The Ultimate Loaf - Just What Is a Baguette?

The French baguette, made from only flour, water, yeast and salt, has nothing added to the dough to give added flavor.  A baker who can create a rich, complex flavor from only those four ingredients can make any loaf.

The Ultimate Loaf

A well-entrenched custom in Paris is the daily chore of picking up a fresh loaf from the neighborhood boulangerie. A baguette is the well known standard loaf, but there are many choices other than the baguette. The French choose their loaves based on the menu or on their preference. If a lot of ‘mie’ is wanted, they will pick a Parisian. If more crust is wanted, a ficelle is chosen. Both are made from the same dough as a baguette, and differ only in size and weight.

So, what is this bread, supported by national edict, essential to everyone at every meal, and known throughout the world as the penultimate accomplishment of the grain family?

Long and narrow with rounded ends, smooth, regular oval form.

Finely textured, thin and crispy crust, crisply slashed and light for its’ mass.

The crust is not blistered and adheres to the loaf; the slashes are symmetrical in length and untorn. The color a palette of rich, warm browns.

The crumb is cream colored, evoking the color of a sunny wheat field, with many irregularly shaped alveoli. Resistant to the bite, it, nonetheless, is tender. No hint of starchiness in the flavor, but a complex, many layered sweetness that swallows ‘clean’.

French bread originally became well known for its flavor, created from its long fermentation. Its dough, which by law could not contain anything but flour, water, yeast and salt, was handled to optimize the ability of the dough to produce light, crusty loaves.

Do you know well-fermented bread, well baked, without addition of flavor-carrying fats, sweeteners or other ingredients? Not everyone does; not everyone has had an opportunity to taste this phenomenon: a loaf fashioned from only that that the dough must have: flour, water, yeast and salt; an adequate ferment given to this dough, one long enough to develop the organic acid byproducts that give the crumb a complex flavor. This flavor that is different on the front of the tongue than the back, from its initial taste to its aftertaste. Much like an aged cheese, or a fine wine, the fermentation process creates a flavor with many nuances. This is a sweet flavor, complex, with many levels of taste. This sweetness, coming from nothing but the flavor of the fermented flour from the wheat grain, is subtle and easily overpowered. Added ingredients will quickly overshadow it. This bread is so good, it does not need, indeed does not even want, butter on it.

Since the early 60’s, when the typical baguette became industrially processed and thus produced virtually without fermentation (and therefore without flavor), bread consumption has decreased to less than half its’ former level in France. Due to the consumer rebellion against industrially produced baguettes, artisan loaves are again regaining their place in the French marketplace, and now, relieved of price controls, bakers are able to charge a fair price to make these longer-to-produce loaves.

These loaves are a base of human nutrition for much of the world’s peoples, except in those countries where the much-altered industrial sliced loaf is the standard loaf. The Arab world has a wheat-based cuisine. Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean countries of every political and cultural persuasion all have wheat based diets, all based on hearth breads of various textures and forms. In the ‘sliced bread’ countries, a return to bread that is much more basic in panification calls for bakers with a higher level of hands-on skills: there are more variables in the fermentation that must be controlled from experience. It’s interesting that each of the cultures which have a predominately hearth bread market, also has a higher per capita consumption of wheat products than we currently enjoy.

The North and South American consumer is, for the most part, largely unaware of the potential for his table that a sack of flour holds. As more consumers taste a loaf that is a culinary experience worth of celebration – and not because of sun-dried tomatoes, or chocolate, or olives added to the dough – then more bakers need to know how to do it to satisfy that demand.

We now have many bakeries that are equipped to produce beautiful, crusty loaves. And there are many bakers who can do this. But there are also many bakers who depend on the added ingredients to have wonderful loaves: if the olives, the roasted garlic, the nuts, the seeds were not in the loaf, would it still be interesting to eat? Can it stand alone, on its’ own, as a sought-after gustatory experience?

The French loaf is the beginning point of all loaves – not just a base for the ‘flavored’ ones, which have added, non-grain ingredients. This loaf is also the basic technology for whole grain loaves and loaves made from grains other than wheat, because the success of these loaves is completely dependent on the bakers’ understanding of the underlying processes in the dough. There are no added ingredients to modify the fermentative process, so that the only control the baker has over the final product is an understanding and respect for those processes. Respecting those processes and methods to produce this loaf equips a baker to enhance her repertory to any other bread baking process. The classic French baguette is truly the mother loaf of all quality loaves.