A Baguette Breakthrough

Last week's piece on bread troubleshooting further illustrates just how many schools of thought there are on the topic. Hats off to "Seattle cooking mom," a self-described active bread baker, who suggests paying less attention to books and more attention to the bread itself. I couldn't agree more with this piece of advice.


The remaining portion of my very first baguette. (Kim O'Donnel)

A personal pitfall that continues to plague my bread-making is my tendency to multi task. As a cook, I've always got a few things on the stove at the same time, which is why I've got no problem pulling off a multi-course feast, but experience has proven that bread really does require one's full attention. Clear the counter, clear the head and focus on the bread -- and in all likelihood you'll have delicious results.

With all the recent back-and-forthing in the blog space, I had lingering bread on the brain, so for a fresh perspective, I paged through "Local Breads: Sourdough and Whole-Grain Recipes from Europe's Best Artisan Bakers" by Daniel Leader, a new title in bread-making land.

At first, I'm a bit intimidated by Leader's meticulously written recipes, many of which require a poolish or a biga (aka starter), an extra step I was unprepared (and perhaps unwilling) to tackle. But Leader, known for "Bread Alone," his Woodstock, N.Y. bakery and eponymously named cookbook, has a wonderfully inviting writing style, with a story about each baker he meets, and I'm determined to find a recipe that won't take two days to complete.

So I keep paging through, absorbed by his meticulous instruction, that makes you feel like you're right there with him, and I stumble upon a recipe for "Parisian Daily Bread," (aka Baguette normal). I'm intrigued by the starter-free recipe and wonder if I could really pull off my very first ever batch of baguettes, in just four hours, as Leader promises.

So I clear the counter, I clear my head, and I put on an apron. And in four hours, I really do have my very first ever batch of baguettes. Leader's instructions are impeccable -- albeit long and sometimes painfully detailed. But the key here is to persevere, have patience, and yes, just like "Seattle mom" wrote, pay attention to the bread.

In the process, I learned a few new tricks which I plan to adopt into my own repertoire: Rather than mixing yeast and warm water together to activate, Leader instructs you to mix all of the ingredients together and let it rest for about 20 minutes, a step called "autolyse" in France, which makes the dough easier to knead. I love this idea and indeed it made kneading a breeze.

He also suggests using a straight-sided lidded two-quart container for the first and second rise, which I discover, allows dough to grow but not turn into a huge blob (my experience in past).

Rather than a spray bottle of water for spritzing dough in the oven, Leader recommends a cast-iron skillet on the bottom rack filled with ice, which immediately creates steam.

I also used a timer to keep track of the various stages of the bread, a concept lost on me years ago and one that I now appreciate. A timer keeps the baker on track -- at least this one.

The results, by the way, were a delightful surprise. The baguettes came out light, with a medium tooth (good for sandwiches) and a respectable crunch on the crust. I never thought I'd be saying this, but I can't wait to make more. Go on, give it a try!

Today is chat day; submit a question for my weekly kitchen klatsch at noon ET.

Parisian Daily Bread (Baguette normal)
From "Local Breads: Sourdough and Whole-Grain Recipes from Europe's Best Artisan Bakers" by Daniel Leader

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups (or 12 ounces) tepid water (70-78 degrees)
1 teaspoon (or .1 ounce) instant yeast
3 1/4 cups (or 17.6 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons (or .4 ounce) coarse salt

Method
Mix the Dough: Pour water into a large mixing bowl. Add yeast, flour and salt, and stir with a rubber spatula just until all the water is absorbed and a dry, clumpy dough forms. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let stand for 20 minutes, to allow flour to hydrate and gluten to develop on its own.

Knead the Dough:
Lightly dust work surface with flour. Using the spatula, empty dough and any stray flour out of bowl and knead with smooth, steady strokes for 10-12 minutes.

After about two minutes, dough will collect into a ball. It will feel tacky and you'll start to see it stretch. Continue to knead, dipping your hands in flour as necessary so they don't stick to dough. Try to avoid kneading extra flour into dough so baguettes will be light.
Knead until dough loses its stickiness, firms up and feels silky smooth and resilient.

Ferment the Dough:
Transfer dough to a lightly oiled, clear, straight-sided 2-quart container with a lid. With masking tape, mark spot on the container that dough will reach when it has raised 1 1/2 times in volume. Cover and allow it to rise at room temperature (70-75 degrees) for 45 minutes. It should increase in size by about 25 percent.

Give the Dough a Turn:
Lightly dust work surface with flour, and using spatula, empty risen dough out of container. Pat it gently into a rectangle about 6x8 inches and fold it like a business letter: with short side facing you, lift top edge and fold it into the center of the rectangle; lift the near edge and fold it into the center so that it overlaps the top edge by about one inch. Quickly slide both hands under dough and flip it over so the folds are underneath. Slip it back into the container, pushing it down to fit. Cover dough and let stand until it expands halfway to the masking tape mark, 45 minutes to one hour.

Divide and Pre-shape the Dough:
Lightly dust work surface with flour. Uncover dough and turn it out onto work surface. With a bench scraper or chef's knife, cut dough into three equal pieces. Gently pat each piece into a rough rectangle and fold in half. Sprinkle dough with flour and lightly drape with plastic wrap, for 10 minutes.

Shape the Baguettes
:
Cover a baker's peel or rimless baking sheet with parchment paper. Shape each piece of dough into a baguette about 14 inches long and 2 1/2 inches wide: Pat dough into a rough rectangle 3x5 inches. With the longer side facing you, fold upper edge of dough toward the center with the heel of your hand. Fold bottom edge of dough about one third of the way toward the center and seal the seam firmly. Fold skinny rectangle in half, bringing top edge down to meet bottom edge. Working from right to left, cup your hand over log of dough and press heel of hand down firmly to seal the seam. To stretch log, place hands together, palms down, over middle of the log. Using light even pressure, rolling log back and forth.

Leave ends rounded. Avoid overhandling dough.

Form the Couche
:
Lightly dust the parchment and place baguettes on top, seam sides down, about two inches apart. Lift parchment paper between loaves, making pleasts and drawing loaves together. Tightly roll up two kitchen towels and slip them under the parchment paper on trhe sides of the two outer loaves to support and cradle the baguettes. Lightly dust the tops of baguettes with flour and lightly drape with plastic wrap. (KOD note: this step does make a difference. I was skeptical at first, but it really helps in maintaining shape of formed baguetes.)

Proof the Baguettes:
Let loaves stand at room temperature for 30-40 minutes. They will increase about 1 1/2 times in size. When you press your fingertip into the dough, the indentation will spring back slowly.

Prepare Oven:
Place a baking stone (KOD note: I used the bottom side of a 16-inch baking sheet) on the middle rack of the oven and a cast-iron skillet on the lower rack. Heat oven to 450 degrees.

Score the Baguettes:
Uncover loaves, take away towels and stretch parchment so that it is flat and loaves are separated. Score each baguette with a singled-edged razor blade or serrated knife. Starting from the tip, angle blade 45 degrees to make three slashes about three inches long and 1/2 inch deep.

Bake the Loaves:
Slide loaves, still on parchment onto baking stone. Place 1/2 cup of ice in cast-iron skillet to produce steam. Bake baguettes until they are caramel-colored, 15-20 minutes.

Cool and Store the Loaves:
Slide loaves still on parchment onto a wire rack. Cool for about five minutes, then remove parchment. Best eaten within a few hours of baking. For longer storage, freeze in re-sealable bags for up to one month.

Parisian Daily Bread (Baguette normal)
From "Local Breads: Sourdough and Whole-Grain Recipes from Europe's Best Artisan Bakers" by Daniel Leader

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups (or 12 ounces) tepid water (70-78 degrees)
1 teaspoon (or .1 ounce) instant yeast
3 1/4 cups (or 17.6 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons (or .4 ounce) coarse salt

Method
Mix the Dough: Pour water into a large mixing bowl. Add yeast, flour and salt, and stir with a rubber spatula just until all the water is absorbed and a dry, clumpy dough forms. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let stand for 20 minutes, to allow flour to hydrate and gluten to develop on its own.

Knead the Dough:
Lightly dust work surface with flour. Using the spatula, empty dough and any stray flour out of bowl and knead with smooth, steady strokes for 10-12 minutes.

After about two minutes, dough will collect into a ball. It will feel tacky and you'll start to see it stretch. Continue to knead, dipping your hands in flour as necessary so they don't stick to dough. Try to avoid kneading extra flour into dough so baguettes will be light.
Knead until dough loses its stickiness, firms up and feels silky smooth and resilient.

Ferment the Dough:
Transfer dough to a lightly oiled, clear, straight-sided 2-quart container with a lid. With masking tape, mark spot on the container that dough will reach when it has raised 1 1/2 times in volume. Cover and allow it to rise at room temperature (70-75 degrees) for 45 minutes. It should increase in size by about 25 percent.

Give the Dough a Turn:
Lightly dust work surface with flour, and using spatula, empty risen dough out of container. Pat it gently into a rectangle about 6x8 inches and fold it like a business letter: with short side facing you, lift top edge and fold it into the center of the rectangle; lift the near edge and fold it into the center so that it overlaps the top edge by about one inch. Quickly slide both hands under dough and flip it over so the folds are underneath. Slip it back into the container, pushing it down to fit. Cover dough and let stand until it expands halfway to the masking tape mark, 45 minutes to one hour.

Divide and Pre-shape the Dough:
Lightly dust work surface with flour. Uncover dough and turn it out onto work surface. With a bench scraper or chef's knife, cut dough into three equal pieces. Gently pat each piece into a rough rectangle and fold in half. Sprinkle dough with flour and lightly drape with plastic wrap, for 10 minutes.

Shape the Baguettes
:
Cover a baker's peel or rimless baking sheet with parchment paper. Shape each piece of dough into a baguette about 14 inches long and 2 1/2 inches wide: Pat dough into a rough rectangle 3x5 inches. With the longer side facing you, fold upper edge of dough toward the center with the heel of your hand. Fold bottom edge of dough about one third of the way toward the center and seal the seam firmly. Fold skinny rectangle in half, bringing top edge down to meet bottom edge. Working from right to left, cup your hand over log of dough and press heel of hand down firmly to seal the seam. To stretch log, place hands together, palms down, over middle of the log. Using light even pressure, rolling log back and forth.

Leave ends rounded. Avoid overhandling dough.

Form the Couche
:
Lightly dust the parchment and place baguettes on top, seam sides down, about two inches apart. Lift parchment paper between loaves, making pleasts and drawing loaves together. Tightly roll up two kitchen towels and slip them under the parchment paper on trhe sides of the two outer loaves to support and cradle the baguettes. Lightly dust the tops of baguettes with flour and lightly drape with plastic wrap. (KOD note: this step does make a difference. I was skeptical at first, but it really helps in maintaining shape of formed baguetes.)

Proof the Baguettes:
Let loaves stand at room temperature for 30-40 minutes. They will increase about 1 1/2 times in size. When you press your fingertip into the dough, the indentation will spring back slowly.

Prepare Oven:
Place a baking stone (KOD note: I used the bottom side of a 16-inch baking sheet) on the middle rack of the oven and a cast-iron skillet on the lower rack. Heat oven to 450 degrees.

Score the Baguettes:
Uncover loaves, take away towels and stretch parchment so that it is flat and loaves are separated. Score each baguette with a singled-edged razor blade or serrated knife. Starting from the tip, angle blade 45 degrees to make three slashes about three inches long and 1/2 inch deep.

Bake the Loaves:
Slide loaves, still on parchment onto baking stone. Place 1/2 cup of ice in cast-iron skillet to produce steam. Bake baguettes until they are caramel-colored, 15-20 minutes.

Cool and Store the Loaves:
Slide loaves still on parchment onto a wire rack. Cool for about five minutes, then remove parchment. Best eaten within a few hours of baking. For longer storage, freeze in re-sealable bags for up to one month.

By Kim ODonnel |  November 6, 2007; 10:36 AM ET Bread
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Comments

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Baguettes are very difficult to make properly in a home oven. From the photo I can see you have a very dense crumb. Ideally baguettes will have lots of irregular holes. There could be a number of reasons for this. I am guessing that you did not proof the baguette long enough, but the oven is also certainly a factor. Are you baking on a stone with the oven scorching hot? You should start it around 470 then recede to 440 after about 15 minutes.

Your baguette is also severely underbaked (though with some oddly dark patches). You should be aiming for a uniform golden brown on the crust, otherwise your crust will be tough and chewy not crisp and your crumb will be gummy. Total bake time should be about 25 minutes for a 380g baguette.

Like I said, baguettes are tough to make without a lot of practice and a steam-injected hearth oven. I suggest trying the same dough but shaping it into a round instead and then baking it inside a dutch oven. The cast iron simulates the intense heat of the hearth and the closed lid traps the steam that the bread itself produces. After about 20 minutes, take the bread out of the dutch oven and finish it directly on the rack until uniformly golden brown.

Posted by: Pro Baker | November 7, 2007 10:26 AM

I think her baguette looks pretty darn good...It doesn't necessarily look like something I would have bought in France, but nevertheless I would eat it!

I used to work at a cookware store and we sold baguette pans. They were kind of a cradle shape and perforated. Are they useless?

Posted by: elbow | November 7, 2007 11:32 AM

Baguette pans are pretty useless. They'll yield supermarket-quality baguettes. You know the kind with the little bumps on the bottom. Their main purposes are eliminating the need for couches, baking a lot of baguettes at once, and making the baguette a little crisper than it would have been otherwise (that's what the holes do).

It might be snobbish, but a baguette is something special. What you find in most of America (and in the picture) is just a big, soft breadstick, not a baguette. I'm not saying big, soft breadsticks are all bad, just that they're not baguettes. In all seriousness, there are laws in France governing what you can call a baguette. Even the scoring must be just right (either 5 or 7 distinct scores, at a very slight angle).

Posted by: Pro Baker | November 7, 2007 11:45 AM

I'm an experienced bread maker, I'm just not experienced making artisan loaves. I have a red clay baguette mold for baking the dough in. The directions say to soak it in water first, then put the dough in it to rise, then bake. I've used it only once and made a whole grain baguette-shaped loaf. It was good but I guess this isn't anyhere near authentic (I've never been to France)? To create a crisp crust I put a splash of water in the bottom of the oven - also not authentic?

Posted by: Magz | November 7, 2007 12:42 PM

Those clay bakers do a decent job of simulating a steam hearth oven. You need to preheat the clay baker for about an hour beforehand though (same if you use a dutch oven -- I forgot to mention that before). They key is intense, even heat and a tight fitting lid that traps the steam.

A splash of water in the oven does not do much to create steam. Moreover, what little steam it makes is gone in a couple minutes because home ovens are vented. Hearth ovens have vents that bakers keep closed for the first half or so to trap the steam that is injected. They then open the vents to finish the bake to let the bread dry out and the crust crisp.

The purpose of steam is to keep the crust from setting too early. Without a moist environment, the crust will set almost immediately, which keeps the bread from achieving its full oven spring and leads to dense loafs. Steam also helps keep the crust thin for the same reasons. One way to tell if you're getting proper steam is to look at your scores. After the bake, there should be a little "ear" on the edge of the score you can grab on to.

Ice cubes in a blazing hot skillet work better than just plain water because they produce steam more continuously, but a closed baker (cast iron or clay) will yield better results.

Posted by: Pro Baker | November 7, 2007 12:56 PM

I'm new to the world of bread baking -- trying to navigate my way by reading and trying as often as possible. I tried the Parisan Daily Bread recipe over the weekend. My problem I have is with scoring. I went to Sur La Table and bought a lame --- but can't seem to figure out how to slash the dough properly. The blade isn't going deep enough. Anyone have any advice?

Posted by: novice baker | November 7, 2007 1:37 PM

Hold the handle of the lame nearly parallel to the loaf (maybe a 10 or 15 degree angle) and make short quick motions using just your wrist. You want to use just the corner, not the whole side, of the lame to cut into the loaf and don't go too deep, just an eighth of an inch or so.

Posted by: Pro Baker | November 7, 2007 2:44 PM

Dear Pro Baker - "You need to preheat the clay baker for about an hour beforehand though (same if you use a dutch oven -- I forgot to mention that before). They key is intense, even heat and a tight fitting lid that traps the steam."

At the risk of sounding really clueless, how do I go about getting the risen dough into the scorchingly hot clay baguette mold? There obviously is a step I'm not picking up on.

Much thanks for all your excellent feedback. I am totally enjoying this thread.

Hey, Kim, come to my house and we'll make some really good loaves to savor with some local honey. If the menfolk are extra nice to us, we might even share.

Posted by: Magz | November 8, 2007 11:22 AM

Has anyone tried Mark Bittman's NYTimes recipe for the no-knead boule? I thought it was excellent. Just google NY Times and no-knead and you'll find the recipe. Definitely less need for a timer as it rises for 18-24 hours.

My regular bread is a 3/4 white whole wheat sandwich type bread- adapted from Deborah Madison's "Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone". On holidays I'll make challah. I think the no-knead boule would be great for a dinner party - it would work in well with the do-ahead and last minute tasks.

Posted by: MaryB | November 8, 2007 12:01 PM

Speaking of bread, will attempt to make my first ever challah over this weekend. If you are interedsted to check out the results, look at http://cooking-shopping-crafts-etc.blogspot.com/

Posted by: Olga | November 8, 2007 2:06 PM

Magz: at bakeries we use a long, thin wooden slat to transfer proofed baguettes to our loaders. The same thing should work for the clay baker. Use the couche or cloth you're proofing on to sort of flip the baguette onto the slat, then flip the baguette off the slat and onto the clay baker (gently of course!).

Also, I wholeheartedly endorse the NYT no-knead bread technique. Credit should be given to Jim Lahey of Sullivan St Bakery in NYC as it's his recipe, not Bittman's.

Posted by: Pro Baker | November 8, 2007 2:29 PM

Magz: and don't score the baguette until you've flipped it onto the clay baker!

Posted by: Pro Baker | November 8, 2007 5:37 PM

The picture of what was turned out sure looked good to me. I like the limited ingredient list too. But no one has mentioned the fact that the wheat flour available to the French bakers is not the same as what we typically buy here. Also, that yummy sourdough taste of a true French baguette probably only can be had by using their starter or one like it.

Posted by: julie h | November 15, 2007 12:23 PM

>> I like the limited ingredient list too.
By French law, a baguette can only contain white flour, water, yeast, and salt.

>> But no one has mentioned the fact that the wheat flour
>> available to the French bakers is not the same as what we
>>typically buy here.
True. Try Gold Medal Harvest King Flour, available at most grocery stores, or King Arthur Artisan Bread Flour, available here and there.

>> Also, that yummy sourdough taste of a true French baguette
>> probably only can be had by using their starter or one like it.
Actually, most Parisian bakeries use one of two methods: pate fermentee, where a portion of the last batch of dough is added to the next batch, or poolish, where a portion of the flour and water are combined with a very small amount of yeast and left to ferment overnight before being combined with the final dough. You can also achieve a similar depth of flavor without a preferment by using a small amount of yeast (about half what you normally would), a cool dough temp (around 70 degrees), and letting the dough ferment in bulk for about 3 hours. There are flavor differences between them, but they are all good. My personal favorite is the pate fermentee method -- it tastes the most like a baguette should to me.

Posted by: Pro Baker | November 15, 2007 2:05 PM

Just great !
Nobody but an American could be so accurate in giving instructions !
French talent and American accuracy make the best recipe: could I suggest to add some Italian creativity ?

Posted by: Roberto Ferraris | November 16, 2007 4:02 AM

About 5 years ago, I graduated from a bread baking machine to home made loaves. For steam, try putting some lava rocks, like used on a bar b q in a small cast iron skillet on the bottom of the oven. Place the stone on the first shelf above it. Heat for one hour before loading the oven. Then carefully pour a cup of very hot water onto the lava rocks. This produces enough steam for baguettes at home. You only need a couple minutes of steam. I joined the Bread Bakers Guild of America, and constantly get new ideas for the home bread baker from some of the top bakers in the country. Also, buy Jeffrey Hammelman's book called "Bread". It is incredible.

Posted by: David Rosenblatt | November 17, 2007 10:30 AM

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