The light and airy baguette, such flavour, with its crisp and delicate crust encircling the creamy soft crumb, is a remarkable bread – provided it is fresh.
History of the baguette
The rise of the baguette as the popular Parisian bread style occurred in the 1920’s. For a long time before that the prized style of bread was called Vienna bread, which was made with the batter-like sponge called a poolish. Vienna bread involved refined white flour, and the baking in ovens with sloping floors that efficiently trapped around the bread the blanket of steam which had been injected into the oven. The crust was superb, and the bread had adequate flavour since the poolish sponge method created organic acids during the 3 to 8 hours that the baker allowed the sponge to mature. While being complex, the flavour was without the sharper acidic tang of sourdough bread (still known as French bread), which had been pushed to the background by the sweetness of the Vienna bread.
During the 1920’s the country was pulling away from the deprivations of the First World War. After years of coarse bread refined white flour was again available, and the public wanted a return to the availability of Vienna bread. But things were shaken up by the bakers, who wanted a change from the committed work and clutter in their bakeries of the sponge system. They wanted to move to the relative ease of making bread with no sponge or levain at all. Hence there was a new method born called fabrication en direct, what here in England we would call the direct “straight dough” method, also known as “scratch baking”. The baguette was fitted into this new method, and was a great success, soon to become a hallmark of Paris and the northern cities. It must be pointed out that in the early decades of fabrication en direct the bakers did a good job. Fermentation was not shamelessly rushed, lasting for several hours – at least three, sometimes five – giving flavour and character to the bread. They still had fantastic ovens, the legacy of the Vienna bread era, ovens of solid construction with steam injection. The baguette was to remain a wondrous thing until the 1950’s when the rot set in, with instant dough and spurious chemicals – like here in Britain. But that’s another story.
My approach to the baguette is to claim that the most delightful version is achieved from the overnight poolish method. The poolish that has fermented for such a long time will have generated organic acids that assure good flavour, and you will get that appealing contrast between crust and inner crumb. Further, the long-fermenting poolish means that the bread will not stale as quickly as bread made by the scratch method. The one area where British people seem to be let down by the baguette is its proneness to dry quickly. There are several reasons for this rapid staling: it is a light bread, featuring an open, large-holed structure, and with Its slender shape it has a high ratio of surface to volume. Another major cause is that French flour has lower protein than the flours prepared by British millers, making the French flours weaker and softer. Bread made with flour of a low protein count always produces bread that stales quicker than bread made with strong flour which has the ability to produce higher quality gluten which retains moisture in the crumb.
Before beginning, let me draw to your attention my advice for students, and particularly beginners, that urges you to work with 1 kg of flour (or half a kilo) since it permits at a glance the budding baker to know the percentages of other components of the recipe in relation to the flour. When you are mastering these different shapes and techniques of French breads you will be glad to know exactly how much water you have used, and expressing it as a percentage of the flour is the baker’s way, and the maths is very easy when everything relates to the metric system, 1000 gm of flour.
Here are your starting guidelines:
- In this baguette recipe we are going to settle for 70% water absorption, 700 ml to the kilo of flour. (Some breads have it higher, many have it lower).
- It is common practice by French bakers and other devotees of the poolish system that the amount of flour taken away to be used in the overnight poolish should be 25%, being 250 gm here.
- Nothing is rigid, but it is normal that a poolish should have equal weight of flour and water, hence for the 250 gm of flour there will be 250 ml of water.
- For flour, do not select the strongest bread flour which has protein of 12-13%. It will be too strong to make an authentic-seeming baguette. The French baguette flour is T55, which has protein barely higher than 11%. If you only have very strong flour on hand, soften it by putting in a quarter of plain flour when you weigh up your 1 kg.
- More yeast added when dough-making. This is one of the benefits of the sponge system of work. You can add more yeast so that the breadmaking event can be fitted into 6 – 7 hours
Baguette by poolish method
The poolish sponge
- 250 gm flour
- 250 ml water (room temperature)
- ½ gm (ambient) – 1gm (refrigerator) yeast. Halve these figures if dried yeast. The ½gm of fresh yeast is about the size of a green pea. In dried yeast the amount is one-eighth of a teaspoon.
Mix together thoroughly and leave for either 12 – 15 hours (or at least overnight), allowing it to sit in a covered bowl at room temperature; or, if you favour the chilled method, use the higher amount of yeast and refrigerate after a few hours when there are surface bubbles
Add the sponge to:
- 750 flour
- 450 ml water – merely warm, about 20 – 25 degrees. The finished dough should be 22-24C
- 18-20 gm salt
- 7 -10 gm yeast (approx 1% of the new flour). Halve this for dried yeast.
Knead it thoroughly, until it has a uniform texture with easily stretched gluten.
Leave it to approximately double in size, something like three hours. During roughly the first half of its bulk proof period, it will benefit from two folds. The first fold can occur after about half an hour, but before the first hour is up. The second fold should happen when it displays small bubbles like tiny blisters pushing up on its surface. If it is in a see-through container allowing you to look sideways at its gas bubble formation, there will be myriads of tiny bubbles visible. While performing the folds, be careful not to tear gluten strands.
When it is ready (at about 3 hours) it will display larger bubbles the size of match heads dispersed throughout. Now it is ready for you to weigh the pieces, rest, shape, and prove – final proof may take a further hour. To fit them into a domestic oven, each will have to be only 150 gm. They are weighed at 300-350 gm for full scale bakers’ ovens.
Wait for them to grow half as big again, slash them and bake at 225 degrees C (domestic oven) or in a hot commercial oven for 20 – odd minutes.