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    French Baguettes — Homemade Artisan Bread

    If you are just starting bread baking, you may want to bake homemade French baguettes as your first effort. Many people think that a French baguette, a long, thin loaf, is a good test of a baker’s skill. The baguette seems so simple, just flour, water, salt and yeast, kneading, fermenting, shaping, rising, slashing and baking. The reality is that a lot of very good bakers have spent a considerable amount of time and energy perfecting their baguette. The important characteristic of a baguette is that it is a bread that is meant to be eaten shortly after it is baked; it is not a bread that is intended to be stored on the counter top until the next day or beyond. You can, and I have, frozen baguettes with some success, but it’s hard to maintain the lovely crispness of the crust much beyond one or two hours after baking. All of which means that a baguette may not get a chance to cool completely before being consumed; no big deal, as it just helps melt any cold butter.

    If you don’t have the materials to make a super couche like I use, you can use heavy canvas or a kitchen towel in its place. Just dust the canvas or towel with flour and form it to make folds that look like my couche. Or you can let the baguettes rise on parchment paper with a slightly dampened towel over them. Either way will give you well-formed baguettes.

    What follows is a master procedure for French bread baguettes that will eventually show you how to make French baguettes using five variations of the master recipe, mostly dealing with the type and aging of the pre-ferment. These methods unlock almost all the potential of the flour and the process. The process can start in one of five different beginnings. After the dough is put together and the mixing starts, the process is the same for all options. I have changed the process slightly to add a bit more information for new bakers and in recognition of what Professor Raymond Calvel has to say about when to add salt to bread dough: he seems to say that adding salt at the beginning of the process is best, but the translation of his masterwork “”Le Gout de Pain,” from French to English is so poor and confused that it is hard to tell. This also contradicts what many people THINK Professor Calvel said about adding salt. As a result, the printed instructions will diverge a bit from the sequence in the pictures, at least until I get to shooting new pictures during my next run of French baguettes. (Posted November 25, 2011)

    The five variations are:

    1. All ingredients are mixed at the beginning and proceed to completion without any delays. This is the straight-dough method.
    2. Make a pre-ferment, either a biga or a poolish, age it a few hours and then proceed to make the bread.
    3. Make a pre-ferment and age it on the counter overnight, then proceed to make the bread.
    4. Make a pre-ferment and age it on the counter overnight. At the same time, put together the remaining flour and water (without yeast or salt) and
    allow them to age overnight. The next day, put them together, add the salt and yeast and proceed to make the bread.
    5. Make a pre-ferment, age it for 3 days in the refrigerator, then proceed to make the bread.

    There are many more variations we could come up with, but these five will give you enough variations to satisfy most needs.

    This recipe is for a 60% hydration French bread dough, the so-called classic French bread. You can experiment with a bit more water, raising the hydration in stages, until you get to a 68% hydration. For example, a 66% hydration will be 30 ounces / 850 grams of flour and 19.8 ounces / 565 grams of water. (You won’t have to change the salt or yeast amounts because you will have kept the flour constant.) The higher hydration will produce a loaf that has larger holes and a different crust, a bit thicker and chewier. Once you try the higher hydration, you may find you like it better than the classic bread. Calvel cites hydrations from 64% to 69% for French bread. You may want to experiment with higher hydrations once you master the 60% brea

    Calvel also specifies temperatures of from 230C / 446F to 245C / 473F.  I use 225C / 440F, but you can experiment with the higher temperatures, just be sure to watch the loaves carefully the first time or two so you don’t over bake them.  Also be aware that very high oven temperatures, anything above 475F / 245C, may cause some scorching or burning on parchment paper.  I haven’t experimented with all the brands of parchment paper, so I have no data on which brands will scorch at what temperature.  The best you can do is make sure to look in on your bread as it bakes.  Parchment paper will brown and then char.  If it starts to brown, you may want to remove the bread from the parchment paper and let it bake directly on the tiles or stones.

    If you do want to move on up, just add a bit more water, don’t change the proportions of the flour, salt or yeast. For each 1% rise in hydration, add 0.3 ounces or 8.5 grams of water to the batch.

    For example, to move from 60% to 68%, a very wet baguette dough, add 8 X 0.3 ounces, or 2.4 ounces, to make 20.4 ounces. 20.4 / 30 = 0.68 => 68% hydration.
    In metrics, add 8 X 8.5 grams, or 68 grams, to make 578 grams. 578 / 850 = 0.68 => 68%.

    Remember to make allowance for any pre-ferment you may use. In other words, subtract the amounts of flour, water and yeast you use in the pre-ferment from the amounts to be used in the final dough. If you use a 100% poolish that has 100 grams each of water and flour and a quarter-teaspoon of yeast and you are making a 60% hydration, add 750 grams of flour, 410 grams of water, 2 teaspoons of yeast and 1 tablespoon of salt to make the dough. The amounts of the pre-ferment and the additions will give you the correct total amount of each ingredient. It may sound a bit complicated, but once you’ve done it a few times, it’ll become second nature.

    One other point about pre-ferments. The amount of pre-ferment you use isn’t carved in stone. You may find that you prefer a higher or lower proportion of preferment in your baguettes, or any other bread, for that matter. This is simple to accommodate. All you have to do is make the pre-ferment as you want, then subtract the amounts of flour, water, yeast and any other ingredient you put in the pre-ferment from the total. The amounts that you come up with are the amounts that you should add to the pre-ferment to make the final dough. The amounts in the pre-ferment and the amounts you add should equal the amounts in the total recipe.

    I specify three shorter fermentations separated by folds. This is a personal choice. If you would prefer to use a simpler method, give the dough a first fermentation of 1 hour and 15 to 20 minutes, then a fold and a second fermentation of 25-30 minutes. You may have to adjust these times a bit to compensate for your kitchen temperature and humidity.

    Ingredients for Full Batch

    Ingred Ounces Grams
    Bread Flour 30 850
    Water 18 510
    Salt 1 tbsp 22
    Dry Yeast 1/4 7 2 1/4 teaspoons

    Ingredients for Smaller Batch

    Ingred Ounces Grams
    Bread Flour 15 425
    Water 9 255
    Salt 1/2 tbsp 11
    Dry Yeast 1/2 packet 3 1 rounded teaspoon

    Method

    1. Add yeast and water to a mixer bowl.
    2. Mix up for a minute or two, then add salt, preferment and flour. Mix for a two minutes, then let rest for 20 minutes. This is the autolyse.
    3. Knead for 5-7 minutes. You should get a firm, slightly sticky, dough at 60%. As you work at higher and higher hydrations, the dough will become stickier and stickier. (Flour and water DO make paste, after all.) Resist the temptation to tame the dough with massive amounts of bench flour.
    4. Place in a bowl and cover. Let ferment for 45 minutes.
    5. Remove the dough from the bowl and do a fold or a roll. (see the section on folding)
    6. Put the dough back in the bowl, cover and let ferment for 45 minutes.
    7. Repeat the fold or roll. Place the dough back in the bowl, cover and let ferment 30 minutes.
    8. Remove from the bowl, repeat the fold or roll and place the dough on the counter and let it rest for 10 minutes under a towel.
    9. Divide the dough into as many portions as you need, then let the dough rest for 10 minutes under a towel.
    10. Either shape into baguettes. (see the section on shaping baguettes)
    11. Or shape into boules. (see the section on shaping boules)
    12. Either place the loaves in lightly greased baguette pans, on the counter on parchment paper or in a couche.
    13. Let rise 45 minutes. I cover the rising loaves with a towel and mist the towel once or twice with a spritzer bottle. Heat oven to 440F / 225C. Use tiles or stones on the oven rack. Provide steam in the oven.
    14. Bake 15 minutes. Turn the loaves to equalize baking. Bake until done, an internal temperature of 195-200F / 90-95C, about 32 minutes total time.
    15. Turn the oven off and let the loaves sit in the cooling oven for 5 minutes. Remove the loaves from the oven and allow to cool.

    Notes on the Various Methods

    1. Remember to take account of the amounts of ingredients in any pre-ferments when you calculate
    the total amounts to add during the process of putting things together.
    2. The amount of yeast will decrease slightly as the length of time involved goes up.
    3. For larger holes in the finished loaf, use a very gentle folding method.

    For instructions on a biga.biga

    For instructions on a poolish. poolish

    Click the thumbnail to view a larger image.
    Click the large image to return to the discussion.

    I use an aged biga right out of the refrigerator for this demonstration.
    The process is the same from this point on.

     

    French Artisan Bread Biga, cold. French Artisanal Bread Biga after an hour. French Artisan Bread Cutting up the biga. French Artisanal Bread Added flour to the biga.
    French Artisan Bread All mixed, now to rest. French Artisanal Bread After the autolyse. French Artisan Bread Added salt, mixed a bit. French Artisanal Bread Cohesive dough on counter.
    French Artisan Bread Dough after partial fermentation. French Artisanal Bread drop-hook fold. French Artisan Bread After drop-hook fold. French Artisanal Bread After fermentation.
    French Artisan Bread Dough ready to divide. French Artisanal Bread Dough divided. French Artisan Bread Shaping the baguettes. French Artisanal Bread Baguettes all shaped.
    French Artisan Bread The couche. French Artisanal Bread Baguettes rising en couche. French Artisan Bread Baguettes slashed, on tiles. French Artisanal Bread Adding steam.
    French Artisan Bread Baguettes partially baked. French Artisanal Bread Baguettes finished. French Artisan Bread Bottom of a baguette. French Artisanal Bread Crumb and crust of a baguette.

    So there they are, 4 good-looking baguettes. No special equipment. (Except Super Couche!) Just a simple recipe, time and technique.