My favorite bread to make is baguettes. I love sandwiches and I especially love to make sandwiches with baguettes. And ever since I started making bread, my goal was to make my own baguettes so I could use them for sandwiches. And of all the different kinds of bread that I make, baguettes are the simplest with respect to the process. But they are also the easiest to completely screw up.
With my earliest attempts, the baguettes had a great shape. They appeared to get great oven spring and from appearance alone, they just looked right. But most of the time, they were pretty dense inside and super-chewy. I’d pick up a loaf and my heart would sink because I could feel the heft. They tasted okay, but damn if I couldn’t make a 6″ sub and not be completely weighed down by the dough.
But now my baguettes are light and airy. They have a great chew, but the dough gives very easily. And with the flour that I use, while the crust is crunchy and crispy, it’s not overly so. This bread is perfect for making sandwiches!
What changed to get me to making much better baguettes? In actuality, not much. I just did less; specifically, I worked the dough far less than I would with a larger loaf like a boule or batard. What I realized is that while forming a good, strong gluten network is important with any bread, with baguettes, there’s an inflection point that defines whether I get a light, airy crumb or I get a dense one. And that point comes a helluva lot sooner than when I’m making larger loaves.
With my larger-format loaves, I’m pretty aggressive with mixing the dough upfront until the dough is completely smooth. Then I do about six stretches and folds over the course of three hours from the initial mix. But with baguettes, I mix to a much courser consistency, rest the dough for a half-hour, then do at most two stretches and folds within the first hour then let it rest from 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
It reminds me of making biscuits. With biscuits you never want to overwork your dough. You mix only until all the ingredients are just incorporated and the butter or shortening is reasonably distributed throughout the dough. Then you roll it out and cut the biscuits. It’s a similar thing with making baguettes. Less is definitely more!
I wish I could explain where that inflection point is, but it’s something I feel. What I can share is that once I finish the second stretch and fold, if I can pull on the dough mass and the whole thing wants to come up, I know I’ve hit that point where the dough’s strong enough. And then I leave it alone!
Leaving the dough alone was a very difficult thing for me to learn. In fact, even with my larger-format loaves, I’ve learned that resting is just as important as manipulating the dough. And it’s been especially tough for a naturally impatient person as myself. As I used to say, “If patience was a virtue, then I’d be a slut.”