How to recognize a good baguette

Tips for finding the right one

P. Gosselin at work by Thomas DéronSociété nationale des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France

Where should you buy a baguette?

The answer may seem obvious: at a boulangerie! In France, since 1998, the term boulangerie has been strictly reserved to refer only to bakeries that have their own bakehouse where bread is prepared and baked in the shop itself. If it's not made on site, it's not a real boulangerie, just a shop that is often branded and vague about its baking process.

By Francis MillerLIFE Photo Collection

Can you get a good baguette somewhere other than a boulangerie?

More and more people are turning to baguettes that have been batch-produced on a medium or large scale. Welcome to the world of the industrial baguette, usually bought in batches of frozen loaves and baked on site. Some of these can be of very good quality even if they don't compare to those made by the best artisans.

Bakery Gosselin, Paris by Thomas DéronSociété nationale des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France

What should you ask the baker?

For tradition, of course. In France, you can choose between an ordinary baguette and one made in the traditional French way (Baguette de Tradition). The choice has a 20 cent impact on the price, and also the taste. For true bread-lovers, only traditional baguettes will do, as these bring out the real aromas of quality bread.

Bakery Gosselin, Paris by Thomas DéronSociété nationale des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France

The baguette shape

The outside appearance can tell you a lot about what's inside. If the baguette looks too even and puffy, this is a sign that it wasn't made by hand but by machine, and that the fermentation period was short and chemically aided. An ordinary, artisanal or industrially produced baguette is always longer than one made with traditional methods.

Bakery Gosselin by Thomas DéronSociété nationale des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France

The crust color

This can also tell you about the baguette's quality. The traditional crust is always darker. This is due to the Maillard reaction (see below). Standard baguettes have a lighter crust—they are baked for a shorter amount of time since the dough is less moisture-rich. As a result, they dry out much quicker when exposed to air.

Bakery Gosselin, Paris by Thomas DéronSociété nationale des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France

The famous Maillard reaction

This is a chemical reaction discovered in 1911 by French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard. The reaction takes place between sugars and proteins during the cooking process. It's responsible for browning foods and releasing flavors (like transforming sugar into caramel, or browning the skin on roast chicken).

Bakery Gosselin by Thomas DéronSociété nationale des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France

Scoring the dough

The baker scores the dough with a knife, making a grigne (crease), before putting it into the oven. This helps it rise evenly all over. The classic or Parisian cut consists of five slanted, evenly spaced cuts. Once it's baked, the crease should be opened up without puffing up too much, with the more cooked and darkly colored edge forming a kind of ridge.

P. Gosselin at work by Thomas DéronSociété nationale des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France

Baking it just so

White baguettes, which are evidently not baked enough, should be banned. Its aromas won't be well-developed, and the crumb inside will be hard to digest. But an overcooked baguette isn't ideal either, since its burnt crust will be thick and bitter, and its crumb dried out. A perfectly cooked baguette is amber colored, where the caramelized crust balances the creamy aroma of the crumb.

How to recognize a good baguette by Vincent FerniotSociété nationale des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France

The bottom of the baguette

Judging a baguette from a top-down view alone would be a mistake. A look underneath can also tell you something about how it's been cooked. A good artisanal baguette is smooth, with its thick crust marked by the floor of the bread oven. On the other hand, an industrially made baguette has a thin crust that's marked instead with a mesh pattern from the metal grills of the trays it's cooked in.

How to recognize a good baguette by Vincent FerniotSociété nationale des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France

And what about the crumb?

Traditional baguettes have a dense crumb inside, with a creamy ivory color and large, irregular air pockets. These pockets are the hollows left behind after the bubbles produced during fermentation and developed by the heat while the bread is being baked. But an ordinary baguette will have a very white crumb and tiny, uniform air pockets, which is a sign of fast fermentation and the use of flour bleaching agents.

Break the bread by Thomas DéronSociété nationale des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France

Should you break bread, or cut it with a knife?

Traditionally, peasants would break their bread by hand, while it would be cut into slices at the tables of nobles. Thanks to its elongated shape, the baguette is the easiest bread to break up, which a number of bread-buyers do as they walk home from the boulangerie, to tear off and eat the crust. That also says something about its crunchy texture. At a restaurant, away from the family dinner table, baguettes are usually cut up.

Enjoying a fresh warm baguette by Thomas DéronSociété nationale des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France

The flavor of a baguette

A sourdough baguette will always have a more sour taste owing to its acetic fermentation process (similar to what happens in vinegar). A yeast baguette from the boulangerie, however, will carry a sweeter taste. Both types of baguette have their fans, and artisanal bakers often use a mixture of both sourdough and yeast in their traditional baguettes.

Bakery Gosselin, Paris by Thomas DéronSociété nationale des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France

Keeping baguettes fresh

Traditional loaves, also known as rustic loaves, are traditionally made to last for several days or even a week. By contrast, baguettes were made for city folk and are meant to be eaten within a day. Today, the average French person is less than seven minutes away from their local boulangerie. Because baguettes don't tend to last longer than a day, you can also buy half-baguettes.

Credits: Story

Vincent Ferniot. 

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