What Is a Baguette?
Bread is a staple of many destinations we offer for our food tours and cooking vacations, and perhaps the best examples of this are France and Italy, where bread making is a true art. In France, the classic and famous baguette is perhaps one of the most instantly identifiable culinary products in the world.
So what is a baguette? A baguette is basically defined by three things:
- a long, thin loaf shape
- a lean dough (not enriched with milk, eggs, etc., but a simple recipe of water, flour, salt, and yeast)
- a crisp crust
The Baguette Shape
A classic baguette is a couple feet long and only a couple inches in diameter, although you can find shorter or longer versions. When buying it in France they’ll wrap paper around the middle so you can put it under your arm. The word “baguette” means wand or baton, which perfectly describes the shape of the loaf.
Part of what makes a baguette a baguette is the method of baking, which traditionally includes the use of steam. This allows the loaf to expand in the oven during the baking process, creating a lighter crumb. It also aids the formation of the distinctive crust, which is crisp to the point of hardness at times.
The traditional baguette loaf is made from only four ingredients, flour, water, yeast, and salt. The yeast can be from a pre-ferment or starter yeast, or from commercial yeast. Our favorite baguette recipes is the Pain a l’Ancienne recipe from American master baker Peter Reinhart. The recipes could not be more simple!
Pain a l’Ancienne Baguettes
- 27 oz bread flour
- 2 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 3/4 tsp yeast
- 19 to 24 oz ice-cold water
Mix the ingredients by hand or in a stand mixer. The dough will be sticky, too sticky to knead, but should release from the sides of the bowl. Put in oiled bowl, cover, and let rest in the refrigerator overnight.
The next day, remove from the fridge and let sit for a couple hours until it comes to room temperature.
Handling the dough very gently and using plenty of flour, stretch the dough into an oblong shape, then divide into 4 to 6 even pieces with a knife or pastry scraper, gently forming baguettes without degassing the dough. Place the baguettes on a piece of parchment paper for easy transferring to the oven.
Pre-heat the oven to 550 degrees with a pizza/bread stone on the lower rack, and place an empty pan on the top rack. Gently score the tops of the loaves, then bake according to Reihhart’s simulated steam stacked baking oven, namely by putting a cup of boiling water in the empty pan on the top rack and spraying steam into the oven with a spray bottle during the first few minutes of baking. Lower the over to 475 degrees and bake 18-25 minutes, rotating as necessary. (You will likely need to bake the loaves in 2 batches.) Remove from the oven and cool on a rack.
What is your favorite way to eat a baguette? With butter and jam, olive oil, creamy French cheeses? We like it in any of these ways, and plain as well!
By Peg Kern
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