I am certain that there is nothing better than a freshly baked baguette. Last year, I had the opportunity to spend 10 days in the south of France, leisurely strolling through markets, sipping wine, and snacking on cheese. I was living my best life and loving every moment. One of the (many) things that the French do right is bread. In the town where we stayed, there were boulangeries lining every cobblestone street, each producing an endless supply of fresh, perfectly made baguettes. I discovered that in those little shops, bread making is an art form and I wanted to learn it.
Fast forward to today, I am currently in pastry school where I am learning the art of bread making. These classic French baguette are time consuming, but not extremely labor intensive. The process is all about technique, knowing what to look for in your dough and how to handle it in a way that will produce perfect baguettes.
Baguettes, like most artisan breads, begin with a preferment that is started the night before. A preferment is really simple to throw together and it brings depth of flavor and extra leavening to your final product. Right before bed, just stir together flour, water and a pinch of yeast, cover it and let it hang out on your counter while you sleep.
In the morning, use your preferment and mix up your dough. You can mix baguettes in a standing mixer, but I would recommend doing it by hand at least your first few times in order to get the feel of what consistency and level of gluten development you are looking for. Because artisan breads have a much higher water content than most traditional breads, French bakers use a different kneading technique. After you turn your dough onto a floured surface, you use your hands to pick it up from the top, so that your dough starts to droop down (like you are holding a little puppy). Then slap the bottom of the dough onto your work surface and stretch the top over, in order to fill the inside with air and smooth the top. (Here is a link to a video of someone actually demonstrating this technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbBO4XyL3iM ). You are going to knead your dough until the gluten develops and the top is smooth. (This took me about 5-7 minutes of kneading).
When your dough is kneaded, place it back in the bowl, cover and let it bench. Do not grease the bowl! Classic baguettes only include flour, water, salt, and yeast, and nothing else! The dough will bench for a total of 3 hours and you will fold it twice during that time, once after 1 hour and once after 2 hours. To fold the dough: Gently turn your dough onto a floured surface. Grab the sides of the dough and stretch horizontally. Fold the sides into the center in thirds. Rotate 90 degrees and repeat. Then put the dough back in the bowl.
After 3 hours, you will divide and shape the dough and get it ready for baking. It is important to preheat your oven completely before baking. Many artisan bakers achieve that beautiful, golden brown crust by using a steam oven. However, I live in a little duplex and do not have the luxury of owning a full steam oven. I put my cast iron skillet on the bottom rack of the oven while the oven preheated. Then, when I put my bread in the oven, I poured water into the cast iron and immediately shut the door. It may not be as crispy as bread made with a fancy oven, but it does the trick for a home baker. :)
I know that this is a super long post filled with a lot of tedious steps, but I promise you that the result is worth it! Spend a Saturday trying out the baguette making process and I don't think that you will be disappointed!
Classic French Baguettes
4 oz water
4 oz bread flour
Pinch of yeast
All of the preferment
1 tsp active dry yeast
9 oz lukewarm water
14 3/4 oz unbleached bread flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1. Dissolve yeast in 4 oz of water and let sit for about 5 minutes, until yeast begins to hydrate.
2. Add the rest of the water to preferment to loosen from container. Pour into large bowl and mix a little to break up preferment. Add salt, mix and then add yeast mixture and mix. Add flour 1 cup at a time, mixing in between until dough forms. (Dough will be very wet and sticky)
3. Knead dough (*see above for artisan technique*) until gluten has developed and dough is smooth.
4. Place in an ungreased bowl and allow to proof for 1 hour.
5. Fold dough: stretch dough horizontally and fold into thirds. Turn dough 90 degrees and repeat one more time.
6. Place dough back in bowl and allow to rise for another hour.
7. Repeat folding process and put dough back in bowl. Allow to rise for a final hour.
8. Turn dough out onto a floured surface. Handling dough very gently, divide into three equal portions. Round into balls, cover with a towel, and allow to bench rest for 15-20 minutes.
9. To shape into baguettes: press dough into small horizontal oval, fold the top down and press into a smile shape. Turn the dough so that smile is at the bottom and repeat. Fold dough in half and seal around the outside (dough will be in a caterpillar/half moon shape). Roll into baguette length.
10. Flour a dish towel or sheet, place shaped baguettes inside, and allow to rise again until 3/4 proofed.
11. Preheat oven to 450 degrees with a cast iron on the bottom rack. When you put bread in, pour water into the cast iron and close the oven door quickly. Turn oven down to 425 degrees and bake for 18-22 minutes.