After mixing, the dough should lack structure and be wet and shaggy. It looks more like a thick batter than bread dough.
Fold the dough three times with 20-minute rest periods to give it structure. Allow it to bulk ferment for two hours.
Divide the dough into 14-oz. pieces, and shape into blunt cylinders. Let the dough rest for 20 minutes, and then shape them into baguettes.
Many bakeries in the U.S. make baguettes, the quintessential French bread, and many of the U.S.-produced baguettes rank among the best in the world. Over the years, technological advances have changed baguette techniques, but the one used in this article creates the "baguette de tradition," which is a departure from the method most American bakers use. Presently, France is experiencing a resurgence of this style of baguette, which many decades ago was the typical baguette with its interesting and unique characteristics.
The "traditional" baguette was born in the last century. When mechanical mixers, reliable supplies of fresh yeast, sophisticated milling technology (which enabled the miller to extract a maximum of white flour from the wheat berry) and steam injected ovens became readily available in the early twentieth century, bakers in Paris made baguettes that were considered by many people to be a pinnacle achievement.
These "traditional" baguettes were lightly mixed, loose doughs with lengthy bulk fermentation. Dough strength was improved through a series of folds, and the simple, non-intrusive act of allowing the dough to ripen for a few hours. The crumb color in the finished loaves was a beautiful creamy yellow, due to the modest amount of mixing. Since the dough was not over-oxidized by intensive mixing, the delicate flavors and aromas intrinsic in the wheat were superb. The crust’s splintery crack was a good contrast to the soft crumb.
Eventually, this style of baking all but disappeared. An excess of mechanization–harsh hydraulic dough dividers, punishing dough moulders and high speed mixing−led to diminished bread flavor and keeping quality. While the machinery allowed bakers to produce vastly greater numbers of loaves in much less time, quality was sacrificed for quantity. While some types of modern make-up equipment allow bakers to increase production speed without sacrificing bread quality, I have chosen to step back and demonstrate an older, less mechanical baguette method.
The first and foremost requirement for making good traditional baguettes is to use the highest quality flour. Water, salt and yeast are all generally fine for bread making purposes, and it is primarily in the area of flour choice that we should devote our principal focus. I used a winter wheat flour with 11.8% protein and 0.48% ash with good handling characteristics.
Traditional make-up procedure
Careful attention to the details of mixing and handling will help minimize some of the challenges of making these baguettes. To begin, take the temperature of the flour and air, assume about 10°F as a friction factor, and calculate the correct water temperature. (If you are unsure how to perform this calculation, you can email me at Jeffrey.Hamelman@kingarthurflour.com and I will send a sheet detailing the procedure.) The desired dough temperature at the end of the mix is 72°F to 75°F.
Place all the ingredients in a mixing bowl. If you are using a planetary-style mixer, the water should go in first; in a spiral mixer, the ingredients can be added in any order. Since the dough is mixed only very lightly, crumble the yeast and disperse it and the salt into the water before beginning the mix. Mix on first speed for about 500 revolutions. The dough will be very wet and shaggy, completely lacking in dough structure and looking more like batter than bread dough. Resist the urge to add additional flour, and place the dough in a dough tub.
Fold the dough after 20 minutes. To do this, flour the workbench, scrape out the dough, and fold assertively; first the left side in toward the center, then the right side toward the center, next the side nearest you toward the center, and finally the side furthest from you toward the center. Take care to avoid incorporating excess dusting flour or ripping the dough.
Turn the dough seam-side down, and transfer back to the tub. Fold again 20 minutes later and then once more 20 minutes after that. The dough is folded three times in one hour. Each time you fold, note how dramatically the structure of the dough increases. After the third fold, allow the dough to ferment undisturbed for two hours (the bulk fermentation lasts for a total of three hours).
The principles underlying this technique are as follows: the dough has not developed any appreciable gluten strength in the mixer, which means strength must be added to the dough through a combination of folding and bulk fermentation. Folding three times during the first hour adds good gas retention properties to the dough. During the two-hour bulk fermentation, the dough expands and strengthens, developing maximum flavor and aroma potential.
At the end of the bulk fermentation, place the dough on a lightly floured worktable. Divide the dough into 14-oz. (400 gram) pieces. Lightly shape each piece into blunt cylinders. Let the dough pieces rest on the workbench for about 20 minutes. When they are sufficiently relaxed, shape them into baguettes, taking care to avoid tightening the dough.
The correct combination of vigorous handling for structure and delicate shaping for inner crumb softness is needed. Place the shaped loaves onto floured linen, with the seams up. This ensures that the tops of the baguettes, which are in contact with the floured linen, will have a dry surface at the time of the load, and gives definition to the cuts for a pleasingly rustic appearance.
Final proof for about 40 to 50 minutes, depending on ambient conditions. Slightly under risen is preferred to a full rise at the time of loading–the cuts will open better and the risk of collapse will be minimized. Set the oven to 460°F to 470°F. Transfer the baguettes to the loading conveyor (or peel) so that the seams are down and the floured surface is up. Slash each loaf five to seven times with a blade. Steam the oven, load the bread, steam again (total steam time of six to eight seconds), and bake about 25 minutes, until richly colored and well-crusted. Remember that the dough is highly-hydrated, so a full bake is recommended in order to preserve the crispiness of the crust. Once cool, the crumb should be very creamy in color, not white, and the bread should have a subtle, delicate aroma.
The finished loaves will not have volume equal to baguettes that are mixed to a stronger gluten development, nor to those that use pre-ferments to induce extra dough strength. It is the clean and delicate aroma and flavor of fermented wheat that characterizes these baguettes, along with the variegated open crumb and the crisp crust. While not an especially easy bread to make, these "baguettes de tradition" offer an opportunity to enhance bread making skills and at the same time broaden the repertoire of finely-made baked products offered to customers.
Method: Mix all ingredients on first speed for 500 revolutions. Allow dough to rest in a tub for 20 minutes, and then fold. Fold two more times at 20-minute intervals. Bulk ferment for two hours. Shape and bake according to article.
* Avoid bleached or bromated flour. Winter wheat is preferable, but good results can be obtained using spring wheat flour of appropriate protein levels. Also note that absorption levels vary with different flours and with different seasons, so careful attention to hydration is necessary as the dough is mixing.
** Instant yeast can be substituted for the fresh yeast; check the manufacturer’s suggestion for the conversion ratio.
Jeffrey Hamelman is a baker and educator. He runs the King Arthur Bakery in Norwich, Vt., and instructs the professional classes at King Arthur’s Baking Education Center. For information about the classes, call 800/652-3334 or go to www.kingarthurflour.com