How to Bake a Perfect Baguette
Baking is really just effort, practice and patience combined with a perfect recipe. Baguettes are a good medium for mastering all three skills.
Like many people, I’ve done more baking in the last few months than in the last few years. I love to bake, and there are a few things that now I feel I am able to do quite well. Pie crust, which I once bought in the refrigerated case at my local market, I now make easily from scratch. There is no comparison. My pie crusts are flakey, light and crisp and melt in your mouth along with whatever filling they are graced to hold.
But today is all about the baguette. This wonder in bread is so much about technique and patience, repetition and intuition. It is a simple recipe, only four ingredients: flour, yeast, salt and water. 3 cups, a half teaspoonful, a healthy pinch and 1 cup and a half (or so) of warm, (warm as in not hot or cold but comfortable) respectfully.
The technique is easy, at first. Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. I use a large bowl with an airtight cover, I’ve had it for years, and until my baguette baking began I used it almost exclusively for salads. It is rarely empty of dough now.
There are some additional tools you’ll need for this recipe: a smooth kitchen towel or pillow case, a spatula or scraper, two lightly oiled baking sheets (I spray with PAM, I am a heretic) a VERY sharp paring knife, and a peel for transfering the baguettes to the cooking pan. If you don’t have a peel (a useful but rarely available piece of kitchen equipment) use a piece of cardboard covered in foil, you will need a kettle or pan to boil some water in and a shallow pan to place at the bottom of your oven to use as a bain-marie. A bain-marie is a fancy name for a shallow pan at the bottom of your oven, or that you place another baking dish in, that is filled with boiling water.
Now back to the recipe. Mix all of your dry ingredients. Add one cup of the water and mix with a sturdy wooden chopstick or the handle of a wooden spoon. The mixture will quickly form into a dough. Make sure all of the flour mixture is incorporated, and add more water if the dough is stiff. It should be somewhat sticky and wetter than you would think for a bread dough. You don’t need to knead this dough. Just leave it alone in the covered bowl for about an hour.
After leaving the dough alone while you do other things, maybe get a pedicure or take a nap or talk to your mother, whom you haven’t called in two weeks, on the phone, go back to it and reintroduce yourself. The dough should be risen to about double its original size and be covered in air bubbles. It should smell of the yeast and be pleasantly light when you punch it down.
And I do mean give it a good punch in its middle so it sinks in on itself to the bottom of the bowl. That felt nice, didn’t it?
Now comes the first technique part of your baguette baking. Using a spatula or a pastry scraper, spend about 5 minutes folding the dough over itself. This isn’t kneading or mixing, it is merely folding. Scrape a section of dough away from the side of the bowl and fold it in toward the center. Do this on all sides at least once, preferably two or three times. Re-cover the bowl and go do something else for another hour.
Maybe you should vacuum the living room or pay a few bills. Take the dog out, mow your lawn, read the next chapter in the new Jodi Picoult novel or watch another episode of the Queens Gambit. I guess what you do while your dough is resting and recovering from your interference is dependent on the type of day you are trying to have.
You will have to do this 2 more times, so it does take up most of your day.
After the third folding and subsequent rising the dough will be a bit different than it was when you started this process. It will be smoother, more elastic, it will have air pockets and will be more willing to stick to itself than to you.
At this point turn the bread out of the bowl onto a floured surface — like your kitchen counter top. Flour the top of the dough as well. You will need to have a kitchen towel handy.
You are ready to get back to paying attention to your dough now. Divide it into 3 equal parts and put two of them aside.
Using your fingertips flatten the first of the 3 dough pieces into a rectangle. Roll it up and tuck the seam and open ends underneath it so it is the shape of a small loaf. Put this aside and do the same with the other two pieces.
Flatten with your fingertips into a rectangle, roll up, tuck and shape. You will have 3 small loaves when you are finished with this step.
Cover these treasures with a light coating of flour, place your kitchen towel over them and leave them alone for half an hour. It would be a good time to take out the trash and gossip with a neighbor. Or transfer your laundry from the washer to the dryer, or read a short article on Medium, check your stats, pluck your eyebrows.
After your well spent half hour go back to your three mounds of dough resting peacefully under their towel. At this point turn on your oven. Yes, it is time, we are getting ready to bake. Set it at 400 Fahrenheit. Did you know that Fahrenheit was a German physicist who also invented the use of mercury in thermometers. I love a good internet search.
Spread the towel you used to cover your dough out next to your work area and sprinkle it generously with flour. Make a little ridge on one horizontal side of the towel. You are going to use this to place your baguettes on while they await their fate in your oven. There are also fancy baking clothes that your can purchase for this purpose, I just use the same old smooth kitchen towel that I’ve had hanging around in a drawer taking up space for years.
Take one of your small bundles, and using the heel of your hand flatten it into a rectangle. It will be about a foot long (maybe a bit longer, size matters) and six to eight inches in width. Roll this up into a long tube, and flatten down the ends and the seam to seal them. Place this gently, seam side down onto your floured towel. Make a ridge in the towel next to this elongated loaf, and do the same with the other two bundles.
Flatten into a rectangle, roll up, seal ends and seam, place onto floured towel. Cover the three baguettes and set a timer or take note of the time, you have 30 minutes until your next required move. What you do during this time is up to you but you must do the following things.
Boil a pot of water. Place the shallow pan in the bottom of your oven. When the water boils, pour it into the pan and close the oven. For some reason, having this bain-marie in the bottom of the oven adds crispness and crustiness to the baguettes.
Your time is up. Now to the main event. Baking!
Carefully roll your baguettes onto your lightly oiled baking sheets. 2 on one sheet, the other gets a single. I use a lip-less cookie sheet to make the transfer, a peel, or a thin piece of wood, like some old luan board, or thick cardboard covered in foil will do the same task. Once placed on the baking sheets you will score your baguettes before escorting them to the oven. Use a SHARP small knife to score them.
Wetting them with a mist of water or a light brushing with water makes scoring easier, and I think may increase the top crustiness of the bread. I do three or four lengthy scores on the center of each loaf.
Into the oven they go for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes I turn the pans, look at the overall color of the loaves and bake for an additional 6 to 8 minutes until they are golden brown, a perfect South Miami tan.
Try to wait to cut into them until they have cooled. Having gobs of softened butter around will help you devour that third loave, which you made because, no one is so perfect that they can resist warm buttery baguettes just out of the oven. The other two will impress even your mother-in-law or that neighbor who complains about your dog’s barking.