Baguettes are among the most satisfying breads to make. The method is a little tricky to master at first, but when your baguettes are looking pretty with their waves of ‘ears’ all lined up, you get an enormous sense of achievement – one I feel (almost) every day at work. (Of course, no one is perfect, and we still screw up now and then!) This recipe is adapted from a very traditional French baguette recipe. I’ve reduced the hydration slightly to make it easier while you’re getting to grips with the technique. You may also find it useful to consult YouTube or Google if you’re struggling to visualize the exact action needed at any stage.
For the leaven
- 20g (3/4 oz) sourdough starter (see above)
- 80g (3oz) strong white flour
- 80g (3oz) warm water (26–30 degrees Celsius/79–86 degrees Farhrenheit)
For the dough
- 800g (1lb 12oz) T65 French baguette flour (or white flour with 11–12 percent protein content – it should say on the packet)
- 2g (1/2 teaspoon) instant dried yeast
- 580g (1lb 4-1/2 oz) warm water (23°C/73°F)
- 17g (1/2 oz) sea salt
- rice flour or fine semolina, for dusting
- very large bowl or plastic container (able to hold 4 liters/4 quarts)
- couple of clean tea towels
- plastic dough scraper
- metal dough scraper (also called a bench knife, you can also use your plastic one)
- linen couche or 3 clean tea towels
- baking stone or heavy baking tray
- roasting tin
- peel and flipping board
- lame (razor-blade holder) or a very sharp knife
Stage 1 Prepare the leaven
Either make a starter from scratch one week before you intend to bake, or use a mature starter if you have a healthy one bubbling away.
In a small pot with a lid – a jam jar is perfect – mix the starter, flours and warm water. Leave in a warm place for 3–4 hours until there are lots of little bubbles and it smells mildly fermented. If you like your bread on the sour side, leave for a further 1–2 hours.
You can also make a leaven the day before you want to make your dough. In that case, once the leaven ingredients are combined, leave at room temperature for 1–2 hours until signs of fermentation appear (tiny bubbles and a slight increase in size), then refrigerate overnight.
Put the flour, leaven, yeast and 540g (1lb 31/2 oz) of the water into a large bowl. Bring the dough together using your hands and work until smooth, roughly 5 minutes.
Rest, uncovered, for 30 minutes at room temperature.
Once rested, add the salt and the rest of the water. Scrunch the salt in with your hands (take fistfuls of the dough and squeeze it) until the salt and water are all incorporated, then work it (knead) in the bowl for a further 3–4 minutes to strengthen the dough.
Rest again, covered in the bowl, for 30 minutes at room temperature.
Perform the Stage 3 ‘stretch and fold’ technique as described below. Complete 3–4 ‘turns’ (rather than 4–6), until the dough feels springy and has almost doubled in size.
Stage 3 Stretch and fold, and bulk rise
Now, you’ve probably noticed that there hasn’t been anything that resembles traditional kneading, and that’s because this method requires no kneading. Sourdough takes a long time to prove compared to yeasted bread and, over the course of the bulk rise, gluten is developed naturally using a ‘stretch and fold’ technique. Honestly, we don’t need kneading; plus, it’s knackering.
Once you’ve added salt to your dough and allowed it to rest, you can start stretching and folding. Wet your hands (this helps to stop the dough sticking) and, keeping the dough in its container, imagine the dough is a clockface. Starting at 12 o’clock, scoop your hands underneath the dough, then pull up (stretch) and fold down (fold) over the whole piece. Turn your container 90° and repeat this step (stretch, fold and turn) another three times, so you end up back where you started. You can even put a small sticker on the outside of your container to help you remember your starting point.
These four folds are considered one ‘turn’. After completing the first turn, cover the dough. Then uncover and turn it every 30 minutes for 2–3 hours. After these 4–6 turns, the dough should have changed from loose and stretchy and should have begun to firm, tighten and contain plenty of air bubbles and have risen to nearly twice the size. It’s amazing to build such strength in a dough without kneading or a mixer.
Now it’s time for the pre-shape. Flour the top of your dough and gently coax it away from the sides of the bowl with a dough scraper.
Hold the bowl upside down over a clean work surface and let the dough naturally fall out. Flour the top of the dough and then lightly flatten it by pressing down gently with your hands to release a little of the gas. Divide it into 5–6 neat 250–300g (9–10 1/2 oz) rectangles, each roughly 18cm x 10cm (7in x 4in).
Place one of the rectangles horizontally in front of you, with the shorter ends pointing to 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock, then take the bottom left-hand corner diagonally up to the middle, about a quarter of the way up the rectangle, and push down to secure. Mirror with the bottom right-hand corner, then gently roll the dough up and away from you to make a cylindrical shape. This is your pre-shaped baguette. Set aside on your work surface, then repeat with the rest of the dough.
Cover your pre-shaped baguettes with a clean tea towel – you should have 5 or 6. Leave to rest for 30 minutes.
Now you can either move on to the final shaping and baking, or store the pre-shaped baguettes in a container overnight in the fridge, ready to be finished in the morning.
Line a baking sheet or a wooden board with a linen couche or tea towel and dust with rice flour or semolina. Flour the tops of your preshaped baguettes. Then, using a metal scraper, flip one of them over so the floured side is now resting on the surface.
Working with the baguette horizontally in front of you, with the ends pointing to 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock, fold the top of the dough down leaving a gap of about 2 1/2 cm (1in) along the bottom. Press gently to secure all the way along. Turn the dough 180° and repeat, then turn through 180° and repeat again.
Next, you need to seal the baguette into a long cylindrical shape. Starting at one end, take hold of the top of the dough and join it to the bottom, using the heel of your hand to firmly seal the edges of the dough together, but being careful not to squish the main body of the dough. Moving gradually along the length of the baguette until the whole baguette has been sealed and it vaguely resembles a fat baguette (the sealed side of your baguette is called the ‘seam’).
Now you need to elongate and taper the baguette at each end. Starting in the middle, place both your hands over the baguette so that both your fingertips and the heels of your hands are touching the work surface. Adjust the height of your hands to apply gentle pressure on the baguette, but do not squash. Gently roll back and forth while moving your hands outwards to stretch the dough. Do this a couple of times if necessary, until your baguette is the desired length (bearing in mind the depth and width of your oven!). On your last roll, tilt the outer edge of your palms down towards the work surface at each end of the baguette to taper – I like mine dangerously pointy.
Place your fully shaped baguette, seam-side up, on your couche or tea towel and tuck up some of the material on either side of it to make a pleat roughly 4cm (1 1/2 in) taller than your baguette. Shape another baguette, making another pleat next to it and checking there’s enough rice flour so the baguettes don’t stick to the couche. When all the baguettes are in the couche, prove for 1–1 1/2 hours until they have risen just to the top of the pleats. When they’re ready, the dough should spring back slowly (about 2 seconds) if you press it with your finger.
Place a baking stone or heavy baking sheet on the middle shelf of your oven and a roasting tin on the bottom shelf, then preheat to 250°C (480°F) or as high as it will go. The journey is nearly over for your lovely little baguettes. In the bakery we use something called a peel (a large flat board with a handle) to slide the baguettes. We load up the peel with loaves and then slide them off, directly – and sometimes gracefully – onto the stone floor of the oven. You can buy peels, but if you have some thin untreated wood, that will do just fine; a large, rimless baking sheet, or even a sheet of stiff cardboard will do the job too. You’ll also need a long, thin piece of wood or cardboard, roughly 40cm x 8cm x 1/2cm (16in x 3in x 1/4in), to use as a flipping board. The more punk, the better! (If you don’t have anything appropriate to hand, it’s OK – you’ll just have to be as quick and gentle as possible…)
Dust the baguettes with rice flour and very gently pull the couche at one end to create a little space between the first pleat and the first baguette. Holding the flipping board in your good hand and the end of the couche in the other, nestle the board between the pleat and the baguette. Now pull the couche so it is taut but not disturbing the other baguettes and roll the baguette onto its seam side.
Shuffle the baguette, seam-side down, onto your peel or makeshift peel. Flip as many baguettes onto the peel as will fit, leaving at least 6cm (2-1/2in) between each one. (If you find you need to bake them in two batches, keep the still-couched baguettes in a cool place or the fridge until you’re ready for them.)
Baguettes need several slashes to achieve their classic look. As I understand it, a traditional baguette should have five slashes, but this really depends on the length of your baguette. To get what we call ‘ears’ (where the dough bursts through where you have cut to create beautiful waves), you cut at an angle, almost as if you were trying to skin the baguette. Working horizontally, imagine there is a 2cm (3/4 in) stripe running along the length of the baguette, straight down the middle. Take your lame/blade and turn it towards you until it’s almost flat. Starting at the left end of the baguette (if you’re right handed), make a shallow and decisive cut about 6cm (2óin) long, from the top to the bottom of your imaginary stripe.
The next cut will again start at the top of this stripe, its starting point overlapping the first cut by a quarter. As most domestic ovens aren’t very deep, your baguettes won’t be a traditional size, therefore you’ll likely only manage to slash the baguette two or three times, but if you can do more then give it go.
When you’re ready to bake, open the oven door and pour about 250g (9oz) boiling water into the roasting tin at the bottom of the oven to generate steam (this is vital for the final rise in the oven, and will also give an attractive shine to the baked baguettes).
Quickly and confidently, slide your baguettes onto the hot baking stone or baking sheet and swiftly shut the oven door to trap as much steam as possible. Bake for 15–18 minutes until the color of gold. Now you are almost French. Congratulations!
Excerpted with permission from Bread and Butter by Richard Snapes, Grant Harrington and Eve Hemingway, published by Quadrille October 2018, RRP $29.99 hardcover.