Baguettes can be a tricky thing. On the surface they seem like a fairly simple bread to make — and they are. But that’s the problem. It’s often the simplest things that are the most difficult to perfect.
Simple does not necessarily equate to easy.
Mixing a smooth extensible baguette dough can be a challenge. Shaping nice even baguettes can be a challenge. Transferring baguettes to the oven can be a challenge. Scoring can be a challenge.
In order to simplify the baguette making process a bit, I’ve tried to remove a couple of those difficulties. I’ll show you a simple (and easy) way to mix a nice smooth dough. And we’ll bake the baguettes on a sheet pan to remove the challenge (and equipment needs) of transferring baguettes from couche to peel to oven.
Shaping and scoring will still be difficult — that’s just the nature of baguettes. But I’ll show you a gentle and efficient method for shaping them that anyone can learn with a bit of practice. Keep in mind, your shaping doesn’t have to be perfect in order to get nice baguettes.
And just what kind of baguette will we be getting, exactly?
Even though this is just a beginner’s baguette method, you can still make high quality baguettes at home. They may not be on par with the baguettes you’ll find at a high-end artisan bread shop, but is that even necessary? With this simple method and only minimal effort you can produce attractive and delicious baguettes from home that will more than meet your needs.
In the future, I’ll probably do an article for more advanced baguettes that will be a bit closer to what you might find at a bakery. But honestly, I make ’em this way more often than not just because the ease-to-quality ratio is so favorable.
So let’s get to it . . .
495g All-Purpose Flour
100g White Starter @ 100% hydration (50g all-purpose flour and 50g water)
Baker’s Percentages (for final dough)
100% All-Purpose Flour (9% prefermented)
First thing you’ll notice is that this is a lower hydration recipe. The trend towards wetter doughs in many of the newer bakeries has also extended to the baguettes that these bakeries make. Many go as high as 80% hydration (or even more). The aim, of course, is for a super open and custardy crumb.
This recipe, however, makes a dough more the consistency of traditional baguette dough — stiffer rather than wetter. Now, different flours absorb water differently so my 65% hydration might make a stiffer or wetter dough than your 65% hydration. The goal is to achieve a consistency similar to what you see in the video — so feel free to adjust hydration as necessary.
The reason we’re using this stiffer dough is primarily for ease of handling. Wet dough is difficult stuff — especially for beginners. This dough, though still soft enough to be a bit sticky, should be much easier to handle on the whole.
Additionally, since we’ll be proofing these baguettes free-standing on a baking sheet, the stiffness will help to support the loaves so they can hold a nice shape and keep their height. If you were to try this with wet dough then the baguettes would likely flatten out unless you are very skilled at shaping.
Because of the stiffer dough (and because we’re baking on a sheet instead of directly on a stone) you won’t get the wildly open crumb that many bakers are striving for in their baguettes. But nevertheless, you can still get a light and open crumb even with such a stiff dough. Open crumb is 80% proper fermentation and handling — get good at those two things and your crumb will show it.
The second thing you’ll notice is that we’re not using an autolyse here.
I know, I know.
That’s practically heresy. Especially when it comes to baguettes where extensibility is so necessary. Trust me, you can still get extensible dough even without an autolyse. The point of this method is simplification. And one way to simplify things is to remove unnecessary steps.
Yes, I just said that the autolyse is unnecessary.
Of course, you’re free to autolyse the dough if you prefer. In fact, you’re free to change any step in this process however you like — there are no rules in bread baking. But if you like the results you see here, this is the method that produced them. I’d suggest trying it as presented before you start altering things.
Now that we’ve got all that out of the way. Let’s start mixing . . .
It’s pretty basic here, just toss everything into the bowl and mix it up a bit. This is a direct mixing method, and we’re just trying to get all the ingredients evenly incorporated at this point — we’re not trying to develop the gluten yet. I like to start with the water and salt just to make sure the salt dissolves evenly throughout the dough, but otherwise order of ingredients doesn’t really matter.
Even though we’re not using an autolyse, we are using a rest period. This one hour rest period will allow the flour to hydrate and the gluten to form. By letting time do the work for us we are minimizing the amount of muscular effort we need to develop the dough.
Believe it or not, just one hour is all the time necessary. In fact, I’ve done it with only a half-hour rest and the results are still pretty damn good. But one hour is noticeably better. After that, you start to run into the problem of diminishing returns.
So with this one hour rest we manage to reduce our mix time significantly. We only need a couple minutes in the beginning (just to incorporate the ingredients) and a couple minutes at the end (to smooth out the dough). Time does all the rest.
And it really does make a nice dough — even though we included the salt and starter right from the beginning. This is actually one of my favorite mixing methods, and I probably use it more than any other. If you have a stroll through my Instagram gallery (@trevorjaywilson) you’ll see a plethora of breads of which many, if not most, were made using this method.
I like it because it’s so simple, and yet so effective. Yes, I still often use a traditional autolyse. And yes, I often use the premixing method that I’m known for. But this method is actually my bread and butter. I’m drawn towards simplicity, and this method has it in spades. And to my hands, the quality of dough is effectively just as good. Yes, there are some subtle differences that I can feel between this and other methods. But they are minor, and so the small tradeoff is usually worth it to me.
So after your shaggy clump of dough has been resting for an hour, all you need to do is smooth it out. I like to first give it a set of folds to stretch the dough and build some tension, then I just knead it in the bowl for a couple minutes until it’s nice and smooth. You can see from the video how little time it takes. I left the second part of the mix unedited so you can see it go from shaggy mass to smooth dough in real time.
Just keep in mind that if your dough starts to tear then that means you’re working it too much. It really doesn’t take long to smooth out, so once you feel the dough ball starting to tighten or tear then you’re pretty much done. Set it into an oiled bowl and cover.
At room temp this dough usually takes around 2-4 hours to proof, but times will vary based on many circumstances. Better to judge by the amount of volume increase. You’re looking for a 30% to 50% rise.
But we need to discuss something here . . .
Generally, a 30% to 50% increase in volume is a good indicator that your dough has enough gas inside for it to have the necessary structure to hold a nice shape. Even a 20% rise, coupled with an appropriate bench rest after prerounding, is enough for dough to hold a nice shape.
But under 20% and your dough will not typically have enough structure to hold form, and will likely flatten out. The 20% mark is a fine line, and unless you have an experienced eye it’s best to err on the side of more proofy. That’s why I typically recommend a minimum 30% rise.
However . . .
The greater the rise during the bulk proof, the stronger and less extensible the dough will become. This can be a problem when it comes to shaping baguettes. Baguettes need extensibility. If your dough is too strong it’ll fight you.
And trust me, it’s a fight you will lose.
Trying to roll out baguettes from overly strong dough is a nightmare. You can pretty much count on ending up with torn and deformed baguettes.
So when it comes to proofing baguettes, younger dough is better — so long as you know you’ve at least hit that 20% mark. Therefore, I recommend shooting for something closer to a 30% rise rather than a 50% rise. This will make a noticeable difference when it comes to shaping the dough. If you’re very confident in your ability to judge degree of proof, then you might even want to aim for a 20% rise. In this video, I gave the dough a 30% rise, approximately.
And one thing to note, this method does not call for any folds.
Again, we simplify by removing steps. Besides, we’re working with a fairly stiff dough here which by it’s nature tends toward the stronger side. If we were to add folds, the extra strength would only detract from our ability to shape the baguettes. If you choose to ignore this advice, you do so at your own peril . . .
Once your dough is ready, scrape it out onto a lightly floured bench. Be as gentle as possible here — the goal, as always, is to maintain the integrity of the dough.
You’ll notice that I don’t use my normal “fold and tip” method to remove the dough here. That’s because those folds, especially so late into the proof, would add extra strength to the dough that we don’t want. Better to just scrape down the sides then ease it on out. Try not to let the dough flop over itself at all during this process. You want to remove it as just one clean layer.
Once the dough is on the table, square it up a bit then cut it in half. If you want to be exact, feel free to use a scale and weigh the dough out into pieces approximately 450g to 455g each. But eyeballing it is quick, easy and accurate enough for most home bakers. Plus, by minimizing handling and the number of cuts you need to make, you’re better maintaining the integrity of the dough. This results in a lighter crumb, which is important when using a stiffer dough like this.
There are many ways to preround baguettes. The method I use here is simple and not too difficult for beginners. It’s best to preround them as oblongs rather than boules — these will be much easier to shape evenly and roll out to length. If you want to see an alternative method of prerouding, I have a video on my Instagram where I use the “belly roll” technique (my preferred method).
When prerounding baguettes, the key is to achieve tension along the cross-section, but to keep it relaxed along the length. Cross-sectional tension will help you get a nice round body, and a relaxed length will help when it comes to rolling out the baguettes.
Once prerounded, they need to rest for around 20-45 minutes. You want them to sit long enough so that they give up a fair bit of their tension. This will help when it comes to rolling them out. But you don’t want them to sit for so long that they begin to proof up. As previously noted, the proofier the dough becomes the harder it will be to roll them out. I left mine uncovered, but if it’s cold, dry or drafty then it helps to cover them with plastic or cloth in order to prevent a skin from forming.
Now we get to the hard part. Shaping baguettes is difficult — there’s just no way around it. In all my years as a professional, I’ve seen that baguettes — without fail — have always been the most challenging shape for new bakers to learn.
I wish I had better news for you.
For this fact alone, I probably shouldn’t have included “easy” in the post title. Forgive me the clickbait.
Now, if you like, you can actually just roll out the prerounded and relaxed pieces “as is”. You’ll still get a decent shape and acceptable results. But you’ll end up with a tighter crumb, less ovenspring and cuts that don’t open well.
The simple fact is that surface tension is required for optimal results. And the ability to create surface tension only comes with practice. The more you make these baguettes, the better you’ll get at shaping them.
The shaping method I use here is my preferred method. But there are many other methods you can use. Many methods make use of two folds and a couple passes of patting the seam to build tension. You can see an example of the Master Jeffrey Hamelman using one such method here (starts at about 2:30 into the video).
For my method, I prefer just one fold along with a gentle “push” to create the tension. Then I fold over the other half of the dough and seal the seam with the soft part of the palm of my hand. I don’t pat out any of the air before I shape it. My method emphasizes a gentle touch and economy of motion (which is helpful when shaping hundreds of baguettes a day in a production environment). The video up top shows my method far better than I can describe it here. Perhaps in the future I’ll make an entire video dedicated to demonstrating and explaining this method.
But for now, just watch it a bunch of times and mimic it as best you can. Or use your own preferred method of shaping. Whatever works best for you is what works best.
You’ll notice that my baguettes are shorter and fatter than your typical bakery baguette. These are “house baguettes”. Their size and shape are due to the limitations of the equipment (the sheet pan you use and/or the oven you bake in). And when I’m making house baguettes I prefer them to be a bit fatter anyway — more versatile that way. But if you like, you can actually divide the dough into 3 pieces so you can make them narrower like traditional baguettes.
After shaping, set them on a sheet pan lined with baking parchment and cover them with a damp cotton tea towel to prevent too much skin from forming. I like to remove the cloth about 30-60 minutes before I’m ready to bake — this allows the wet surface to dry a bit and form a very light skin that helps when scoring the loaves.
But too much skin will make for difficult scoring, poor spring and coloring, and overall ugly loaves. The skin should still be tacky and pliable — if it becomes completely dry to the touch and hard or crusty then it’s dried out too much. You can resoften a crusty skin by spraying or brushing it with water and letting it sit for a few minutes — it’s not ideal, but it’s better than a crunchy surface.
Or you can just leave the damp cloth for the entire proof if you prefer. The surface of the baguettes will be damp and more difficult to score, but that dampness can actually help out if you have difficulty generating enough steam in your oven.
The baguettes should proof for around 1-2 hours or so. Again, times will vary based on many factors so adjust as necessary. When in doubt, use the finger poke test to determine if the baguettes are ready.
Now, I personally like to proof baguettes just a wee bit on the young side. This helps the cuts to bloom nicely in the oven. One thing to keep in mind is that, in general, loaves that proof free-standing (if well shaped) can handle a bit more proofing than loaves that are supported by baskets or on a folded couche. This is because they are more heavily weighed down by gravity, and therefore require more force (i.e. more gas accumulation) to counter those effects when aiming for the same degree of proof. So if you decide to proof your baguettes in a couche, adjust the recommended proof time as necessary.
Again, this is just something that takes practice to get right. Just knowing how you’re supposed to score baguettes isn’t the same as actually being able to score them. Scoring is a skill that only comes with time. That said, here’s how it goes . . .
First, be aware of the pattern. The cuts should all be of equal length, of equal distance from each other, and evenly spaced from one end to the other. Each cut should be of the same slant as all the rest. If you had a centerline running the length of the baguette, then it would bisect each cut perfectly through the middle. In other words, exactly half of each cut should be on each side of the loaf — if more of the cut falls to one side of the baguette than the other, then you missed it. And each cut should overlap its neighbors by 20% to 30% or so.
A quick image search on google will pull up some good illustrations for scoring baguettes.
When making your cuts, angle the blade 30 to 45 degrees so that you’re cutting just under the surface. This will help the cuts to bloom and form nice little ears.
Don’t worry if they’re not perfect the first time you try it (or even the 20th time). With practice you’ll get better and better at it. But if you prefer, you can just give them a single cut right down the center of the baguette. This is a much easier cut to make, if not quite traditional, and you’ll still get an attractive baguette.
I bake these at 500F (260C) for a total of 30 minutes. Bake times can vary quite a bit depending on your oven, the shape of your baguettes (narrower baguettes bake quicker), the kind of pan you’re using, whether you have a baking stone or not, etc.
Adjust as necessary.
I like to set my pan on a baking stone because it helps to more quickly transfer heat through the sheet pan and into the loaves. This helps with ovenspring and bloom. If you don’t have a baking stone, don’t worry — just set the pan on the rack as usual.
And please keep in mind, because these baguettes are baked on a sheet pan they will not get the same ovenspring, bloom and crust as they would if they were baked directly on the stone. That’s just part of the price you pay for the ease and simplicity of this method. But don’t worry, they’ll still be damn fine.
Regarding steaming, there are a multitude of ways to steam an oven. If you already have a preferred method then go ahead and use that. For me, I like to use a pan full of lava rocks. I preheat the lava rocks along with the oven, then use a watering can to pour in a cup or two of hot tap water. Some folks prefer to use boiling water, but hot tap works just fine for me.
Before pouring in the water, it’s important that you cover the glass on the oven door with a towel for protection. If you accidently spill water onto the hot glass it can shatter dramatically. Don’t think that spills won’t happen — they will, and one can ruin your day real quick.
And be sure to keep a safe distance from the steam. Keep your arms, and especially your face, as far back from the steam as you can. That’s why I use the watering can — it has a long spout which helps to provide safe distance from the danger zone. If you’ve ever suffered a steam burn before, you’ll know just how important keeping that safe distance is.
Once the baguettes are loaded and steamed, bake them first for 15 minutes. Then remove the pan of lava rocks (again, be careful here — the pan may still be steaming), rotate the sheet pan and then bake for another 15 minutes or until colored to your liking.
Cool and Enjoy!
Baguettes cool pretty quickly so you needn’t wait long to dig in. In fact, they’re pretty damn tasty right out of the oven (well, at least once they’ve cooled enough so they don’t burn you, that is). Feel free to ignore the usual advice I give on waiting until fully cooled. Yes, the flavor will continue to improve over the next day. But baguettes are really all about the crust, and for that reason I feel they’re best enjoyed hot and fresh.
Trevor J. Wilson