A baguette is a long stick of bread varying in length, commonly made in France. The baguette is made from lean dough and distinct because of its thick, crusty outer, and its soft light bread. The typical French baguette is served in thick slices cut from the loaf, or served as a shorter cut from the baguette and then sliced for sandwiches.
The word, ‘baguette’ was first used in the early 20th century, but bread-making in this way and to this shape, has roots far further back. The actual origins of the baguette are poorly documented but what is known is that long loaves were made in France as far back as the reign of Louis XIV in the mid 1700s, although these were far wider than the baguette. Since this time, the long thick loaf has varied greatly in length and width.
It has been suggested that the baguette may have originated from an Austrian bread called, ‘pain viennois’. Although now it is similar in appearance to a baguette, when the pain viennois was first introduced to France it was entirely different, and so this theory of origin is contended. It has also been suggested that it was an Austrian officer by the name of August Zang who should be credited with originating the baguette, as it was he that brought the first steam oven to Paris. It is in the steam oven that proper baguettes are created through a process of steam injection. It is this injection of steam, enabling the crust to expand, that creates the light and airy texture of the bread.
One theory, in trying to date the first baguette, is that it resulted from a law banning bakers from working before 4 o’clock in the morning, in time for breakfasts. Long, thin bread can be baked quickly and so ‘the baguette’ was heralded in a newspaper article in 1920 as a solution to this problem. This article cannot be precisely dated but it does seem to show that the word ‘baguette’ used to describe long, thin bread was a 20th century innovation.
Manufacture and styles
The traditional French baguette is made with baker’s yeast, although some can be made using other ferments such as ‘biga’, so as to add to the flavour. The usual wheat, flour, water and salt are added to the mix to create the dough. No preservatives are used in the baking of French bread, so the bread becomes stale much more quickly, requiring it to be baked more often.
Just as not all baguettes are made in France, not all long French loaves are baguettes. There are many varieties of French bread, such as the ‘batard’ or the ‘flute’. French , breads can also be made in different sizes. The ‘miche’ is large pan loaf, whilst there are also ball-shaped round loaves (boule).
To bake the baguette, the dough is folded and rolled before being placed into a cloth basket and baked on the hearth of a deck oven. Specialized pans exist though, that allow the heat to permeate through perforations in the metal, while the pan keeps the shape of the baguette. This is a Westernised method of baking this type of bread, however, and the bread is much different as a result. It is not just the method of baking that differs across countries though, as the composition of the dough can vary greatly too.