A classic baguette consists of 4 ingredients: flour, yeast, salt, and water. To me, it needs nothing else anyway. By French law, baguettes cannot have preservatives, so they must be baked fresh every day. They tend to go stale within 24 hours; however, when you start with a preferment, you add natural preservatives to the bread that will keep it fresh much longer.
The best-tasting baguettes begin life 2 days before they’re sliced. This can be a problem if you decide on Saturday morning that you’d like fresh bread for dinner that evening.
You can speed things up and skip the overnight proofs and risings if necessary. But do try to at least start the initial overnight proof. This preferment brings an almost sourdough-like tang to the bread that smells absolutely incredible while it’s cooking.
These aren’t difficult to make, just time-consuming. The only special product you’ll need is a cradle, or baker’s couche. The bread is too soft to hold its shape without this support.
I have an old EKCO Baker’s Secret cradle I think I paid 50 cents for at a thrift store years ago. If you’re serious about making baguettes King Arthur Flour carries a nice baguette pan and baker’s couche, along with some other tools and supplies you might find quite handy.
The time spent will be worth it when you taste these fresh from the oven. You can substitute whole wheat flour for some of the bread flour, if you like. Use 1 cup whole wheat flour instead of bread flour in the preferment and then substitute another cup of whole wheat flour for the same amount of bread flour when mixing up the dough.
If you won’t be needing 2 loaves, you can freeze one for later. Just seal it tightly in plastic wrap, cover it with foil, and put it in the freezer. Bread keeps very well this way and thaws quickly for later use.
Classic French Baguette
Makes 2 17” loaves
1 cup bread flour
½ cup water
1/8 tsp instant yeast
3½ cups bread flour
1 cup water
1½ tsp sea salt
¼ tsp instant yeast
Mix the 1 cup bread flour, ½ cup water, and 1/8 tsp instant yeast for the preferment.
Cover and leave out at room temperature overnight.
The next day, put the 3½ cups bread flour, 1 cup water, sea salt, and ¼ tsp instant yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the preferment and knead for 5 minutes with the dough hook, adding 1 to 2 teaspoons more of water if it’s too dry. Remove the dough from the stand mixer and shape into a ball.
Place into a medium bowl, cover, and let rise until double, about 3 hours.
Push the dough down.
Divide in half. Cover and let rest 10 minutes.
Shape each half into baguette loaves. I do this by bringing up the sides and pinching them into a roll.
Place in the baguette cradle. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Remove from the refrigerator and set out at room temperature about 2 hours. The dough should be near the top of the pan.
Preheat the oven to 425°F. Spritz the loaves with water and slash gently with a knife. Cover again and let rise another 30 minutes.
Place the cradle in the oven. Throw in a couple of ice cubes and close the door. This will generate steam which causes the bread to have a quick initial rise and crisp, crackly crust. Let bake until golden brown, 25-30 minutes.
Turn the oven off, crack the door, and let the baguettes cool inside. Remove from the oven, slice, and serve!