sourdough-versary: french baguettes

other yeasted yummies

rosemary sourdough loaf || english muffins || whole wheat english muffins || cinnamon raisin english muffins || italian focaccia 



Someone very near and dear to my heart turned 2 years old two weeks ago:

Herbert! My sourdough starter, who’s been with me since March 13, 2016, lifting up my doughs and flavoring all of my favorite breads for the past two years.

One of my favorite breads is baguette. My parents and I used to have a bread and cheese dinner a couple times a month: we would buy a nice, long baguette, some cheeses, and some olives, and that would be our dinner. It was a lazy person’s dinner, and when one of my friends from school would come home for the holidays or summer vacation, we would do the same. We would go to the market where they sell local, organic food, buy a loaf of fancy bread each, a hunk of cheese, and some other bits and pieces, and sit out on the market’s lawn in downtown Carrboro having a bread and cheese lunch. For those meals, we normally chose something a little rounder than a baguette so that we wouldn’t need a knife to cut it up, and instead we’d rip into the bread with our hands and cut off chunks of fancy local cheese.



Now that I’m all grown up (meaning now that I’m over 21), every once in a while I like to treat myself to a little charcuterie dinner: a long, crusty baguette, a dried salami, some soft cheese, maybe a pate, and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.

I started trying to make my own baguette soon after I conceived Herbert. Two years later, I decided I was ready to debut my baguette recipe, and I was all set to go for March 13 of this year: I had made some baguette to take along with me for housesitting, I had the salami and prosciutto ready to go and the wine was waiting in my car…but the bread was a failure and a disaster. For the past two years, no matter how diligently I take notes on my attempts at baguette, it’s been a series of forward steps and backwards leaps: I want the end result to be airy but I need to be able to handle the dough. I don’t want my bread to be too dense, but it needs to have shape. Sometimes the dough is too wet, sometimes it’s too dry. Some batches proof too long and some don’t produce enough dough.



It finally occurred to me last week (yes, 2 years after starting this project), that there might be some kind of Golden Ratio for a recipe like baguette. Anything French probably has a revered-and-protected ratio for ingredients. I searched and searched and searched and didn’t find any specific ratio or any really credible source…but I did learn about hydration. There’s no perfect ratio of water to flour for baguette, but there is a range of hydration ratios. The range for baguette is somewhere between 60-70% hydration*. 75% or more hydration means you can’t handle the dough (great for focaccia and ciabatta), and anything under 60% is dense with small air bubbles (sandwich loaves.) I did some calculations, factored in my sourdough starter, and decided on 63% hydration: not too dry and dense, but substantial enough to handle.



*In this case, the hydration ratio is the ratio (by weight) of water to flour, not water to total weight of the dough. That is, 50% hydration would mean the water:flour ratio is 1:2 (the water is 50% of the flour.) 63% hydration means that the weight of the water is equal to 63% of the weight of the flour, not 63% of the dough.

It turned out perfectly: I was able to shape the baguettes easily, they held their shapes through proofing and baking, the holes (as you can see) are big and airy, and the crumb is fluffy with the right amount of chew. The crust is crunchy and flavorful, and shatters in the way that French pasty crusts often do, and the bread inside is yeasty and nutty and totally satisfying.



french baguettes

adapted from Bread Illustrated, by America’s Test Kitchen

makes 2 baguettes


In general, when using sourdough starter, you can expect the whole process of making bread to take at least 24+ hours. A good rule of thumb when using your starter in place of dry yeast is that dough made with starter takes about 4 times as long to proof the first time as dough made with dry yeast. If your recipe says to let your dough (made with yeast) rise for 2 hours the first time, allow yourself at least 8 hours of rising time when using sourdough starter. This is because the yeast in your starter works more slowly than dry yeast, but the trade-off is that it works more thoroughly, as well (in terms of digesting the carbs and making them more accessible to you.) Your bread will be healthier, so to speak. If you want your dough to proof (ferment) for a long time to get a really strong flavor, let it rise in the refrigerator: it won’t stretch as much (meaning it won’t overproof), but the flavor will develop a lot. Additionally, if you don’t want to spend a whole day watching your dough, assemble it the afternoon or evening before, let it rise in the refrigerator overnight, then move on to the shaping and second proofing the next morning or afternoon.


2 oz sourdough starter (or, 7 g/0.25 oz dry yeast, 1 oz water, and 1 oz all-purpose flour)

8.5 oz all-purpose flour

1 tsp salt

5 oz water



Useful/Important Tools: These are all optional, but if you make bread frequently, you’ll find these all to be really helpful. The only two I think are the lowest priority are the lame (you can use a regular knife), and the baguette pan (if your dough has enough structure, you don’t need it, but it does help brown the bottom of the loaves.)

a couche (n., koosh, a linen pastry mat for shaping and proofing the dough the second time)

a lame (n., lahm, a box cutter for slashing the dough before you bake it), or a really sharp paring or slicing knife (a slicing knife gives you a deeper cut with less effort than a paring knife)

a spray bottle filled with water

a baguette pan

a rectangular pizza stone

a large pizza peel

parchment paper


make the dough

In a large bowl using a handheld electric mixer or in the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the starter and flour with the dough hook(s). Mix until the mixture is crumbly, then mix in the salt. If using dry yeast, combine the yeast, flour, and salt in the bowl/mixer.

While the mixer is running, pour in the water. Keep mixing for 5-10 minutes until the dough clears the sides of the bowl. It can stick to the bottom of the bowl a bit, but it should clean off the sides.

The dough may feel a little tacky/sticky to the touch, but you shouldn’t end up with too much dough coming off on your fingers when you touch it. You’ll want the dough to hold its shape when you handle it, but not to be so dense that it doesn’t rise or produce air bubbles. If you can see it pooling or sliding down off the hook, it needs more flour. If it holds its shape but feels sticky, you can either add more flour in the bowl, or leave it as is and dust it liberally with flour when you get to the shaping stage. At this stage, your dough should be able to hold its shape without feeling too sticky.

Lightly (or liberally) flour a clean work surface and dump out the dough. Without kneading it too much, shape the dough into a smooth ball. It only needs to be smooth on one side: pull and stretch the sides and corners into the middle, so that the opposite side is a smooth ball.


the first proof/rise

Place the dough, seam side down, into a large, lightly greased bowl and brush a little bit of oil onto the surface (using your hands, a paper towel, or a basting brush.) Cover the bowl in plastic wrap and let it rise for at least 8 hours (at least 2 hours if using dry yeast.) If you have time to finish the process in the same day, you can let the dough rise at room temperature. Otherwise, put it in the refrigerator.

The longer you let the dough proof/rise the first time, the more flavor it will gain from the yeast. The trade-off, though, is that dough can only stretch so much: if you let the dough rise too long, it will lose its elasticity. When you handle the dough, it’ll deflate but it won’t shrink back to its original shape: the dough will look saggy. Additionally, the wetter your dough, the more it will rise as it proofs (and consequently, the harder it will be for your dough to hold in the gas produced by the yeast.) If you see a lot of air bubbles on the top surface of the dough, it has probably risen too much.

The best way to test a dough like this is to gently press down in the center with your knuckle*: it feels puffy like foam and returns to its original shape when you remove your knuckle, then it’s good. If you leave an indentation, it still needs to rise. If it deflates, then deflate the whole batch of dough, reshape it into a ball, and let it rise again.

*Similar to how you test cakes and muffins with your finger.

At this point (once the dough has been rising for the first time), if you want more of the flavor, you can either let it rise in the refrigerator, or alternate between deflating the dough (and reshaping it) and letting it re-proof. The dough can proof and ferment for a long time but it can only gain so much volume. If you want a really developed fermented flavor (meaning a really yeasty flavor), make sure you let it rise at a lower temperature (in the refrigerator), or you deflate the dough occasionally.


shaping the dough/the 2nd proof

Once the dough has doubled in volume (the other vital indicator that it has risen and proofed enough), and passes the knuckle test, you’re ready to shape it into logs for the final/2nd proofing:

Dump the dough out onto a lightly/liberally floured, clean work surface. Divide the dough in half, setting one half aside until ready to shape.

If you’re using a couche for the second proofing, spread the couche out somewhere so you can place the loaves on it as you shape them and flour it liberally. You can also place the shaped loaves in a sheet of parchment paper, which you’ll transfer directly to the oven when ready to bake, if you’re using a pizza stone and pizza peel. If you want to go really simple and avoid the couche, the stone, and the peel, line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the shaped loaves directly on the baking sheet.

To shape the loaf, gently pat out the first half of the dough into a rough rectangle. Fold the top of the rectangle over, leaving a bit of the bottom exposed, and seal the edge with your finger tips. Continue this folding and sealing process a few times (3-6 times). This folding will help create the spiral-y shape of the air bubbles in the finished bread, and it will help ensure that the width of the baguette is mostly consistent (ie., that it doesn’t look like a dumbbell.)

After you’ve folded and sealed the dough a few times, place the dough seam side down and roll it out into a log, rolling from the center outwards. The log can be as long as you want, but be sure that it isn’t longer than the pizza stone or baking sheet (or else the edges of the dough will droop over the edges of the stone/sheet.) You should be able to pick it up with a pizza peel and fit it into the baking sheet or onto your pizza stone. Around 14 inches long and a few inches wide is good.

If you want the pointed ends, pick up one end of the log (about 2-4 inches of the end), and roll it between your hands, gradually tapering to a point. Do the same with the other end. Beware that this will add length to the log, so make sure your logs aren’t too long. If you want rounded ends, skip this step.

After the loaf/log is shaped, transfer it to the parchment paper, the paper-lined baking sheet, or the liberally-floured couche to proof while you shape the other loaf/log.

Repeat each of the previous steps with the other half of the dough, leaving a few inches between each log wherever you’re proofing them. If you’re using the couche, bunch it up between the logs so it forms a little ridge or wall to keep them separate.


baking the baguettes

Preheat your oven to 400 F/200 C. If using a pizza stone, place the stone on one of the oven racks before you turn the oven on (same if you’re using a pizza steel.)

Lightly grease one side of a sheet of plastic wrap and cover the logs while they proof. By the time the oven is heated, the bread should be ready to bake. The greased plastic wrap helps prevent the surface of the dough from drying out and cracking.

The second proof should only take about 30 – 45 minutes, regardless of whether you’re using dry yeast or sourdough starter. If you let the dough rise too much the second time, it will be difficult to transfer it to the oven, because dough gets wetter as it rises (when you’re proofing it, not when you’re baking it.)

The logs won’t have doubled in size after the second proof, so use the knuckle test to see if they’re done: using a knuckle, lightly press down in the center of the log. If it springs back like foam, it’s ready. If you leave an indentation, it needs to rise longer. If it shrinks and deflates, ball up all the dough and go through the shaping steps again.

When the logs are proofed and ready for baking, transfer them to the sheet of parchment or the parchment-lined baking sheet (if they aren’t already on a sheet of parchment paper.) Spray or brush them with water, and slash them diagonally a few times along their lengths using the lame or a sharp knife. These cuts will turn into the almond shapes in the surface of the finished.

If you’re using a pizza stone or steel, slide the pizza peel under the sheet of parchment, open the oven door, and slide the parchment and dough off onto the stone/steel. If you’re using a baking sheet, put the baking sheet with the dough in the oven.

Let the baguettes bake for at least 40 – 45 minutes, until dark brown but not charred. The pointed ends might char and burn, and the parchment paper may burn, but the bread should be the color of bronze or amber, maybe even a little bit lighter*.

When they’re done baking, you can either turn off the oven and let them cool/dry inside the oven as it cools down, or you can transfer them to a wire rack to cool. Make sure you let them cool so the bottoms are exposed, or else the bottoms will get soggy and not crispy.

*If you want a softer bread with a thinner, softer crust, rather than the really crispy, flaky crust of a baguette, lower the oven temperature to 350 F/175 C and bake until golden. Lower oven temperatures mean the insides will bake through faster than the surface can brown, so you end up with a lighter surface color, and a thinner, softer crust.


Au revoir!

Nick P.

Categories: alternative diet, Breads, Vegan