This recipe for baguettes ‘de tradition’, using a couche cloth, is adapted from the French Country Bread recipe in Bread Matters, pp 182-4.
Note: ‘leaven’ and ‘sourdough’ mean the same thing – a mixture of flour and water that is allowed to ferment naturally.
Baguettes are defined by their distinctive thin, almost razor-sharp, crust and light, holey, crumb. The classic crust is hard to achieve in domestic kitchens because it needs a sealed oven into which pressurised steam can be flooded as soon as the loaves are inserted. Most domestic ovens cannot be effectively sealed and providing sufficient steam at the right moment requires specialised equipment. Some approximation can be made, however, by misting boiling water onto a hot tray underneath the loaves.
Traditional artisan baguettes are proved on ‘couches’ - floured cloths rucked into channels which support the proving dough. Traditional baguettes are also made with a long fermentation process which delivers a real flavour to the crumb - unlike the tasteless industrial offerings. Increasingly, French artisan bakers are moving away from pure white baguettes towards wholemeal, known as ‘complet’, or ‘integrale’.
In view of the large proportion of crust to crumb and the open texture of the dough, don’t expect any baguette to keep for more than a day or so outside the freezer.
Starting a Wheat Leaven from Scratch
Day 1 40 g wholemeal wheat flour
40 ml warm water (35°C)
80 g total
Mix to a sloppy dough, cover loosely with a polythene bag and leave in a warm place (around 27°C is perfect but don’t worry if you can’t achieve that). After roughly 24 hours, refresh as follows:
Day 2 80 g starter from Day 1
40 g wholemeal flour
40 ml warm water (35°C)
160 g total
Mix until all the ingredients are combined, cover loosely with a polythene bag and leave in a warm place.
After 24 hours, refresh as follows:
Day 3 160 g starter from Day 2
40 g wholemeal flour
20 ml warm water (35°C)
220 g total
Mix until all the ingredients are combined. The dough should become a little firmer than it has been. Cover loosely with a polythene bag and leave in a warm place. After 24 hours, refresh as follows:
Day 4 220 g starter from Day 3
120 g white flour (or wholemeal)
60 ml warm water (35°C)
400 g total ‘original leaven’ or ‘starter’
Mix until all the ingredients are combined. The dough will get a bit firmer. Cover loosely with a polythene bag and leave in a warm place.
After 24 hours you should have a leaven which smells nicely acidic. From now on, use some of this to make a ‘production leaven’ and bread as follows:
Using a leaven to make baguettes
To make four 15” (30 cm) baguettes
Stage 1 Making a ‘Production Leaven’ (a process known as ‘refreshment’)
160 g * original leaven (i.e. the starter you have just made or an old one from the fridge)
200 g flour (75/25 white/wholemeal, or as you prefer)
120 ml warm water (35°C)
480 g total ‘production leaven’
Mix to a dough and leave in a warm place (room temperature) for 4 hours or in a cooler place (8-12°C) for 12 hours. Then use this leaven to make your dough.
* If you are making the exact quantities in this recipe, you will have about 240 g of your original leaven left. This goes into a sealed pot in the fridge to wait for the next time you are making bread.
Stage 2 Making the Final Dough
300 g refreshed ‘production leaven’ from Stage 1 (put the remaining 180 g or so in your leaven pot in the fridge)
400 g flour (75/25 white/wholemeal, or as you prefer)
300 ml warm water (35°C)
8 g sea salt
1008 g total ‘final dough’
Make a fairly soft dough. Knead until smooth and elastic. Divide into pieces of about 250 g each. Roll out until about 15”/30cm long. Rub flour (brown rice flour is best but wheat flour will do) into your couche cloth. Place on a suitable tray or board and form channels by rucking up the couche.
Lay the dough pieces in the channels. Support one channel against the rim of the tray if it has one. If it doesn’t, fold the edge of the couche cloth over to make a double thickness. Push the channels gently but firmly together so that the baguette dough will rise upwards rather than outwards. The final channel can be supported with a suitable object like a rolling pin.
Cover the whole thing loosely with a large polythene bag or a cloth and prove until the dough feels near to the limit of its gas-holding capacity. This may take up to five hours, depending on the vigour of your leaven and the temperature of your kitchen.
Roll the proved dough sticks, one by one gently on to a piece of stiff card or thin ply wood prepared for the purpose and then roll them off on to a peel (for sliding on to a hot baking stone) or on to a prepared baking tray.
Cut with a very sharp knife or razor blade, making four or five long slashes at a slight diagonal to the length of the dough pieces, each slash overlapping the previous one by a little.
Bake in a fairly hot oven (220°C dropping to 200°C after ten minutes) to develop a good crust. If you use steam in the oven to aid the formation of a crisp crust, stop adding further moisture after ten minutes of baking.
Your baguettes will be done when they are well coloured and hard enough to resist firm pressure on their tops.
The crust will go soft within a few hours as the moisture of the crumb migrates to the surface crust. To restore the original crisp crust, place in a moderate oven for 5-7 minutes.