Most debates about baguettes between Francophiles quickly descend into acrimony. People love to reminisce about their holidays, and compare bakeries on ‘rue du this’ versus ‘rue du that’. Before too long, someone will wade in and says the best baguettes, not to mention the best spoken French, can actually be found in Geneva. At that point, you know it’s not too long before the American in the room innocently ventures to note that there are some decent baguettes to be had in Manhattan and San Francisco… and then, well, they’re off to the races, with insults and fur flying here and there.
Baguettes are long, crusty sticks of bread made from flour, salt, water and yeast. The flour is almost always bleached white flour. The bread is also brushed with water and/or cooked in an oven with some steam to help make a crisp crust. Having no fat in it to make it moist, and no sweetener to help retain moisture, a baguette is only really good to eat the day you bought it.
Purists maintain that flour, salt, water and yeast is all that can be in a good baguette, by law. They’re not quite right. The law in question doesn’t actually concern “baguettes”, it covers any bread that someone wants to sell as “traditional bread” (loosely translated), and the law authorizes the following additional ingredients: “la farine de fève (2 %), la farine de soja (0,5 %) et la farine de malt de blé (0,3 %) (Décret “Balladur” N°93-1074 du 13 Septembre 1993, article 2.) The “farine de fève” is fava bean flour, aka broad bean flour, and the “farine de soja” is soy-bean flour.
Julia Child had the hardest time recreating authentic French baguettes with pure American bread flour, until she realized the secret was the weaker French flour with the additives that are there to strengthen the flour.
In the UK, in blind taste tests the BBC did in 2002, it was a supermarket (Waitrose’s) that ended up having the best baguette, beating the “artisanal” loaves by a country mile.
Small holes on the bottom of a baguette are a clue that it was baked from frozen dough.
Couronne / Ficelle / Flute
If a baguette is shaped into a ring before baking, it is called a “couronne.” If it is made very thin, it is called a “ficelle.” If it is made very thin and short, it is called a “flute.”
If you are making your own baguette at home, you need steam somehow in the baking process to get the loaf crusty. Either dampen the surface of the loaves with a mist of water, or place a pan of hot water in the oven below the bread.
Don’t despair when a baguette goes stale on you the next day; celebrate. On this site you will find gorgeous recipes for both savoury and sweet puddings that call for stale bread.
Use on day of purchase or freeze that day. During that day, store in a paper bag (not plastic if possible: plastic will make the crust go very soft.)
In summer 2011, coin-operated baguette vending machines started to appear in Paris. Baguettes are stocked in the machine partially-cooked; the machine finishes cooking them in about 60 to 90 seconds, and dispenses them steaming hot to customers. The machine was invented by a baker from Hombourg-Haut, named Jean-Louis Hecht. The machines face onto the streets; similar machines have started appearing in some French supermarkets.
The machines allow access to fresh baguettes 24 hours a day, which is handy for shift-workers and those working off-hours.
Literature & Lore
Baguette is a French word for a “rod”; it is also used for pool sticks and magic wands.
In France, baguettes are carried home under the arm. A piece of paper is wrapped around the baguette where your armpit holds it tight — just in case you ever wondered.
Chevallier, Jim. About the Baguette: An inquiry into the origin of the baguette. 2009. Retrieved October 2009 from http://jimcheval.com/books/baguette .
Kim, Clara. Introducing the Baguette Vending Machine. Time Magazine. 11 August 2011.
Prince, Rose.Sacré bleu! Hot baguettes fresh from a vending machine. London: Daily Telegraph. 11 August 2011.