A baguette by any other name……

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…would smell as sweet.

Recipes and tricks for improving your sticks

(Originally published in British Baker)

Recipes for the perfect baguette are probably as numerous as bakeries in France, and each baker appears to claim a secret ingredient or technique that makes him the star boulanger. But do they have anything in common?

Well, flour for a start. A perfect baguette begins and ends with the right qualities in flour. Soft wheat does make for dough that requires slow cool mixing, leaving the mixer at around 22 – 23ºC, creating a dough that is delicate and difficult to handle.

Next, cool water is needed to achieve that final dough temperature. Following that, a bulk fermentation of at least 45 minutes, but often longer. Then the dough is scaled, lightly rounded, left for 15 – 20 minutes, before being shaped with the aid of a baguette moulder and left to proove on a flour dusted cloth. To finish, the baguette is transferred to a peel or a setter, slashed 6 or 7 times with a sharp blade, and deposited on a hot stone to bake. These are the rules of the baguette, set in the stone of tradition.

However, the only way to judge a perfect baguette is by tasting one. Remember the days of the fine English ‘French Stick’? Remember that deliciously tough elastic crust, with a smooth brilliant white crumb and those dainty dimples left from the perforated cradle that the dough sat in, while it baked in its fan-assisted oven? Well, the perfect French baguette is a different beast altogether. We’re looking for crispness in a thin tender crust, a creamy-coloured crumb with an uneven aerated light texture, and the oval circumference and dark base crust only achieved through stone-sole oven baking. The taste should be of wheat with a hint of acidity, neither too sour nor too yeasty.

But to simplify things a little, lets start with a very simple and rather ordinary baguette:

1.000kg T55 (100%)
0.650kg water at 18 – 20ºC (65%)
0.020kg yeast (2%)
0.020kg – 0.023kg salt (2% – 2.3%)
1.690kg total weight

Mix together on 1st speed for 3 minutes, then on 2nd speed for 7 minutes. Remove from bowl, leave to bulk for 45 minutes, the scale, shape and proove. Cut with a blade (seven slashes), and then bake at 225ºC for 25 minutes, with a little steam in the beginning and the vent open after 15 minutes.

To be fair, I don’t know any baker using a recipe as simple as the one above. It produces a bread so uniform, and unspectacular, that there is no gain in making it yourself. However, by tweaking the recipe a little we can soon change that.

If we start by making a sponge, we can begin to add character to the baguette by opening up the texture. Here is the way I change a direct recipe into one that uses a sponge and dough. Take a third of the original total dough weight (appx. 560g), and then divide that number in half (280g). Then take that amount of flour and water (from the total quantities) and mix together with one quarter of the yeast. So our new recipe will look like this:

For the sponge:

0.280kg T55
0.280kg water at 18 – 20º C
0.005kg yeast

Mix together thoroughly, and leave for 2 hours (agitating the mixture briefly after 1 hour)

For the dough

0.720kg T55
0.370kg water at 18 – 20º C
0.005kg yeast
0.020kg – 0.023kg salt

Mix together with the sponge on 1st speed for 3 minutes, then on 2nd speed for 7 minutes. Remove from bowl, leave to bulk for 45 minutes, the scale, shape and proove. Cut with a blade (seven slashes), and then bake at 225ºC for 25 minutes, with a little steam in the beginning and the vent open after 15 minutes. As the sponge is a large fermenting batter, we have reduced the total yeast quantity to 1% of the total flour weight, split between the sponge and final dough.

Getting better, but still not to my mind a perfect baguette. Lets change the flour next.

Flours such as Moul-bie’s Campaillette and Viron’s Retrador are milled and blended specially to open the texture of the baguette. Changing your flour either on the direct recipe, or ideally on the sponge and dough method will dramatically enhance the texture and final crust on the baguette.

Before the introduction of these flours, I tended to cut the T55 with a little Canadian-rich English flour. This had the advantage of being able to tolerate more water in the dough, enabling the actual water content to be increased from 65% up to 68% (or 70%). This produced a very crisp baguette with huge bubbles throughout the light crumb. Very seductive, but difficult to manage and shape.

So the recipe would change to:

0.350kg Canadian
0.400kg water at 18 – 20ºC
0.005kg yeast

Mix together thoroughly, and leave for 2 hours (agitating the mixture briefly after 1 hour)

For the dough

0.650kg T55
0.300kg water at 18 – 20ºC
0.005kg yeast
0.020kg – 0.023kg salt

Mix together with the sponge on 1st speed for 3 minutes, then on 2nd speed for 7 minutes. Remove from bowl, leave to bulk for 45 minutes, the scale, shape and proove. Cut with a blade (seven slashes), then bake at 225ºC for 25 minutes, with a little steam in the beginning and the vent open after 15 minutes.

Baguette au levain

This is the recipe I use. It combines the use of Canadian plus T55, together with a sour sponge replacing the yeasted sponge. This is not an overnight-yeasted batter, but rather a levain that has been started by letting a mixture of currants, water and flour ferment, then sieving the mixture and refreshing it daily with equal quantities of flour and water.

Let me warn you that producing a sharp healthy levain or sourdough is a craft that needs practice. There is a way around this, by using one of the prepared sour ferments available on the market, or by sending off to a company called www.sourdo.com who produce little sachets of dried yeast combined with lactic enzymes that will give the desired flavour, texture and crumb structure.

At the moment in both France and the US, electric fermentation tanks that keep the sour ferment at a constant temperature with gentle agitation, are becoming increasingly common in the bakeries that aim to produce excellence in quantity.

For the baguette recipe I would keep the sponge at 35% of the total flour weight.

0.350kg sour starter
0.650kg T55
0.350kg Canadian
0.625kg water at 18 – 20ºC
0.005kg yeast
0.020kg – 0.023kg salt


Four other techniques in use:

A slow, final fermentation at 12-14ºC is especially useful for baguette au levain, and if the yeast is reduced still further allows for a complex slightly sour acidity to develop. Also increases the crust colour when baked

Mixing the dough entirely on first speed, for 15 – 18 minutes, can help develop the crumb flavour and structure. If you have the time!

Mixing the dough on first speed for 3 minutes, then leaving the dough to rest for 30 minutes – 1 hour, before giving a final mix on second speed for 5 minutes. As above.

Delaying adding the salt until the last 3 minutes of mixing. Particularly good if you are using only a sour starter and no commercial yeast

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