Man may not be able to live by bread alone, but it might be possible with these baguettes, and you sure won’t mind trying to find out.
MAKING GOOD BREAD at home is futile, or so it sometimes seems — especially classic French baguettes.
All yeasted doughs have fermentation in common, the process by which yeast feeds on the sugar in flour’s starch and emits carbon dioxide and alcohol. Integral to bread making, fermentation ensures that bread has flavor, texture, and leavening.
In French baguettes you’ll encounter fermentation three times. The first one is referred to as the preferment, which sits overnight, becoming a virtual yeast smorgasbord. Although preferments can be wet or dry, a wet one, called a poolish [poo- LEESH], works best for this recipe because it imparts nutty flavor.
Kneading is critical for the development of gluten. As water and flour are kneaded together, proteins in flour form a webbed network of gluten, a primary protein in wheat. Gluten gives dough flavor and the structure needed for its second phase of fermentation. You’ll know you’ve kneaded long enough to develop a strong gluten network when your dough passes the “window pane” test (see photo on page 40). At this stage, you can stop kneading and leave the yeast to continue doing its job.
But after an hour of rising, that action needs to be reeled in. Bread bakers refer to this process as degassing. Using a light touch is important to retain as much gas as possible and to ensure the large, irregular holes that are a hallmark of high-quality French baguettes. Degassing also allows the gluten to relax so the dough can easily be formed into loaves.
Shaping baguettes can seem to be a bit tricky. It takes practice to perfect the classic shape. Just remember — creating surface tension is the key to shaping baguettes. This guarantees that the dough will retain its shape.
Next to shape, nothing says baguette like the diagonal slashes. The cuts create weak points in the dough, causing gases to escape during oven spring, which is the initial burst of oven heat that causes bread to expand for its last sudden rise. Neglecting to slash your loaves leaves the trapped gas to find its own path out, causing the loaves to split open.
Steam is crucial to taking full advantage of the “last chance” rise of oven spring. It keeps dough from forming a crust too quickly. A dose of hot water sprayed onto the dough and onto the hot oven walls (not the light bulb) does the trick.