Baguettes are, at once, one of the most simple of breads, and one of the most complex to make, yet can provide the most satisfaction throughout the entire path to their final creation and ultimate devouring. Synonymous with the French and French Cuisine1, the baguette is a long thin loaf of bread, made from a so-called lean dough. The dough, not the shape of the baguette, is enshrined in French law. Baguettes can be as much as a metre in length, and typically two inches, or slightly more, in diameter. Though for the home baker, the length is limited by the size of domestic ovens, and so 40cm or thereabouts is usually the limit.
Making Zen Baguettes
Making bread, and baguettes in particular, is not a simple mechanical task of following instructions, it is a Zen-like experience within which the mind must become focused and as one with the dough, the ingredients, and ultimately the final baked loaf. The entire bread making process is able to focus the mind and provide ample room for contemplating and meditating on both the bread and the wider world. For although making bread can often take quite a long time, most of this time is spent waiting, while dough rises, and, in particular, during these special moments of time the Zen-baker can open their mind and contemplatively examine the world, and the essence and true nature of bread.
The bread has a crisp, crusty exterior and a soft chewy inside, most typically being made of pure white bread flour. Home made, or artisan bakery baguettes, should have an uneven inner texture, with variation in size and distribution of air pockets. Supermarket bought, or mass-produced loaves tend to have a more even crumb structure, which can affect the texture, taste and mouth feel. Some supermarket, or mass-produced baguettes, often with alternative names such as 'French stick', contain oil to extend shelf life, and hence are not baguettes in the strict sense. A ficelle is basically a very thin version of a baguette, made using the same ingredients and technique.
The lean dough is as simple as a bread dough can be, consisting only of water, flour, yeast and salt. Sugar is also commonly used in activating the yeast, though strictly speaking it is an unnecessary step, but it is useful both to activate the yeast and ensure the yeast is alive and working as it should be2. The dough contains no fat or oil, a key feature in ensuring the baguette has and retains a crusty exterior, and especially the crusty top, with the sliced cuts running down the length of the baguette. However, the lack of fat in baguettes means they have a very short shelf life. A typical French bakery will normally bake baguettes twice daily, your baguette bought in the morning may well be stale by mid-afternoon. Moreover, the Zen baguette, although marvellous in its freshness, can undergo transformation as it makes for the most wondrous toast, one or even more days after it was initially created. Additionally, a few days old baguette can be sprayed with water and baked in the oven for 12 to 15 minutes to re-enliven it, but then it must be eaten immediately. Alternatively, baguettes a few days old can be turned into garlic bread, or made into croutons.
Despite the simplicity of the ingredients in a baguette, making them represents a serious challenge to home bakers and professional bakers alike, and many have spent quite some time perfecting their baguette-making skills. The path to the desired end, of baguette perfection, may be a long, and at times frustrating process, and it must be with inner focus and determination that the home baker embarks on this quest to transform the ingredients into the final finished Zen baguette. Both the end of the path, in the final Zen baguette, and the journey itself, are honourable and rewarding.
In contrast to the simplicity of the ingredients there are many varied methods for making baguettes, which are often quite complex themselves in order to reach the desired culmination of the path to baguette utopia. It is thought that baguettes, as we understand them today, did not really exist in France until the advent of the so-called deck oven, an oven into which steam can be 'injected'. Steam is one of the vital ingredients required to make authentic baguettes, as it is crucial in the formation of the correct thickness and crustiness of the loaf's outer surface. The home baker can attempt to emulate the conditions within a commercial oven by several means, and the recipes below all involve using steam in the process. Before getting to the recipes themselves, we shall first look at the individual ingredients, and other aspects of the process in more detail.
Traditional Zen baguettes should be made with the French T55 flour (type 55), which, unlike normal strong bread flour, has a lower protein content and a slightly rougher texture to it, due to a slower milling process. This also causes less damage to the starch in the flour. Strong bread flour can be used, but the results will be somewhat different, though often this type of flour can make an easier dough to work with.
Most breads have a very similar list of ingredients, and so differences in methodology accounts for a lot of the variation between different types of bread. However, one of the key differences is the level of hydration, ie the percentage of water used in the recipe. Perhaps it is not surprising as water is the second largest ingredient in the dough. For baguettes hydration is typically between 66% and 76%. To understand how hydration percentages work it is easier to express information on the quantities using the so-called 'Bakers' percentage' method of measuring ingredients by their relative proportions. Bakers' percentages are discussed below.
Dough for baguettes is probably at a higher level of hydration than most home bakers have used in other bread recipes. This of course produces a wet and sticky dough. However, it is important not to add too much flour while working with the dough, as this will reduce the hydration level of the bread and of course affect the destination of your baguette journey. 66% is often regarded as the typical hydration for baguettes, and it is certainly the best point to start. However, the Zen-baker may wish to experiment over the course of their journey, and raise this in stages, up to 75% or more, to discover the changes in their baguettes this instills. There is a recipe (not included here) for baguettes with up to an 80% hydration, a similar hydration to that used for making Italian bread such as ciabatta. Ultimately the Zen-baker will discover which level of hydration will work best for them, in their own personal relationship with their baguette. It is important to remember that atmospheric conditions affect hydration and other stages of the path; very dry air can mean more water is required, while humid or wet conditions can mean a wetter dough results than would have in drier conditions. Temperature and humidity also affect rising, especially how long it takes, so the Zen-baker learns to recognise when their dough is sufficiently risen, irrespective of what the clock may say.
Salt is one of the four essential ingredients for leavened bread (flour, water yeast and salt), and has important functions, affecting not just the flavour of the finished loaf, but also:
- reduces dough oxidation, which otherwise degrades carotenoid pigments in the flour which contribute to flavour and crumb colour
- affects texture, making dough less sticky and 'stronger'
- affects shelf life of the finished loaf – making it stay fresher longer in dry environments, but making it stale quicker when conditions are humid
Yeast is the micro-organism most responsible in bread making for producing the carbon dioxide which, when trapped in the matrix of gluten strands, is responsible for giving bread its texture. Yeast can also add to the flavour of bread, both by the yeasty flavour itself and other by-products of the fermentation process. In addition to yeast, lactobacilli, other bacteria, and also some types of fungi may have a role in both adding to the flavour, and in producing carbon dioxide. Micro-organisms other than yeast have a more important role when looking at so-called sourdoughs, where a natural culture of micro-organisms, rather than an isolated culture of yeast, is used. There are three main types of yeast the home baker will commonly encounter:
Fresh yeast can be used, but may prove problematic as it can vary in its effectiveness depending on age and other factors, so will often produce variability between batches of bread making.
Instant dried yeast tends to be more expensive than active dried yeast, and is really designed for use in bread machines. As it does not require activation, it can be added into the bread machine with the other dried ingredients.
Active dried yeast, unlike instant dried yeast, requires activation before use. Yeast is added to water, with a small amount of sugar to 'activate' the yeast and start the fermentation process. Active dried yeast typically has a shelf life of three months once opened.
Instant dried yeast is very useful for the home bakery as it is more readily available than fresh yeast, and can be stored (for a limited time) in the kitchen cupboard. It produces consistent results between different batches of baking. Active dried yeast has the advantage of being cheaper, and the process of activating it allows the baker to immediately see that the yeast is active, working and fermenting as it should, prior to using the yeast in each batch.
Closely linked with time, another key ingredient in baguettes, attitude is probably the most important ingredient of all. One must have an open attitude. Do not give in to any frustration on awkward baguette batches, and be able to adapt to the dough on any given day. Give it more time or space when required, knead more gently or aggressively as and when the dough calls for this, use the slightest, most gentle of touches when shaping, yet provide sufficient force to reach the desired goal. As your dough stretches, the gluten strands elasticity pulling back, drawing the dough inward on itself, the guiding touch of your hand must gently coax the strands, tease and direct them to allow the Zen baguette to take its typical form. Forcing, aggressively, working not with the dough but against it, will destroy the gluten strands, de-gas the dough, and destroy the structure and texture of the dough, lovingly developed during bulk fermentation. While working co-operatively with the dough, as one with it, understanding its movement, its own desires, will ultimately produce compromise, and the baguette will form. It is attitude which separates the Zen-baking master from the Zen-baking novice, whose path towards the baguette, and hence their Zen, has only just begun.
In bakers' percentages, the amount of flour in any given recipe is taken as being 100%, and all other ingredients are relative to this; so in a recipe using 1,000g flour, a 66% hydration would involve the use of 660g water, and similarly, using the typical 2% salt as found in baguettes, would be 20 grams of salt. Using this method is very useful for scaling up and down the total amount of dough, and hence the total amount of end product you wish to create.
Zen Baguette Tools
There are several tools and instruments one needs to make Zen baguettes, some of which most cooks will already have.
Although many bread and baguette recipes seem to favour using separate bowls, one to make the poolish in, and then another to mix the dough into which the poolish is tipped, this method generates a lot of waste dough, and seems unnecessary. One large, and preferably heavy (so it doesn't move about when you're mixing in it) bowl, is all you really require. Earthenware seems to work best due to its inherent weight. Be careful to ensure that if you are following recipe two below, that the bowl can fit into your refrigerator.
Dough scrapers seem initially to be very over-priced little pieces of plastic, but are probably the most useful tool one can have. They can be used to scrape out bowls, scrape dough off the work surface and off your hands, used to lift and transport portions of dough, and can be invaluable if using the 'fold method' to knead a wet dough (such as in recipe two). They come in several sizes; the larger ones are most useful, but having a couple of different sized ones can be handy too. Plastic and metal versions are available.
Baguette trays exist in several different forms, the simplest are just oblong-shaped one-or-so inch deep trays, and aren't particularly useful over having a selection of ordinary oven/baking trays. Of most use are the perforated baguette pans/trays; these have holes in the metal from which the trays are constructed. They are shaped correctly for baguettes, typically having two 'grooves', allowing two baguettes to be made in each tray. These are usually 39cm long (a size which will fit into most domestic ovens), although, of course, far larger versions exist for the professional bakery and their larger deck ovens.
Duck bills. Yes, really. Every Zen baguette maker should have a duck bill. Or, in the French, a Bec de Canard. This is the name given to a sharply curved and hooked knife, which is one version of the French knife for scoring bread, generically termed a lame. A lame is a blade used to slash the tops of bread, including baguettes, immediately prior to the loaf or baguettes entering the oven. A lame can either be of this curved/hooked shape, or as is more commonly seen (in the UK at least), a straighter razor blade-style knife. However, some Zen baguette followers achieve good results using a very sharp and finely serrated knife instead.
A microwavable Pyrex-style (or similar) bowl is useful for measuring water, as you can then heat this in the microwave before tipping the water into the mixing bowl, and adding yeast/sugar to it.
A set of measuring spoons is very inexpensive, and useful for ensuring you can accurately measure very small amounts (like ¼ of a teaspoon) of yeast.
Things like wooden spatulas and the usual stuff every kitchen has are useful. Cooling racks are handy; stackable ones are available if you get towards the small home industry level of Zen-baguetteism.
Autolyse is a process by which some of the ingredients for your baguette are mixed and left to sit for a length of time (usually about half an hour). Typically the ingredients in the autolyse would include everything except for the salt, and in some cases the yeast as well. The function of the autolyse period is to allow gluten formation to begin in the absence of salt, which has various chemical effects on the process, and during which the flour is able to become hydrated to the maximum amount possible, facilitating subsequent stages of the path.
Flavour is, of course, of crucial importance to your baguette creation. Flavour develops with time, as do thoughts and true inner peace of the mind, and there are two main methods by which to achieve this.
- Use a long, overnight primary fermentation (usually at a low temperature)
- Use a pre-ferment (either a poolish or a biga)
However, it is also possible to combine these two methods, though this can turn the process of making a baguette into a two, or three day long process. For the true Zen master this is the preferred method and, of course, is usually able to produce a very tasty final baguette, though often the road to the final baguette is more important than the destination of the finished loaf.
The methods below are a culmination of several years following and being as one with the path to creating a zen baguette. They adopt those techniques which have over time proven themselves able to facilitate the journey, and create the desired end result. At the end of the recipe alternatives are discussed, to alter the process, or different techniques to try. Each path to the baguette is different, and each person on this path is different, so what may be ideal for one person's journey to the baguette, may not necessarily work as well for another. Much of the process can be altered, not necessarily for the good, by very subtle changes in the way different stages are performed. It is, therefore, important to document any discoveries during your journey, so that you may learn from them, and either ensure not to repeat the act if it alters the destination deleteriously, or, conversely, ensure the technique is used every time during the journey if the technique has beneficial effect on the path's destination.
- 900g strong white bread flour (100%)
- 600g water (approx 66%)
- 18g salt (2%)
- 3¼ teaspoons yeast
- A little sugar to activate the yeast
Day one, make the poolish:
Measure out 300g of water, tepid, but not hot, and add to this a little sugar (about a teaspoon), and dissolve. Add ¼ teaspoon of active dried yeast, and while it activates a little, measure out 300g of the white flour (33%). Mix the flour into the yeast/water mix, creating liquid batter, don't worry about lumps or making it smooth, just ensure all the flour is incorporated into the batter.
The poolish from the night before should be very much alive, bubbling and increased in size, and exhibiting a slightly peculiar smell. You should name your poolish4. Measure out the remainder of the flour (600g). Put the remainder of the water (300g) in a small bowl and adding and dissolving a little sugar as before, add in approximately 3 teaspoons of active dried yeast. Leave for five minutes to activate.
Tip the activated yeast/water into the poolish from day one, stir it in, then start adding the remainder of the flour, mixing it in well. Once all the flour is mixed into the poolish/yeast, it should have a vaguely shaggy texture. This is not yet time to knead, instead, cover and leave the dough for half an hour to autolyse. This step allows the flour to soak up all of the water, and also starts a chemical reaction which aids in later stages with gluten formation.
It is then time to add the salt to the dough. The easiest way to do this is tip the dough out onto the worktop, sprinkle the salt on top, then fold the dough over it, and just start kneading. This will ensure the salt is distributed throughout the dough evenly. Kneading is an awkward process to describe, but really all you're trying to do is ensure everything is evenly mixed together, and getting the process of gluten formation underway. The gluten is essential to the structure of the bread, as it helps trap the gas which will form during fermentation/rising. Wetter doughs (with higher hydration), can be problematic to knead. Some try doing it by hand, but this causes wet hands. Another method involves 'folding' the dough over, using a large spatula or dough scraper, and repeating this action many, many, times.
Do not under- or over-knead the dough. It will undergo a change in texture in your hands. Five to ten minutes into the kneading it should be apparent, and this will probably be sufficient kneading, though being able to judge this well will only come with time.
Place the kneaded dough into a large bowl and leave to rise for 45 minutes. After that time tip the dough out onto the worktop, and gently fold it over. Take the back edge and bring it three quarters towards the front edge, then fold the front edge towards the back and over the edge of the crease. Repeat this for the left and right hand sides. Try to even out the creases where it is folded, return it to the bowl, seam side down. Although baguettes should contain no oil/fat, it is often useful to lightly oil the bowl. Using an oil spray is handy so as not to affect the dough too much.
After a further 45 minutes repeat this fold, removing approximately half the increased bulk in the dough on each occasion. Leave another 45 minutes, then it is time to start constructing the baguettes. By now the dough should be approximately twice or more times its original size after it began on the three bulk fermentations/rises. Rising times are dependant both on humidity and temperature so will vary depending on the weather on any given day.
Creating the Baguettes
Divide the dough into four equal portions, roughly shape into sausage shapes, dust lightly with flour, then leave to rise for approximately 20 minutes. After the dough has rested and risen slightly, start shaping each into a baguette of the desired length, trying not to lose too much of the gas collected thus far inside the dough. Tease the shape out, work with the dough, don't fight against it, as the gluten attempts to contract the baguettes as they form.
Place the baguettes onto perforated baguette pans5, and let rise until they have reached the correct size, particularly in terms of the thickness of the baguettes; they won't necessarily extend much more in length during this final rise.
Before the baguettes have finished rising turn the oven on as high as it will go. Ensure the oven shelves are suitably spaced to allow the trays to fit in easily. Take an old deep oven/roasting tray and pour in a good amount of boiling water. Carefully place this in the bottom of the oven to generate steam6.
Scoring the Baguettes
Slicing overlapping long lines down the top side of the baguette is not only an ascetic touch to give the finished baguette the typical well-known appearance, but also serves a few other extra functions.
It provides room for the controlled expansion of the baguette, as it first enters the oven and undergoes oven spring; a short period of rapid rising, caused by the heat of the oven creating rapid yeast fermentation, which ends when the heat destroys the yeast.
Gives the baguette a lighter inner crumb texture, due to the oven spring effect.
Scoring also facilitates a slowing down of the formation of the crust on the top surface, which allows for the starch on the surface of the baguette to gelatinise, and thereby produce a nice shiny crust.
Spray the baguettes with a lot of water, until they are really quite wet. This helps with scoring, and also with oven spring and proper crust formation. The condition of the dough, the amount of steam used during baking and the scoring technique all affect the quality of scoring and oven spring, and therefore of crust and 'ear' formation. If gluten formation is too strong within the baguette dough, then the gluten at the site of scoring will not open well during oven spring. Conversely, if dough is not sufficiently well developed, the blade used to score will 'snag' on the dough, and this may deflate it. Too much or too little steam may also result in cuts which do not fully open during oven spring.
Taking a very sharp, finely serrated knife or lame (wet the tip of the knife between each cut), score three intersecting lines down the long length of the baguettes. To do this, the lame (or knife), should be held between a 30-45° angle to the surface of the baguette, and aim to cut into them to about a quarter of an inch depth (0.6cm). Make fast, confident cuts, no hesitation at all, line the blade up and cut quickly in a single motion. Don't stop mid-cut if it goes a bit off course, as that would be worse than a half or slowly-done score. Simultaneously be gentle and work with the dough. Do not work against the dough and/or press down, let the knife do the work, and partly let the dough determine the blade's course through it. This technique is tricky to get the hang of at first, but after about the 1,542nd baguette you've scored you'll probably be able to do it automatically. Score the baguettes immediately prior to putting them into the oven.
Cooking the Baguettes
Place the baguettes in the oven on the top shelf, trying not to burn yourself with the hot steam the oven is now full of. After 15 minutes check the baguettes are cooking evenly, turn the trays around if necessary, and spray the baguettes again with water. After a further five minutes, carefully remove the water/steam pan from the bottom of the oven, and let the baguettes continue to cook until they are done. The total cooking time can vary considerably, but it's usually somewhere between 20 and 25 minutes. Let the baguettes cool on a rack, then eat while they're fresh, which is usually only for about two hours after baking7.
Recipe 2 - Full Zen Baguettes
- 600g flour
- 450g water (75% hydration)
- ¼ teaspoon yeast
- 12g salt (2%, try 1.5% if you're reducing your salt intake)
As described above for recipe 1, make a poolish with 200g of the flour, an equal amount of water and 1/8 teaspoon of yeast, producing a 100% hydration poolish pre-ferment. Leave this at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours.
Measure out the remaining 250g water, (heat to between 30 and 35 degrees in the microwave), add a small amount (½ teaspoon) sugar to this, dissolve, then add the 1/8 teaspoon yeast. Mix together and wait for the yeast to activate (about five minutes). Add this yeast/water mix to the poolish from day one.
Weigh out the remaining 400g flour, add this to the poolish/yeast/water mix in batches, stirring it in well. Stir to an even shaggy consistency, ensuring all the flour is incorporated and leave on the worktop to autolyse for approximately half an hour. After the autolyse, add in the salt, then fold/mix the dough to evenly distribute the salt.
Knead the resulting dough for five to ten minutes until the texture changes and it becomes responsive and more easily 'worked'. However, this is a wet dough, and it won't knead to a really even or smooth dough texture. Subsequent stages develop the gluten more and bring it to the more typical dough texture/feel. For kneading wet doughs such as this it is important not to use flour, as this affects the overall hydration of the dough and hence the baguettes. Instead, use a dough scraper to 'fold' the dough over, and use your hands to knead. As the dough is very sticky, flour doesn't work well for dusting your hands. The best method is to wet your hands and the dough scraper, re-wetting your hands and the dough scraper frequently during kneading/folding.
Place this dough back in a bowl and ferment for 1 to 1½ hours, folding the dough every 20 to 30 minutes. To fold, follow the instructions for recipe 1. After the folding, place the bowl in the refrigerator for 23 hours8.
Take the bowl out of the refrigerator. The dough may have doubled in size, although sometimes there doesn't seem to have been a lot of rising. This probably depends on how warm the dough was on entering the refrigerator. Divide the dough into equal-sized portions, pre-shape into short rods, then leave for an hour (to bring the dough up to room temperature and also allow further rising).
Shape the baguettes, easing the dough out carefully, to the correct length and even thickness. Place them on the baguette trays and leave to prove for 45 minutes at room temperature. Score the baguettes (as described earlier), place into a pre-heated and steamed oven (250°C or as hot as your oven can handle), and cook with the steam for about 15 minutes. Remove the steam tray, then continue baking for ten minutes or so, until they are cooked. Let the baguettes rest for five minutes in the turned-off oven (open the door slightly), then put the baguettes on cooling racks. If your Zen baguette journey has been successful you may have the willpower to wait for the baguettes to cool. Try to meditate while you wait, you really shouldn't eat them while they are still warm, no, really you should not...
Additional Comments and Thoughts on Zen and the Art of Baguette
Each person's baguette is an individual journey, as is the path to each person's recipe. Do not fear to experiment, adapt and invent your own techniques, methods and recipes to create a baguette that is a true expression of your inner self. You can experiment using honey in the dough. Adding it in to the poolish makes a darker bread and imparts a subtle flavour. Adding it in with the remainder of the ingredients can impart a sweetness depending on how much is used, and honey can slightly extend the shelf life of the baguette. Other flours can be used instead of the standard 100% white baguette, try 1/3 wholemeal flour in the recipe, or 1/3 rye, or use multigrain flours, add herbs and seeds. Experiment and enjoy the journey this will take you on in pursuit of your own Zen baguette and your own Zen baguette journey.