread’s surface, which gives the slightly glazed effect.
The first steam oven was brought to Paris in the early nineteenth century by Austrian officer August Zang, who also introduced Viennese bread (pain viennois) and croissant.
WWI created a shortage of manpower and traditional loaves that were prepared from a sourdough became too labor-intensive for many bakeries. But it is a new law that came into effect in October 1920 that contributed to the success of baguette.
Indeed, this new law prevented bakers from working before 4am. This meant that they did not have time to bake traditional bread in time for breakfast and turned to baguette, which was quicker to prepare.
Thus, the commercial success of baguette really started about a century ago. Today, more than 10 billion baguettes are produced each year in France. No need to get your calculator out: we are talking about 320 baguettes per second, or 150 baguettes per person per year!
But those thin long breads had been around for a long time. In fact, Napoleon Bonaparte may even have something to do with it. A story claims that Napoleon passed a law asking that bread be made in long thin loaves of exact measurements to fit into a special pocket on his soldiers’ uniforms!
You have to go back in time a little bit more to get the full story of bread in France.
In the early stages of the French Revolution, rising bread prices were a major concern. In 1788 and 1789, speculation in the grains industry combined with adverse weather conditions led to a severe shortage of bread throughout France.
Prices increased dramatically. The poor and peasant classes were the most affected. While the richest had plenty of fine bread made from white flour, the poor subsisted on an inferior product made from poorly milled bran grains.
Up until then, French peasants used to eat bread that was made from wheat, rye or buckwheat. But bakers often added all sorts of fillers to cut down on their cost: sawdust, hay, dirt and even manure were all used. At the time, most of a peasant’s diet came from bread. They could eat as much as two or three pounds of bread a day.
In 1793, once calm was restored, the constituent assembly authorized bakers to make only one kind of bread called “bread of equality” (pain d’égalité).
On November 26th 1793, the General Council outlined more specific instructions for this equality bread:
Bakers will only cook a single type of bread.
The quality of this bread will be that resulting from a mix of three quarts of wheat and one quart of rye.
Bakers will cook loaves of 8 pounds, of 4 pounds and of one pound; they will not be allowed to use other divisions.
The price of equality bread is fixed as follows:
The 8 pound loaf, 1 livre.
The 4 pound loaf, 10 sols, 6 deniers
The one pound loaf, 3 sols.
Let them eat cake!
This is the translation of the famous French phrase “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”, supposedly spoken by Queen Marie Antoinette (although there is no record of her saying this) when she learned that the peasants had no bread to eat.
Since brioche was a luxury bread enriched with butter and eggs, the quote would show the queen’s disdain for the peasants, or at a minimum the fact that she had lost touch with reality by thinking that the absence of basic food staples was due to a lack of supply rather than poverty.
Long and thin breads started to become popular before the Revolution in the mid-eighteenth century. But long and wider bread loaves had been made since the time of Louis XIV during the seventeenth century.
In France, not all long bread loaves are called baguettes. For example, a short, American football shaped loaf is called a bâtard (bastard).
A thinner loaf is called a ficelle (string). Sandwich-sized breads are known as demi-baguettes (half baguettes). A baguette must weigh 250 grams (8.75 ounces), a batard 500 grams (17.5 ounces) and a ficelle 100 grams (3.5 ounces).
In order to protect bakers and the traditional bread making process, French bread has finally been recently regulated. The Bread Decree of 1993 now mandates that French bread must be made on the same premises where it’s sold, may never be frozen, and must contain only flour, water, yeast, and salt.
We are not as lucky in the United States, as French bread, which is generally much wider, is not baked in steam ovens, but rather in convection oven.
What are the traditions associated with baguette?
There are a few traditions associated with baguette in France.
As part of the traditional continental breakfast, slices of baguette are spread with butter and jam and dunked in bowls of coffee or hot chocolate. The French call them tartines.
Also, you can ask your baker for a baguette that’s bien cuite (well-cooked and crusty) or pas trop cuite (under-cooked and soft).
It is common for people to eat the quignon (heel of the loaf) on the way home from the boulangerie (bakery).
How to make baguette
The baguette recipe that I am sharing today is probably the recipe I tested the most since the birth of 196 flavors. In the matter of 2 weeks, I probably baked 8 batches of baguette to arrive at this simple, yet tried and tested recipe that just works!
It all started as I was preparing for the second cooking class I hosted at Stage+Table, this great venue in Santa Monica, just a few blocks off the ocean (see photos here). I asked my friend Bettina’s mom Pascale if she could co-host the class with me. Pascale has worked at her brother’s bakeries in Paris for 15 years.
Two weeks prior to the class, Pascale, her husband Michel and my friend Bettina came to have lunch with us. On the menu, freshly baked baguettes, wine and cheese. Can it be more French than this?
That day, we tried a recipe that was closer to what is called a baguette traditionnelle, the type of baguette with a thicker brown crust and generally a little floury. The baguettes were really good but we had to find a simpler recipe for a baguette classique, as this recipe required close to 3 hours of rest time.
I also needed the right tools: a razor blade and a spray bottle.
Indeed, in order to score the baguette right before baking it, it is preferable to use a very thin and sharp blade, as a regular knife would not create a clean cut. If you don’t have a razor blade, the paring knife will do.
Since most of us do not have a steam oven, you have to simulate the steam by doing two things. First, spray the baguettes with water right before baking them. Second, place a small baking dish or skillet filled with water in the oven during preheating.
There is another tool you will need to get the perfect crust: a baguette pan. Those pans, which perfectly fit the shape of baguettes, have tiny holes at the bottom to let the air and the steam flow.
I will spare you with all the different tricks I tried to get the perfect baguette, including dissolving the yeast in warm water before incorporating to the flour, filling a baking sheet with water placed under the baguette pan, scoring the bread before the last rising of the dough, greasing and not greasing the pan, varying the baking time and temperature, and finally letting the dough rise 3, 4, or even 5 times.
In the end, I am extremely happy with this recipe and the end result. The whole family had a gluten overdose for 2 weeks, and although I love bread, I think I might be ready for a gluten-free detox… for maybe a couple days!
This recipe is validated by our culinary expert in French cuisine, Chef Simon. You can find Chef Simon on his website Chef Simon – Le Plaisir de Cuisiner.
- 4 cups high gluten bread flour
- 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1-1/2 cup warm water
- A perforated baguette loaf pan
- A razor blade
- A spray bottle
- In the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attached, add the flour and yeast. Stir for 1 minute until yeast is incorporated.
- Slowly add water while kneading at slow speed.
- After 2 minutes, add salt. Knead for an additional 8 minutes.
- Take the dough out of the bowl and divide it in 3 equal portions.
- Roll each piece of dough with both hands to form a stick.
- Dust each stick with a little flour.
- Grease baguette pan by spraying a little oil. Place uncooked baguettes in the pan.
- Cover with a damp cloth and let rise for 1 hour.
- Using a sharp razor blade or a paring knife, slash the top of each baguette diagonally in four spots. Spray water on the baguettes.
- Place water in a skillet or small baking dish on the bottom rack. This produces steam that lets the baguettes rise fully before a crust forms.
- Preheat oven to 430 F.
- Bake the baguettes until dark brown and crisp, about 25 to 30 minutes.