BAGUETTE COURANTE

Translated as current baguette, it is also called baguette de pain (wand of bread), baguette de Paris (baguette of Paris) or also pain français (french bread) in Belgium and Québec. But it is mainly and simply called baguette now.

This is the most famous and most consumed bread in France. French people buy and eat baguettes literally everyday. There are bakeries in every towns and villages, and in Paris, you can find one in every street.

The history around the baguette is very vast but not that ancient as we could think. There are few stories that help us understand how the baguette was invented and then popularized :

  • The first story is based on the arrival of August Zang (baker, editor and Austrian politic) in Paris. He founded La Boulangerie Viennoise (The Viennese Bakery) in Paris in 1839, selling specialties from Vienna. He is one of the first to introduce baker’s yeast, also called brewer’s yeast, to bake bread instead of sourdough. He might have invented a long bread deriving from the oval shape found in Viennese bread. August Zang also invented the viennoiseries later on, including the famous croissant and pain au chocolat.
August Zang
La Boulangerie Viennoise
  • The second story state that the baguette was invented under the reign of Napoleon III around 1855. He asked bakers to find an alternative of the classic boule shape, for the bread to be transportable easily all day long by the soldiers. They would stick it around their leg or on one side of their backpack.
  • The third story doesn’t claim the invention of the baguette, but more the popularisation. In the early 1900’s began the construction of the Parisian subway. The amount of work was so massive that they had to hire workers from all around the country. But they didn’t really get along depending of where they came from, and fights were not so rare. The Bretons (people from Brittany) and the Auvergnats (people from the Auvergne region) were known to pick fights very often. Knives were essential to cut the big loaf of bread they would eat for lunch, but they would often use them as weapons instead. Fulgence Bienvenüe, the supervisor of the construction site, asked bakers to “create” a bread that wouldn’t need any knife to be cut. He later on, forbid any personal utensil in the galleries. That might be how the baguette started to be popularized.
Workers during the construction of the Parisian subway
  • There is another story about the ancestor of the baguette. It is called Pain de Gonesse and is originating from the city of Gonesse (North-East of Paris). There are traces of this bread from the 15th century. It was first round-shaped and sold in Gonesse market, which was famous all around the city, including Paris. But we need to wait the 18th century for this bread to get an oval and longer shape. It was know to have a short shelf-life (around a day) and to have more crust than the usual bread. And Parisians loved the crust. It is said that nobles living in Paris would send their employee to buy bread there. But traces of its history are too poor to state that the invention of the baguette came from the Pain de Gonesse.
Pain de Gonesse
  • Karl Marx said one day that bakers were like miners, working all night doing an exhausting labor. After that, a movement started to rise in order to ease the work in bakeries. In 1919, a law forbidding bakers to work before 4am appeared. They had to find a quicker way to make bread. They started using fresh yeast, which would give a quicker fermentation (few hours minimum to only one hour to one hour and a half). They also shape the bread thinner and longer, which would require less time in the oven (only 20 minutes instead of 45 minutes to 1 hour if cooking big loaves of bread). They were now getting baguettes in less than 2 hours.

Forgotten during the first World War, the baguette came back in 1920 but its popularity increased very fast in 1930. It was now made from white flour, previously used for richer people and so, gave to the poor the impression of a better quality bread. Ironically, nobles in the capital started to enjoy country bread, previously called by them as “peasant bread”.

It is around this period that the image of the French going to the bakery every day, carrying a baguette under his arm and wearing a beret, started. Later on in the 60’s, bread industrials decided to use this image on foreign markets, promoting it as a simple and healthy life.

In 1967 appeared the “ticket restaurant”, a new way of buying lunch food. By a complex tax process, employees basically pay “tickets” that are cheaper than their actual value. For example, they buy a ticket for 2,50€ but it is worth 6€ in any restaurant, supermarket and most importantly bakery. Workers no longer bring their lunch to work, they now buy their food. Bakeries started then to change and to provide more savory meals, including sandwiches, quiches, pies… This is how the famous Jambon-Beurre (ham and butter) or Parisian Sandwich was born.

In the 1980’s, the consommation of baguettes, or any other bread, decreased drastically, because of doctors forbidding it to over-weighted people, and the increase of gluten intolerance caused by transformed flour and industrial bread. Bread was now seen as evil and French people never eat as less bread as ever in history. As a matter of fact, the French could eat up to 1,5 kg every day, and bread constituted 90% of their alimentation. Because of those issues, bakeries were selling less bread, having less money to pay employees, and millers were getting out of job. The baguettes were getting smaller, weighting now 250g instead of 300g.

An association of millers decided to take action by working together and promoting their brand of baguette, call Banette, which use their production of flour. It is known to be a better quality flour and the baguette sales started to rise up again.

In addition to the Banette, and in order to save artisanal bakeries against the industrialisation of bread, a decree was created. The 13th September 1993, la Baguette de Tradition Française, or translated as French Tradition Baguette, was born. It regulates a better quality bread that forbid most of the additives that we can find in the normal baguette (also called baguette courante). The list goes up to 100 additives containing acetic acid, lactic acid, ascorbic acid… Some of those chemicals are made from animals and the baguette is then non-convenient for vegans. In addition to a purer flour called the Tradition Flour, the Tradition Baguette can be leavened by either fresh yeast or sourdough. I will be writing more about this baguette in a future post.

Every year in Paris, a big competition takes place to elect the best baguette in town. The winner gets to be the baguette supplier for The Élysée, which is the official residence of the President of the French Republic. A lot of meals are being eaten there, often with very important politics coming from all around the world. In order to win the competition, the contestants have to present a baguette mesuring between 55 to 70cm, weighting between 250 to 300 grams with just the exact amount of salt (18g per kilogram of flour). They are then judged by their taste, smell, crumb, crust, baking stage and aspect.

The baguette usually weight 250g but can be declined. A large baguette is called flûte and weight around 400g, giving more crumb than the regular. A thin baguette is then called ficelle and weight around 125g, giving more crust than usual. It can be smaller and then call half-baguette or déjeunette in France, but can also be called banh-mi in Vietnam.

The baguette is very popular in France, but not only there. Because of the French colonies, it is also quite popular in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

Fun fact : here’s a trend about a really long baguette that was going on in Paris few decades ago. This picture might have popularize the baguette even more in foreign countries.

Now let’s move onto the recipe.

There’s few points I want to highlight in order to make the best baguette.

THE FLOUR

Use bread flour ! It contains more protein (around 12g per 100g of flour) than the all-purpose flour (around 8 to 9g per 100g of flour). It has basically more gluten and will be able to retain more gas during the baking time, giving a lighter and airier baguette.

THE WATER

I use tap water that I filter before mixing it with flour. Unfiltered tap water has chemicals that might attack the yeast and make it harder for the fermentation to process. You can also use bottled water from a source. The temperature of the water doesn’t really matter here as we make an autolyse before mixing in the yeast. But usually my water is at room temperature around 22°C.

THE YEAST

The baguette courante is usually made out of yeast instead of sourdough. I will be writing more about sourdough baguette in a future post.

I’m lucky to be able to find fresh yeast where I live (even though it is still pretty rare). It is easier to use and to weight, especially if you bake little recipes. Otherwise you can use dried or instant yeast, mesuring 3 times less than the weight of fresh yeast in the recipe. It is better to buy little sachet than to buy big bags of dried yeast, as the shelf life goes down to 30 days after you open it.

AUTOLYSE

The autolyse is the action of mixing flour and water together, and to let it rest for an hour. It will let time for the protein in the flour to get hydrated and to activate some enzymes, which will later form gluten chains. Autolyse will make a dough easier to work with, smoother, more elastic and more flexible.

If you are in a rush, skip the autolyse, but be aware that you will have to knead the dough longer.

Autolyse

KNEADING

Even though I have a stand mixer, I knead my dough by hand. I don’t like the mixer because it seems like it never kneads the dough properly. So instead I use the slap and fold technique. After mixing everything together, I put the dough on the workbench. I pick it with my hands on the right side, take it out of the table, slap it, pull the dough towards myself, and then roll it back on itself. Repeat this operation until you get a window pane : when you pull the dough until you can almost see through it without breaking. I find this technique quite enjoyable to do, and it gives myself quite good results.

Kneading

BULK FERMENTATION

Depending of the temperature of the room, the bulk fermentation, or the time you will leave the dough to rise after kneading, might change. With the baguette courante using fresh yeast, it will take around 1 hour to 1 hour and a half.

Bulk fermentation

FOLD

I like to give a fold before putting the dough in the fridge. It will give it more strength and trap more of those bubbles inside. To do so, wet your hands and grab the dough, lift it up and fold it on itself. Repeat on every side.

Fold

FRIDGE

Putting the dough to ferment in the fridge for few hours/days will give it more flavors, by allowing the yeast or levain to work slowly and nicely. You can make the test on your own by kneading a baguette and bake it straight away, and make another dough that you will place in the fridge after the primary fermentation. You can place the dough in the fridge between 12 hours to 3 days depending of the amount of levain inside, the best for me being 2 days with 10% levain. After 3 days the dough will lose its strength and the taste will become very acidic.

In order to bake a baguette straight away, or if you plan to put the dough in the fridge, you need to adjust the quantity of leavening. It’s not really a problem with yeast but you will need to adapt if you are using sourdough. For example, to bake a baguette straight away you will need between 20 to 30% of sourdough. But it’s the opposite if you want your dough to ferment longer in the fridge : 10 to 20% for fermentation between 12 to 24 hours, and only 10% for fermentation between 48 to 72 hours.

SHAPING

The shaping is quite important to the baguette. Make sure to tight the dough enough for it to bloom nicely in the oven. But if too tight, it will collapse and tear apart the dough without getting a nice result at the end.

The size of the baguette depend of the size of your oven. You don’t want to bake your baguette diagonally because the front of the oven is always cooler than the back, especially when you will open the door to put your bread in. So it’s better to have a nice but small baguette than a weird long stick.

Shaping

TOURNE À CLAIR, TOURNE À GRIS

After shaping, you will put your dough on a piece of cloth or a baker’s couche if you have one, to let the baguette to rise up instead of rising flat. You can either place the seems down on the cloth, which is called tourne à clair, or place the seems up, tourne à gris. This will give a different looking after baking. In any way, you will bake your baguette with the seems facing down. The tourne à clair will give a more rounded baguette when the tourne à gris will come out a bit flatter on top. I prefer the tourne à gris because the baguette is even on top after baking and it’s easier to manipulate after the final proving.

Tourne à gris

FINAL PROVING

This is the time when you will leave your dough to rise after shaping. Depending on the room temperature, the humidity, the amount of yeast and so on, this time might change and is not regular. To check if your dough is ready to be baked, poke it gently and if it’s bounce back, it’s ready. If it doesn’t, let it prove a bit longer. But be careful not to over-prove it, otherwise it’s not gonna rise nicely in the oven, and it even might get flat. You need to listen to your dough.

SCORING

Scoring a baguette might seems quite easy but there’s few thing to respect:

  • There’s no need to score the dough deeply. In contrary, your baguette will open up better if you do so very lightly.
  • Score parallel not perpendicular. If your cuts are perpendicular, we call it coupe saucisson and it will look like a baguette viennoise.
  • No need to score many times, the baguette will look better and will open more with few cuts.
  • Cut with an angle of 45° : that’s how you’ll get beautiful ears.

THE HEAT

It’s quite tricky at first to understand how your oven works. I recommend you to buy an oven thermometer, it’s really useful. Make sure to preheat your oven enough before putting in your dough, otherwise it won’t rise as much as it needs to. I preheat it using the lower position. It will take more time than using both positions, but bread needs a very strong heat coming up from the bottom. My oven needs around 45 min to get to 250°C, which is the perfect temperature to bake baguette.

Also, the heat is stronger in the back of the oven than in the front. So I recommend you to put the dough in the back. When preheating the oven, put a baking tray for it to heat up as well. So when you will put your dough, it will rise very quickly, giving you an airy and fluffy baguette instead of a flatter one.

THE STEAM

Steam is very important when baking bread. It will allow the dough to rise before having the outside starting to cook and to form a crust, which won’t allow the bread to rise more. I boil some water before putting my dough in the oven, using a pot that can support high heat. I leave it around 7 minutes inside before taking it out, in order to get a nice crust and allow the bread to dry out.

BAKING TIME

After taking out the pot of water, I change the position of the oven to both lower and upper heat. If you let the lower position, it might burn the bottom of your bread before it has a chance to get a nice color.

You can bake your baguette more or less depending on your taste. I like a light golden color rather than a deep strong baking.

RESSUAGE

This is a French word for the action of letting your bread to cool down on a wire rack after baking. It will let the dough to dry out nicely and evenly. If you let it cool down on a table or a plate, the moisture coming out of the bottom of the bread won’t be able to go out, so it will come back inside of the baguette, making it moister and not as crunchy.

The baguette is better when it has time to cool down, to let the gas to come out and for the flavors to settle. There’s a saying that says that you should eat your baguette 1 hour after baking it, not before, not after.

LEFTOVERS

If you didn’t eat everything and your baguette is one day old, there’s few techniques to make it nice and tasty, avoiding it to finish in the bin.

  • First, heating up your baguette again will make the moisture in the room to come inside of the bread, making it better to eat. You can warm it up using your oven or a toaster.
  • If your baguette is 2 or 3 days old, it might feels very dry and you would think that it’s impossible to eat. Try to warm it up in the microwave for around 20 seconds, then cut it in half and toast it. Your baguette will feel as good as new.
  • Make French toast! Originally, French toast is made out of stale bread rather than the fancy brioche that we can see nowadays. Heat up your old baguette and cut it in half. Soak it in a mix of milk, cream, eggs, sugar and vanilla until it’s completely moist. Take it out and sprinkle some brown sugar on top. Melt some butter in a pan and flip the toast upside down, to get the sugar to caramelize with the butter. Let it get golden brown and repeat with the other side of the toast. Serve with butter, jams, chocolate spread, peanut butter…
Pain perdu or French Toast

Now let’s move onto the recipe (for real this time).

Baguette Courante

The classic French baguette using fresh yeast. I’m showing you here how to make a baguette in 2 hours and a half, but you can put your dough in the fridge after the primary fermentation to give it more taste. The recipe is for one small baguette, adapted for home oven. Feel free to multiplicate it as you wish.
TYPE: Bread
COUNTRY: France
YIELD: 1 Baguette
KNEADING: 10 mins
FERMENTATION: 2 hrs
BAKING: 20 mins
TOTAL TIME: 2 hrs 30 mins

INGREDIENTS

  • 200 g white bread flour
  • 140 g water
  • 3 g fresh yeast or 1g dried yeast
  • 4 g salt

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Mix the flour and the water together in order to make an autolyse. No need to knead. Let it rest for at least 30 minutes, can be longer.
  2. Add the yeast and the salt and start kneading. Continue until your dough has enough strength to get a window pane. Let it rest for 30 minutes.
  3. Shape the dough into a baguette. Put the seems up and wrap around a kitchen towel.
  4. Let it prove for around an hour to one hour and a half.
  5. Place a baking tray in your oven and preheat it at 250°C 45 minutes before the end of the proving time.
  6. Before putting your dough in, boil some water and pour it in a bowl that can support high heat.
  7. Cut a piece of baking paper and place it beside your baguette. Pull the kitchen towel to make the baguette roll onto the baking paper. Put it on a baking tray or a cutting board for easy load in the oven.
  8. Score the baguette and make sure your lame is at 45°.
  9. Open the door of the oven and make your baguette slide to the back of the baking tray. Put your bowl of boiling water in and quickly close the door.
  10. Let it bake for 7 minutes then take the bowl of water out. Turn the heat on both top and lower position.
  11. Let it bake for around 15 minutes. Less if you like your baguette light, more if you like it dark.
  12. Take it out and let it cool down on a tray.
  13. Enjoy!

Thank you for reading !

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