How to make a French stick

How to make a French baguette

by rich on August 17, 2011

There’s little more evocative of France, more French in itself, than the baguette.

The sight of people walking quickly home before breakfast, a still-warm baguette tucked firmly under their arm is a common one, such is the baguette’s place in French life.

British-style white-sliced bread stands no chance in France.

There’s tradition involved – no French meal is truly complete without bread - but above that, the baguette is a remarkably practical bread.  Tough, versatile, portable and with a place on just about every French table.

Making your own baguettes is fairly straightforward, especially if you’ve made the odd loaf or two before.  Some of the techniques are different, and you need a gentle hand to help to preserve that all-important open texture, but there’s no mystery to it.  The only real compromise you need to make is on the length…not many people have an oven big enough to bake a full-size baguette, so homemade versions have to be shorter out of necessity.

The only other word of caution is that this particular recipe takes ages to make.

Really.

It’s a two-day job, but the time is an important part of the method.

The recipe is from Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day, and it uses Reinhart’s cold fermentation method.  This means that the dough is allowed to develop very slowly overnight in the refrigerator, and it’s this period of slow growth that gives the finished bread a superb taste and wonderful lightness.

It’s worth the wait.

A mixer will also help, and cuts the mess and involved time in half.  The rest of the time is spent simply waiting.

Weigh 680g of strong white flour, 14g of salt, 7g of instant yeast and 454ml of lukewarm water into the mixer’s bowl, and mix on the lowest speed for a minute to draw the ingredients together into a rough dough.  Use the normal paddle attachment for this, and then switch to the dough hook and let the mixer ‘knead’ the dough on a medium-low setting for two more minutes.

Tip the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead by hand for a minute to finish.  The dough should be tacky, but not too wet or sticky.

You can, of course, do all of this by hand, a mixer just makes it easier.

Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and cover with cling film.  Refrigerate overnight.

The dough will stay in this state for up to four days, so there’s no rush in baking your finished bread.

How to make a French baguette

When you’re ready to bake, the key thing to bear in mind is to be gentle.  The dough will have risen considerably in the fridge, and the gases and air pockets inside are your prize.  It’s these gases and air pockets that will give your bread that characteristically French open texture.

Gently tip the dough out onto a floured work surface, and slice it into four equal chunks.

To form a baguette, pat a portion of the dough into a thick rectangle, and then lift the bottom edge up into the centre, sealing the seam with your fingers.  Next, pull the top edge of the rectangle down over the new seam, right to the bottom and again seal it with your fingers or the side of your hand.  The overlapped dough should have a tight, drum-like skin to it.

At this point, you’ve got a batard, and you could just leave it at that, but the baguette is just a couple of steps away.

Leave the formed batards for ten minutes to rest, and then simply repeat the earlier operation, lifting the bottom edge into the middle and then overlapping the top edge before finally rolling the dough back and forth with your hands, as if it were a rolling-pin, until the baguette rolls out to the length you want.

Lift each baguette onto a lightly floured baking tray, cover with a floured tea towel and leave to prove.

The whole operation from removing the dough from the fridge to putting it in the oven should take no less than two hours, so that the dough has a chance to wake up and spring into life.  I found that I left my baguette’s to prove for about an hour and a half.

To get a good crust, there needs to be heat…a lot of heat, so get the oven on in plenty of time, at the hottest possible setting.  It could take half an hour or more to warm up properly, and you don’t want to be caught with a cold oven.

Another factor in forming a good crust is steam, so place a shallow tray on the very bottom of the oven and let it heat through as the oven warms.

When everything is ready, slash each baguette diagonally three times to a depth of about half an inch, slide the baking trays into the oven, pour a cup of hot water into the tray at the bottom for an explosive blast of steam and shut the door as quickly as possible.

Reduce the heat to 230c and bake for twelve minutes.  Rotate the trays, reduce the heat to 200c and bake for another fifteen minutes, but check after ten.  The baguettes should feel hard, look golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.

Cool on a wire rack for at least three-quarters of an hour before eating.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon August 17, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Like the idea that it keeps for four days so you could split the batch into four and cook one a day over that period.
Great blog, if you ever fancy chatting food over an ale or two at fanny’s drop me an email.
Jon
Eldwick

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rich August 19, 2011 at 6:39 am

Ah, a local!

I haven’t tried splitting the batch and cooking it over a few days, but it would certainly seem to be possible. I’ve tended to simply bake big batches and freeze them, though – they seem to come out of the freezer more or less intact.

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Lindsey@Lindselicious August 17, 2011 at 10:35 pm

Oh I looked at that book the other day, your bread looks delish! I need to get over my bread/yeast phobia and give bread making another try.

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rich August 19, 2011 at 6:38 am

Reinhart’s book is worth buying. His methods are a little different to normal bread making techniques, but the results I’ve had from them have been very good indeed. If you want to have a go at a more straightforward, ‘mix it, rise it, bake it, recipe, have a look at this post – http://www.them-apples.co.uk/2011/01/how-to-bake-bread/ – you can do this in one evening, and it’s a dependable method, too.

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Erin @ Dinners, Dishes and Desserts August 18, 2011 at 1:22 am

I love baguettes! I am going to have to save this recipe for sure. I would love to learn how to make my own.

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Deb Wilson August 18, 2011 at 12:08 pm

I tried to make a sourdough baguette last weekend and failed, so your post is very timely!!! I already make pretty good sourdough bread, but think baguettes, yeast or otherwise, are something I want to conquer. Will give this a try ASAP!! Thanks!!

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Charissa August 18, 2011 at 8:50 pm

I love the top photo SO much! It’s just gorgeous and for a second, I felt like I was in France! :) So perty!

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rich August 19, 2011 at 6:35 am

…that’s actually a back garden in Yorkshire!

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Ann August 19, 2011 at 3:13 am

Stunning – the directions were concise and easy to follow and it makes me want to make some right now…at eleven o’clock at night! BRAVO!

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rich August 19, 2011 at 6:34 am

Funny you should say that…I knocked together another batch fairly late yesterday to bake this morning. It took about 10 minutes with a mixer, probably a bit less. It’s a very quick method, if you discount the significant amount of waiting around involved!

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Deb Wilson @ Thirtyminutes August 20, 2011 at 9:23 am

I did it!! They were (and are) fabulous!! Gave 2 away and kept the others, but will be making these again and again. Thanks, Richard!

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rich August 20, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Excellent. I did a second batch yesterday, which turned out even better than the first (slightly deeper slashes across each loaf made them blister open in a more, well, French way).

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Erica August 23, 2011 at 12:43 am

A dream of mine is to walk around town with a baguette over my shoulder.

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Brittany August 23, 2011 at 11:15 am

Mmm, I love baguettes! I’d really like to try this out, but I don’t have a mixer. Is one definitely needed or is it possible to do it by hand and still have it come out right?

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rich October 14, 2011 at 1:58 am

You don’t need a mixer, but it makes the process a little bit faster. You can get equally good results just by mixing and kneading by hand, so don’t be put off trying.

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Sheila Smith-Taplin October 26, 2011 at 10:59 am

Hi
I have made quite a lot of bread over different recipes, stages, time etc and then cooked in my Aga. i tried this recipe yesterday just minutes after seeing it on this ‘ new web’ i stumbled across. i swear its the quickest no nonsense mix I have done to date and it has made super bread this morning.
Thanks
Sheila
Worcestershire

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Rachel November 19, 2011 at 8:41 am

Trying this now — slightly concerned as the dough didn’t “rise considerably” overnight in the fridge . . . checked the yeast and it’s well within the sell-by date. We shall see!

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Rachel November 19, 2011 at 2:56 pm

I take it all back — great bread! Bit more like a ficelle (sp?) than a baguette but that’s just me being pedantic. Nice one!

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Karen October 2, 2012 at 6:21 pm

Baked some today -they are fabulous. Recipe and instructions very easy. Gave one to my Mum (brownie points) ate 2 for tea with beef stew (hubbie and teenage daughter were v impressed) and put one in the freezer. I was so impressed – they looked just like your picture. Might try sourdough next. Thanks for the recipe.

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Brage September 15, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Great recipe!!! :) im 14 years old and a passionate baker. thank you so much :)

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james September 22, 2013 at 8:08 pm

wow! after 36 hours of the dough lying in my fridge I finally baked the baguettes(trying recipe for the first time) just a few hours ago and have just tasted one 5 minutes ago. Appearance when they came out of the oven was beautiful and bronzed like an edible George Hamilton. The crust was spot on and the inside was light, fluffy and had that authentic French baguette air hole look. The recipe is the very best bread related recipe I have followed. Clearly waiting is not only a virtue but a much needed ingredient in making fantastic baguettes.

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Bill Biggs August 31, 2014 at 9:34 pm

I live in Miami, Florida and your recipe leaves me with a mixture too wet and sticky to
handle. Shouldn’t I take the humidity here into account? On other baguette recipes calling
for one cup of water, I usually use only a little over six ounces with good, but too dense results. My goal is an airier loaf. Any suggestions?

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rich September 1, 2014 at 11:37 am

Bill, It could be the flour that you’re using – different types of flour behave differently, so the one you’ve got might not need as much water. Humidity also does have an affect, in the sense that flour will absorb more water from the air in a very humid environment and therefore weigh out more heavily (ie, it has a higher proportion of water in it before you even start). The fix is trial and error, I’m afraid. i’d suggest adding water gradually as you mix, until you get a good consistency, but have a few tries and take note of the results.

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