Vegan | OMS-Friendly
Baguettes are great because the ratio of crunchy outside and soft centre is just right for every mouthful. When the baguette is sliced five, six or seven times on the top, it creates even more crunch throughout the bread. It’s all about the ratio, with several different kinds of baguette in France. Smaller baguettes react quicker in the oven, expanding, crustier, cooked more, with each having its own flavour as a result. The baguette is most popular due to its supreme ratios.
One of the main issues with baguettes is therefore their easy, quick spoiling due to drying out and losing flavour. Baguettes are best at their freshest – in France, that may be once, twice, or three times per day.
Pick up the baguette and squeeze it lightly – you want it to be crisp, but not too heavy for its size. A good baguette is swollen, but not tense like an airy balloon. The slashes should be wide open, connected in a row, but no dough should have exploded out of them from a mismatch in heat or dough quality. The bread should be baked on a hearth, not in wire, to create a good bottom crust – the loaf will be oval and may twist.
The colour of a good baguette is amber with slight red tints, and has a sheen. The slash crust is paler with brown waves. Slightly browner crust means more flavour, but too much and it could be dry.
The texture of a good baguette is cracked. American baguettes have small blisters which are thought of as defects in France, but allow the baker to rest overnight instead of baking through. They do not affect flavour. The baguette must have small and large holes for good flavour.
A bad baguette
Sadly, bad baguettes are in plentiful supply outside of France. A bad baguette is bloated, dead, and has fine, white bubbles inside the cottony flesh. The brown crust provides almost all the flavour, which disappears within hours of being baked.
As mentioned, fresh is best, and by fresh, we mean hours old. If you need to store baguettes, keep it at room temperature either unprotected or in a paper bag. Slice baguettes no more than ten minutes before eating to avoid drying the bread out.
Flavours that go with bread
- Saucy dishes
- Savoury foods
- Fresh cheeses and butter
Baking baguettes and why it matters so much
A classic baguette dough has only white flour, water, commercial yeast, and salt. The method is very simple, but flavour differences can be quite profound even with small changes. The process of baking bread is that the glutenous dough captures the gases produced during fermentation of the microbes (yeast), and the bubbles inflate, and so the dough rises. Low-protein flour is a better option for the best baguettes, with softer flours being sweeter. A protein range of around 9.5-10.5 per cent is ideal.
American flour is bleached and artificially matured with chemicals to make it more elastic to save time (weeks) in maturing dough. Bleached flour is illegal in France. Unbleached flour retains some of its delicious nutty flavours and some of the carotenoid (yellow) pigments. Flours are all changed by their processing and growing conditions, so smaller, less American milling of flour tends to be better.
Water matters when baking bread, with flavourful dough containing more water – the dough becomes stretchier, allowing bigger bubbles to form, which hold more of the delicious scent. Flavour is trapped in the bubbles. Kneading develops more gluten, which offers texture, but air exposure also reduces flavour – good kneading is therefore a compromise between flavour and texture. Fermentation can create the same impact as kneading, so actually less kneading can be good too.
The fermentation is where science happens. A long, cool fermentation process produces more flavour, with enzymes converting starch into sugar, which is then converted into carbon dioxide and alcohol, then other substances. Malt is added sometimes to add extra enzymes. Dough that reaches between 22 and 24C(71-75F) after five or so hours is about right. Sourdough doesn’t work very well for baguettes, since the crust tends to be thicker. Hand-shaped baguettes retain more bubbles. Slash the tops with a sharp knife after the loaves have risen for the final time.
Once in the oven, steam from the dough and special steam pipes condenses on the dough, speeding up heat penetration and keeping the outer dough layer flexible enough to allow the inside of the bread to expand. At last, the yeast succumb to the heat, after blowing their delightful bubbles in the heat, and the bread expands and bursts. The crust sets, with complex chemistry involved in making it golden and crusty.
A French baguette is always going to be better than an American baguette.