Sunday, 6 January 2013

Baguettes - The highs and lows

I've never been a big fan of bread. As a child growing up eating supermarket bread loaves I found them rather bland and I couldn't comprehend how 'some' people actually claimed they liked the crust which, to me tastes dry and unappealing. It was only until recently when I had a bite of the sourdough baguette at a restaurant that my opinion of bread was changed. I became an admirer of baguettes.

As always I try to re-create the delicious things that I've had at home. Armed with little knowledge about bread making I delved into the world of baguette making with just the help of a wonderful baking blog:

Little did I know that baguettes are made from one of the wettest bread doughs one can possibly come up with and this particular recipe calls for an 80% hydration dough (normal baguette doughs hover around 75% ish), making it extremely difficult to handle.

My first attempt got me two literally brick hard 'baguettes' which I had to, as much as I hated to, chuck in the bin as they were near inedible. That put me off making baguettes for a while but before long I started to look back to the recipe again and decided I'd give it another go. I must say the beautifully laid out blog from above has contributed a lot to my motivation as the pictures of their bread look absolutely gorgeous.

Anyway last week I made my second batch of baguettes. It went fairly OK but my dough just didn't like how it should be in the video. Furthermore the seemingly simple process of 'scoring' the bread went horribly wrong as I realised my chef's knife was too blunt for the task. The oven spring was weak, the scoring was terrible, the crumb looked nothing like how it should look like and the crust, whist crisp was a tad too chewy. The flavour was good though and it tasted pretty good with some butter spread.

Determined to get it right. I started making baguettes again this weekend. I also managed to source a surgical scalpel just for the task of scoring. I couldn't think of anything sharper than that. This time I've read up a bit more about bread baking in general and realised that the poolish fermentation time has quite an influence on the strength of the gluten structure. The longer the fermentation the weaker it gets from what it seems. On the other hand it's the slow fermentation process that gives the baguette its flavour. It's a balancing act here.

I sticked to the lower end of the fermentation timing just to test my understanding of gluten strength. This time the dough was so much smoother than before and I could certainly feel that the gluten stucture was a lot stronger. Scoring was still haphazard but better. Then something happened. Just as I was about to shove the baguettes into the oven,  I realised that the transfer board that I used was too large to go into the oven and despite attempts to shake the baguettes off the board onto the oven stone they just wouldn't budge an inch. Call me silly but I suddenly had the genius idea of putting my hand into the oven and pull the baguette into it from inside the oven. Guess what, in the process of doing so I pressed my arm against the 250C hot heating element in the oven and dropped the baguettes on the floor as my most primitive instinctive reflex pulled my arm out of the oven. As the baguette was made using a very wet dough the shape had gone all wrong and being OCD and such I couldn't possibly shove those dirt stained baguettes back into the oven. That is, if I had the ability to actually scrape the sticky wet dough off the floor.

I was angry. At myself. At the fact that I don't possess the proper equipments to make baguettes. At the fact that I was stupid enough to put my hand into the oven hoping to not burn myself. And most of all, for the 4 hours that I'd spent working on that dough which never had the chance to bake properly. To make things worse as I tried to prepare dinner for my invited guests that night I landed a neat slit on my finger. Good times. If it was of any consolation my Malaysian beef curry actually did go down a treat with my friends that evening and so were my home made puff pastry cheese and olive straws and chocolate fondants. Unwilling to give up, I made a new batch of poolish, in the hope of rectifying my mistakes from this mishap the next day.

So it all went according to plan today with the exception of me forgetting to leave the door ajar for the last 5 minutes to let the steam escape. Nevertheless the baguette had signs of some degree of oven spring (compared to none at all last time), the crumb was nice and full of holes and the crust was crisp but unfortunately still quite chewy (I blame it on not letting the steam escape thoroughly in the end of baking but that can be easily avoided next time). That said I found that by toasting the baguette under the grill for 10 minutes gets rid of that chewiness completely and makes it just slightly chewy on the inside but crisp and full of nutty flavour. Perfect with butter and few slices of smoked ham. That was my late evening snack. There was no guilt smearing all that butter over my baguette slices because I knew that its made with lean dough (i.e; no fat at all!!! What an irony don't you think? French bread with no butter incorporated in it?? Brioche anyone?)

The shape of the baguettes was not perfect but it was inevitable as my oven is too small to accommodate a full length baguette. Overall quite an improvement from my last attempt (the one before the disastrous one).

Baking in a tiny student flat kitchen with no access to stand mixer and food processor have certainly taught me to be a more resourceful and innovative person. Or is that just me looking on the bright side of things?

This will not be my last time baking baguettes. I will try to perfect the techniques as much as I can before moving on to baking that ultimate sourdough baguette which I fell in love with during the summer. Watch this space.



  1. Awesome baguettes. Did you mke your own sour dough starter? I tired one too but the starter was my nemises. That's where I got confused. When to feed and when to use it?
    And the dough is so different..

    1. No these weren't sourdough baguettes. I'm working towards that once I get more comfortable with baguette making though. I'm actually thinking of buying a sourdough starter from a dutch bakery. Apparently the longer the starter's been growing the better the flavour. It's a rye starter as well which should give my bread a wonderful flavour and aroma. Can't wait!

      There is a very good website called thefreshloaf with plenty of tutorials and lots of bread bakers' blogs. For white starters you'd probably need to feed it every day but for rye starters just once a week will do.

  2. Nice holes in your bread! I too am trying to perfect the baguette (New Year's Resolution for 2013)

    My problem is that one time, I can get it to be really good and the next time, in spite of using the exact same measurements and hydration and technique, it's not quite as good. I need to work on consistency as it's been hit or miss


Comments and feedback are what keep me going! I'd always be happy to help you with questions you have regarding the recipes in my entries.