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Kitchen Notes: Baguettes Deconstructed
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PostPosted: Wed Dec 06, 2006 6:33 am    Post subject: Kitchen Notes: Baguettes Deconstructed Reply with quote

Article Digest:
The baguette is at once the simplest of breads and the most difficult to perfect. It is the most demanding test of a bread baker’s skill.

In recent years the secrets of professional bakers have been drifting out to the general population of amateur bakers. Techniques can be gleaned from variety of sources. Bread baking cookbooks today do more then provide recipes; they explore and explain the process. Bread baking courses for amateurs are becoming more popular at professional cooking schools and even being offered by some bakeries. Articles appear in magazine and newspapers with a different take on some aspect of the process.

This article will attempt to distill this wealth of information to present the techniques required to produce a professional looking and tasting baguette. Four elements are considered: flavor, crumb, crust and appearance.

Flavor develops with time. There are several ways to achieve this but long fermentation is necessary to develop the complex flavor of the well made baguette. Two techniques are commonly used to develop flavor; use of a pre-ferment and use of a long (overnight) primary fermentation.

A pre-ferment is a starter that has been developing over time. A simple starter like a Poolish is made by mixing equal weights of flour and water with a pinch of yeast and allowing it to stand at room temperature, covered, at least 24 hours. More complex starter recipes abound that use different kinds of flour, different fermentation times, wild yeast versus packaged yeast, etc. You can also keep a starter going by reserving a little of the unbaked dough from each batch.

The second method used to develop flavor is the long (overnight) primary fermentation or first rising. Most recipes will tell you that the first rising is complete after the dough has about doubled in size. This is reasonable advice for the overnight fermentation as well. To slow down the rising process a slightly cooler dough and smaller quantity of yeast in the dough are necessary. This can also be accomplished by storing the dough for some part of the primary fermentation in the refrigerator.

These two techniques can be combined; a preferment with a long primary fermentation.

The crumb refers to the distribution of holes in the finished bread. The random distribution of holes of various shapes and sizes is desirable in a baguette. This is achieved with high hydration level in the dough and short kneading time. These two factor work together. Kneading is generally required to develop the gluten in the bread. Gluten will also develop over time with shorter kneading time if the dough has sufficient water to allow movement of the gluten strands.

Hydration level of 68 - 75% is recommended. The convention for the ratio of ingredients in bread baking is to relate all ingredient weights to the weight of flour used. Flour weight is always given as 100 %. Water at 70% means that for every 100 grams of flour used in the recipe 70 grams of water is used.

Remember that for a final hydration level of 70% the hydration level of the starter must be included. If a Poolish with 100% water (equal weights water and flour) is used, the dough mix weights must be calculated to achieve a final water of 70%.

Dough with high hydration level can be very sticky and more difficult to work with. Resist the temptation to add flour or work the dough longer.

Professional bakers also make use of a technique called autolyze. The bread dough is mixed, with or without yeast, and without salt just barely long enough to form a wet, sticky dough. Allow the dough to stand in the mixing bowl or kneading surface for from 10 to 30 minutes before adding the salt (and yeast if it has been left out).

Kneading time of 1 - 2 minutes is sufficient if the dough is sufficiently hydrated. It is intuitive that a random distribution of holes and hole sizes in the final bread comes from short kneading time. The more you knead the dough, the more homogeneous the dough will be. This may be desirable in sandwich bread, but not what we want here.

When shaping the final loaves for proofing before baking, do not work the bread more then necessary in order to preserve the air pockets developed during the long slow fermentation.

The crispy, chewy crust characteristic of the best baguettes is a result of the way the bread is baked. The basic design of the professional baking oven includes the following features.

Stone Deck with Low Profile Chamber
Hearth style breads are baked directly on the stone deck. No bread pans are used. Special tools are used to load multiple loaves to the deck. The home baker can approximate baking on the deck by baking on a pre-heated baking stone. Loading loaves to the baking stone is most easily accomplished by forming the loaves on parchment paper and then ferrying them to the oven with a pizza peal or on the bottom of a baking sheet.

The professional baking oven consists of series of decks stacked on top of each other, each accessible via its’ own door. It is in essence a series of low profile ovens stacked one upon the other. The clearance height in the oven is sufficient to load and bake bread, no more.

Steam Injection with Controlled Venting
Bakery ovens have a built in steam generator that allows the baker to inject superheated steam into the oven at the start of baking. This slows down the caramelization of the sugars on the crust and provides for a good final spring in the oven before the crust sets.

The low overhead clearance discussed above also serves to concentrate the steam injected at the start of baking by minimizing the internal volume of the oven chamber.

Part way through the baking process, the baker vents the steam so the bread is finished in a hot dry oven. This combination of steam injection and controlled venting provides the light airy loaves with crispy, chewy crust we expect from the professionally baked baguette.

Attempts to mimic this steam generation with controlled venting have been developed by frustrated home bakers. These techniques range from misting the sides of the oven to pouring hot water into a pan on the lowest shelf in the oven (under the baking stone). These techniques don’t really come close to approximating the steam generated in a professional bread baking oven.

There is a product available from The Steam Maker Bread Baker Company that closely approximates the conditions in a professional baking oven. It combines handheld electric steam generator with a baking chamber that fits into the typical home oven. The baking chamber is a baking stone and lid that contains the steam during the initial part of the baking process. In the interest of full disclosure, this article is written by the President of the Steam Maker Bread Baker Company.

The appearance of the loaves is a result of the formation process, scoring the loaves immediately prior to baking and the actual baking (discussed above). Formation of the loaves requires attention to two somewhat competing goals. First, we want a tight or stretched outer crown to the loaf during final proofing. Second, we want to minimize handling so as to not degas the loaf after the primary fermentation.

The following is one technique that can be employed to shape the loaves into the final desired shape of a 14 inch long, uniform baguette.

Start with 9 – 10 ounces of unbaked dough. Gently flatten the dough into a square approximately 4 x 4 inches. Fold the bottom and top thirds on to the center. After folding each third press the seam together with your fingertips. This begins the process of forming a tight outer surface. Let the dough rest ten minutes at this point.

The dough should look a little like a long roll. The goal now is to elongate that roll to the baguette shape (about 14 - 15 inches long for 9-10 ounces of dough). Form an indent in the loaf along its’ entire length, then fold the dough over lengthwise pressing the ends together to form a seam that runs the length of the loaf. Roll the dough back and forth on the work surface with to form the desired torpedo shape. Repeat the process a second time; fold the dough lengthwise and press the seam together before rolling on the table under both hands. After the second time this process is completed, the loaf should be approaching 14 inches. Finalize the process by rolling to the final desired length.

Note the location of stretched surface of the loaf and the pressed together seam. When the loaves are fully formed and placed on what ever surface being used for the final proofing, the final seam created should be down on the surface and the stretched outer surface will face up.

Keeping in mind the desire to minimize handling of the dough, the process of folding the dough and pressing the ends together should only be done twice. The loaf should be uniform thickness along its entire length so it bakes evenly.

Professional bakers use controlled temperature and humidity environments for final proofing. Misting the loaves and covering loosely with plastic wrap will prevent them from drying out during proofing in an uncontrolled environment. The process of misting and loosely reapplying the plastic wrap may be repeated once or twice during the final proofing, depending on the humidity level in the kitchen and the length of time required to reach the size desired for baking.

The extended primary fermentation time described above will necessitate an extension of typical final proofing time. The loaves should grow by at least half, if not double in size. This can take 1 1/2 to 4 hours. Remember, if you are using the Stream Maker Bread Baker, you will get a good final spring (expansion) in the oven.

Preheat the baking stone in the oven for an hour at 425 - 450 degrees before loading the loaves. Immediately prior to loading the loaves to the oven, score the loaves along the top surface with a razor blade or other very sharp blade. A typical pattern is three diagonal scores that each cover approximately one third of the length of the bread.

Bake the bread until it is a deep golden brown. Do not remove the loaves early. If the Steam Maker Bread Baker is used, follow instruction related to steaming time and the time to remove the lid from the oven in order to finish baking in a hot dry oven.


The Result
Professional bakers spend a long time learning and perfecting their craft. The baguette is among the most difficult of breads to perfect. Do not expect professional results with the first attempt at making baguettes. Like anything else worthwhile the quality of the results achieved at home is determined by the level of effort and amount of time dedicated. The advantage we enjoy today is the wealth of professional level knowledge at our fingertips.

The recipe below will provide a starting point for baking professional baguettes at home.

Starter – Poolish
All purpose flour – 100 grams
Water – 100 grams
Yeast – pinch (0.5 grams)

Mix and let stand at room temperature at least overnight.

Bread dough
All purpose flour – 375 grams
Water – 225 grams
Yeast 1 grams
Salt 10 grams

Final Dough Percentages
Flour – 475 grams – 100%
Water – 325 grams – 68.4%
Yeast – 1.5 – 0.3 %
Salt – 10 grams – 2.1 %

Mix poolish, flour and water until just mixed. There is some disagreement about whether yeast should be added before or after the autolyze. You decide. Let stand for 10-30 minutes. Add salt (and yeast if not added before autolyze) and knead for about 1-2 minutes. Final dough temperature should be 70 degree maximum.

Lightly oil bowl and turn dough to coat with oil. Cover bowl and mist interior of bowl to create humid environment. Let stand 12 - 24 hours. You want dough to about double in size. If dough is expanding too rapidly, process can be slowed by placing in refrigerator for a few hours. You do not want the dough to reach the stage where it collapses due to over-rising.

Remove dough from bowl and divide into three equal parts, each 270 grams (9.5 ounces). Form dough for final baking, proof and bake as described above.

Mark Schimpf is a graduate of the Artisanal Bread Baking Course at the French Culinary Institute in NYC. He has been working on perfecting his baguette for five years. He expects it is a pursuit without end.

by Mark Schimpf
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PostPosted: Thu Dec 07, 2006 8:58 pm    Post subject: Two Questions Reply with quote

Great article. I have two questions though:
1. what type of oil for the bowl?
2. what kind of yeast? does it need to be prepared in any way?
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Posts: 16

PostPosted: Sat Dec 09, 2006 5:03 pm    Post subject: Great Article! Reply with quote

This looks like the great French Bread we use for our po-boy sandwhiches here in New Orleans. I have tried to make it at home with limited success. Mark has provided the solution.

In a related topic, I am trying to reconstruct the recipe for some cheesy, spicy bread sticks I used to enjoy at one of my favorite restaurants which closed 20 years ago. They were that good; I still remember them.

I have the list of ingredients but no instructions about how to prepare the bread sticks. Any suggestions?

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 10, 2006 1:42 am    Post subject: Great Article! A Must Read Reply with quote

The article is a wealth of knowledge on Baguette making. Thanks a lot for sharing it with everyone!
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PostPosted: Tue Dec 12, 2006 2:46 pm    Post subject: Answers to questions Reply with quote


I use a neutral tasting oil like canola or grapeseed. Olive oil might add a little flavor, but that won't necessarily be bad.

I have access to two types of yeast in my local supermarket; instant yeast that comes in indivdual packets or in a glass jar, and cake yeast. Either works fine without activation. If you use cake yeast, crumble it into small particles before adding it to the dough.


I'm afriad I haven't done any work on bread sticks yet, so I'm not sure about the techniques.

Mark Schimpf
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PostPosted: Wed Dec 13, 2006 4:16 pm    Post subject: Breadsticks Reply with quote

The only way I know how to make breadsticks is to roll some dough into a flat square and then slice that square into narrow sticks. I'd use a lightly oiled pizza-cutter for that operating. Then you can give the sticks a twist or two as you transfer them to a parchment-covered cookie sheet, let them rise (proof), and bake them.

Before you transfer them to parchment, you could sprinkle whatever toppings/coatings you want on them; cheese/salt/spices, etc. Now, if they came coated with cheese, then that probably just got added later and melted on.

Since huge airholes aren't necessarily desireable in breadsticks, I'd give them a slightly longer knead than the above recipe calls for.
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PostPosted: Fri Dec 15, 2006 6:10 pm    Post subject: Steam Reply with quote

Very good article. I just have some comments about steam. I'm sure your steam gadget is effective and handy, but the old French didn't have steam injection any more than the home baker does. Steam injection is a professional convenience, not a necessity.

In the old days bread was baked in brick ovens. They have a low profile with a bit of a dome in the back. Precisely what wonderful things this does for bread is complicated (see The Bread Builders book), but basically involves heat and steam. If the surrounding area is small enough and doesn't let the steam escape, the bread emits enough steam without any injection. You can approximate both heat and steam effects of a brick oven with what I will call a generic cloche. There is a product called La Cloche, which is a ceramic plate and dome. There are cheaper things you can do with what you have on hand which are cheaper, e.g. turning over a stoneware baker onto a pizza stone or unglazed quarry tiles, or using a dutch oven, etc. For venting you just remove the lid/cover. This works quite well and depending on what you already have can be more affordable and/or convenient than a unitasker or building a brick oven. :-) Shape can be an issue here, especially if you want long baguettes.
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PostPosted: Mon Dec 18, 2006 5:31 am    Post subject: Amateur tip. Reply with quote

My dad and I are amateur bakers, and I do what he does-- a few minutes into the baking, say, halfway through, I toss a few icecubes into the bottom of the oven. I'm pretty happy with the results.
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PostPosted: Mon Dec 18, 2006 12:33 pm    Post subject: beat an egg white? Reply with quote

Back in the 80's I bought a (horrors!) bread machine that managed to walk itself off the table and bent the domed lid*. After that it was pretty much useless for the baking end of the process, but still worked fine for mixing and kneading.

In the recipe book that came along with the machine was a French bread recipe that I used quite often for pizza dough. Along with the usual suspects: flour, yeast, water, salt, it also called for one beaten (stiff) egg white. incorporated into the mix after the other ingredients started blending.

Best pizza crust I've ever managed to produce and the crumb was exactly as you describe even after only one rising.

*Set your machine on a damp dish towel to keep this from happening to you.
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PostPosted: Tue Jan 02, 2007 4:55 pm    Post subject: Steam Reply with quote

The purpose of injecting steam at the start of the baking process is twofold. First is to slow down the process of setting the crust to give the bread a good spring in the oven. Second is to give the bread a thin crispy crust. Breads baked without steam tend to be a little denser and have a thicker, chewier crust. Neither of these things is necessarily bad. It depends on what you are looking for.

Many techniques have been developed to attempt to simulate the effects of steam injection; ice cubes or hot water in a pan in the bottom of the oven at the start of baking, misting the oven several times in the first few minutes of baking, and covering the bread with bakeware to capture the moisture lost from the bread are a few of the techniques that you commonly see suggested. All of these techniques have some effect on the spring and crust, just not as much as true steam injection.

An earlier post suggested that bread baked in stone or brick ovens of a certain design accomplishes the same thing that the steam injection incorporated into the modern professional baking oven does. I have no first hand knowledge of this, but I it raises an interesting question about the evolution of the modern professional baking oven. I will do some research on this.

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 22, 2007 12:20 am    Post subject: Thanks & kneading info Reply with quote

I love your site! I've spent all afternoon wading through recipes and then discovered this baguette one.

Even with years of baking at home I would hardly have considered myself an expert, I suppose because I usually made the same old whole wheat loaf. When I tried to expand to a heavier, European-style rye, I discovered King Arthur, a 200+ yr old flour company from Vermont. By chance they held free baking classes near home in Missouri this past fall and I took both the sweet yeast dough and artisan bread classes. I discovered that Id been doing it all wrong all my life. I couldn't even measure flour right, much less knead properly.

Their version of measuring flour was not to sift nor to scoop. Barring a scale, their preferred method was to sprinkle the flour over the measuring cup and then scrape it level. Id always been a little mystified by bread recipe variations of flour quantities, based on humidity, etc. Well, they only added maybe 2/3 to 3/4 of a recipes flour and then started mixing. Flour was then added as needed JUST until the batter would hold together enough to lift in one lump out of the bowl with the odd wisk they like to use. There was usually a fair amount of flour left over from what *I* previously would have automatically added to a batch. Less flour is better - especially for the artisan breads, regardless of how moist the dough still is as far as handling was concerned. This directly matches your explanation about having a highly hydrated dough for the baguettes. Makes sense!

King Arthurs artisan dough kneading was a definite revelation. Flour hands, then using just the thumb and forefinger hang the wet mess of a dough above the board. Instead of "kneading" let it drape over itself into a pile. Rotate a quarter turn, lift and repeat. You just about have to see it being done. The idea is to develop an outside shell that is barely dry enough to handle by maintaining its continuity. Keep hands floured; don't go wash them off and get them wet!

Finally, the old story about punching down a dough definitely doesnt hold here. After the first rise, roll it out of the bowl onto a board and gently pat it down. This puts the yeast in contact with the gluten again and moves out some of the waste products. Itll start rising again fairly quickly then. You gave a great description of folding the dough and shaping the baguette, but I think most folks would benefit from *seeing* the initial kneading done at least once. I know I need to see it again. Sigh!

Oh, it was also the first time I'd seen a thermometer used to tell when bread was done baking...another revelation for me.

Im certainly not that great at explaining, because it was such a change in techniques for me. Folks might enjoy checking out KA's website: Theres DVDs of the classes available, if anyone wants to watch the dough handling techniques. (They also have great flours - even organic, specialized baking ingredients, and all kinds of fun-looking gadgets that are beyond MY budget. Smile )

Oh, that help for rye bread I was looking for? Turns out the oh-so- accomplished King Arthur instructor said, Oh. Thats a really specialized craft and beyond my capabilities. Youd better check out our web site. Our head baker does rye and theres an international community on the forum who can offer help. Sigh! So, thats a yet-to-be-achieved goal for me.

Thanks again for all the cooking insight you offer. I've learned a lot this afternoon.
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 29, 2007 4:37 am    Post subject: Freezing baguettes? Reply with quote

Is there anyway to freeze baguette dough for future baking?
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PostPosted: Tue Jul 10, 2007 3:19 am    Post subject: question about seam side down for proofing Reply with quote

Hi, I've been reading your page with interest, and I'm a little confused about your method for proofing, in particular regarding the seam, which side is up or down.... It's always been my understanding that one proofs with the seam side up (in a baset or a couche), and then when one is ready to bake, the dough is flipped onto the peel, thereby putting the seam side at the bottom of the dough which is then loaded into the oven.

How do you move the proofed dough from the surface where it's proofing to the peel If you're proofing with the seam side down?

Thanks for any remarks and comments.
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PostPosted: Wed Nov 21, 2007 4:29 pm    Post subject: The Fresh Loaf Reply with quote

Excellent article on baguettes, thank you. I just wanted to point anyone interested to a very active forum for home bread bakers:

Happy baking!
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PostPosted: Fri Jul 18, 2008 6:18 am    Post subject: baguette Reply with quote

I'm using with great success the recipe from King Arthur Flour website, which is very similar to yours (1:1 water/flour ratio for the poolish and 2:3 overall).

With a twist though: half the poolish flour is replaced with semolina. IMHO the semolina flour adds to the baked baguette a subtle sweetness; don't know the theory behind, but the results are interesting. It's worth trying.

Happy baking!
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