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9 Apr

Trying my hand at baguettes – Flour, water, salt, yeast—four simple ingredients with such a wide range of possibilities. Those of you who have read Liminality for some time will know of my fascination with bread and bread making. Some of you may even know of my quest to create the perfect baguette. Today’s entry is about coming one step closer to that goal.

“I was finally ready this past Saturday to try my hand at making real French baguettes.”

Until recently, my attempts to make baguettes have resulted in what I can only call “pleasant failures,” meaning that they were most certainly not my idea of a perfect baguette but still rather tasty. Bread-making is a complex and delicate process. The four basic ingredients I listed above (these are the fundamental building blocks that you absolutely need to make bread—with the possible exception of salt, although I’ve never seen a bread recipe that didn’t include it) seem simple enough, but there are a large number of variables to consider. For starters, there is a lot of variation in the ingredients themselves, in particular the flour and the yeast. The type of flour and the type of yeast you use will have the greatest influence on the type of bread that comes out of the oven. There are also the questions of proportions, preparation (how long you let the dough rise, how many times you let it rise, etc.), and baking (at what temperature, for how long, etc.). Suffice it to say that, once you factor in all these variables, the process becomes very complex indeed.

I was not entirely satisfied at my previously attempted baguettes, and although I had some ideas of how to improve on them, I wasn’t making much progress. But then one event changed all that—the opening of a Shinsegae Department Store about ten minutes or so from our house. The weekend before last my wife and I were strolling through the imported foods aisles in the basement of Shinsegae, desperately trying to exercise some restraint (with me doing most of the despairing and my wife doing most of the exercising of restraint). I picked up a few items that are hard to find elsewhere (durum semolina flour and canned Italian tomatoes) and was turning away when my heart skipped a beat. There, on a rack at the end of the aisle, was this book.

Even if you don’t read Korean, it should be apparent what this book is. Its exact title is The Basics of French Bread. I did not hesitate a moment—I grabbed the book off the shelf and brought it to my wife, holding it out like a kid with the latest Star Wars action figure in a toy store (and I mean “real” Star Wars, not this new trilogy crap). A short while later, the book was mine.

As soon as we got home I immediately flipped to the section on “Baguette Francaise,” which I had skimmed in the store. Then I went back and read through the introductory materials and the discussion of ingredients and methods. I learned that I had been doing one thing right, namely putting a pan full of water in the oven to generate steam. But the book’s method differed from my own in many ways. The most obvious was that I used a bread machine to make the dough and then shaped it by hand. But there were other differences. The recipes in the book used far less yeast than I used in my recipes—about a quarter of the amount I used. I also learned that French bread flour has less gluten than Korean bread flour, so in order to approximate French flour I should use 80% bread flour and 20% all-purpose flour.

Then there was something called “levain levure” (the Korean term for this literally means “leavened dough”). It is a batch of starter dough that is allowed to rise for a relatively long time and then incorporated in small amounts into the main dough. The book says that this makes the bread taste better, helps it rise more, and even helps it stay fresh longer. This was probably the biggest difference in method, and something I had never heard of before. Other differences in method included the absence of “punching down” (where you jab the dough to deflate it after a rise) and some extra steps that I ultimately deemed unnecessary (like arranging the dough on a canvas with folds between loaves to keep them from sticking together during the final rise and then transferring them to the baking pan).

After reading up on the various procedures and making sure I had the necessary ingredients, I was finally ready this past Saturday to try my hand at making real French baguettes. The first step in the process was making the levain levure, and I got up (relatively) early on Saturday morning to get that started. Interestingly enough, the ingredients for the levain levure are exactly the same as the ingredients for the baguettes: 500 grams of flour (following the 80/20 ratio discussed above), 320 ml of water, 9 grams of salt, and 2 grams of instant yeast (the recipe originally called for 5 grams of active dry yeast, but the book said to use 40% of the amount for instant yeast).

I made a mound of the flour and then hollowed it out. I put the yeast in and filled the hollow with water (the salt is added later—another change to my usual method).

Even though I’ve never made bread completely from scratch before, the basic technique is very similar to making pasta dough—but easier because bread dough has more moisture and is thus easier to work with. After the water and flour had combined and the dough started coming together, I added the salt and kneaded the dough until I reached the stage you see in the next photo. (By the way, I have to apologize for the color inconsistency in these photos—I forgot to set the white balance before taking the photos and my post-production color corrections only got me so far.)

When it was finished I put it in a bowl and covered it with plastic wrap. The book said to let it rise at room temperature for at least four hours—my wife and I went out to catch a movie and eat lunch, and by the time we got back it had been five hours and the dough had risen quite a bit. This is the dough before the rise (I forgot to take a picture of it after the rise).

Since the ingredients and process are identical for the levain levure and the baguette, I didn’t bother taking any photos the second time around. It was during this process, though, that I made what was probably my single biggest mistake. When I made the levain levure I added the entire amount of water to the dough from the start, rather than leaving a small bit to adjust the moisture content as necessary (as the book recommended). The result was that the dough ended up being slightly sticky, and I sprinkled it with flour to get the right consistency. I didn’t want to make the same mistake with the main dough, so I held some water back. The problem is that I overcompensated and held too much water back, and by the time I realized that the dough was too dry it was too late to add enough water—that would have required too much kneading, and I didn’t want to over-knead the dough.

At any rate, once the dough was consistent I added 100 grams of the levain levure, as you can see in this next photo. Next time I’ll probably add it a little earlier to make it easier to work into the dough.

Once the levain levure was fully worked into the main dough, I set it aside in a bowl for the initial rise. I had a feeling the dough wasn’t going to rise that much, and I was right. I think it rose just enough to be acceptable, but only barely. When the first rise was finished, I took the dough out and divided it into four somewhat equal balls (even though I had used my electronic scale to divide up the levain levure into 100 gram pieces, I forgot to use it to divide the main dough here).

I let the dough rest for about twenty minutes before I proceeded to the next step: the flattening. As you can see in this next photo, the two remaining dough balls are huddled together in fear and horror at seeing one of their brothers completely flattened. Somehow I think they knew they were next.

After the flattening, each circle was folded twice, one third toward the center and then the opposite third over that—like how you would fold a letter (for my younger readers, “letters” were emails that were written on paper and delivered by men and women wearing funny-looking shorts and socks pulled up to their knees. But this was a very long time ago). These thick logs of dough are then rolled out into long, thin strands, and you end with something like this next photo. Note that I have not lost my uncanny ability to produce precisely uniform pieces of dough.

The final rise was an hour and a half, and because I was concerned about the dough I made sure that it was an ideal temperature for rising. As you can see from the next photo, they did indeed rise.

Next was the baking. I had always baked my “baguettes” at 190 degrees Celsius, not because I thought that was a good temperature (I’ve known for some time that it was too low), but because our oven gets a bit flaky above that temperature. But the book called for 220 degrees, so I kicked it up a notch (or three). The book called for 20 minutes, but I let them bake for 25 to make sure. The end result was as follows.

The first thing you will probably notice is the nice golden color. All my other attempts at bread came out a pasty white (much like my own complexion) because they were cooked at too low a temperature. Boosting the temperature, as I had suspected, was all that I needed to get the color.

You may also notice that I got little to no oven rise out of the loaves. For one, they are pretty much the same size as when they went into the oven. You can also see that the slits I cut (which were probably too shallow anyway) did not open up at all. Oven rise occurs very early in the baking process, as the dough warms up but before it gets too hot to kill the yeast. At this high a temperature, the dough doesn’t really have all that much time to rise, and this is where I ran into trouble. The lack of moisture in my dough meant that I wasn’t going to get any oven rise, which is important to the final taste and texture of the bread.

But it was not a complete disaster. It could have turned out better, but it still tasted fine. After letting the loaves cool enough to be handled, I cut up the bottom loaf for the family to try, along with some cheese (I would have gone for Brie, but Hyunjin wanted Havarti, so we went with Havarti). The verdict was that the bread tasted great, but others usually tend to be more lenient than I am when judging my cooking. Still, I was very excited to see one thing when I took the loaves out of the oven. You can’t really see it in the above photo, so here’s a close-up.

Two words: crackly crust. Despite the steaming, I had never before achieved this, probably because you need both steam and high heat to produce it.

With this experience under my belt, I am looking forward to my next attempt. The first thing I am going to do is make sure that I put all of the water into the main dough, lightly flouring the work area if needed to make sure it doesn’t stick. Still, I wonder if this will be enough to get the rise I want. I wasn’t home to watch the levain levure rise, so I don’t know how long it took to double, but considering the small amount of yeast that went into it, I’m guessing that it was most of those five hours. Is two grams of yeast enough? The book says to use 40% of the amount of active dry yeast, but the Cook’s Thesaurus site says to substitute measure for measure (although all the different names for the various types of yeast are confusing—especially since none of them are in Korean). Two grams of instant yeast is only half a teaspoon, and in a comparable bread machine recipe I would use about two teaspoons (that is, eight grams), so I’m wondering if maybe I shouldn’t just try five grams of the instant yeast. Of course, I could also go out and pick up some active dry yeast to use especially for these “from scratch” recipes and save the instant yeast for my bread machine. That would probably be the safest bet.

There is also the issue of our oven. It doesn’t produce as much heat as it says it does (I don’t think 220 on the dial is really 220) and, as you can tell by looking at the photo of the baked loaves, it doesn’t heat evenly—the oven is much hotter in the back than it is in the front (probably has something to do with the seal). My only option is to take the pan out mid-bake and flip it around, but as anyone who has ever cooked in an oven will know, opening the oven for even a few seconds results in a drastic drop in temperature. So I’m not sure what to do about that—either I just deal with unevenly baked loaves or I risk disrupting the baking process to get evenness. Sounds like a no-win situation to me.

Questions and quandaries aside, I was pleased with this batch. I think it was a good result for my first “from scratch” attempt at baguettes. I managed to get the coveted crackly crust, which was a first for me and enough in and of itself to make me happy. In sum, they were the best baguettes I’ve managed yet, but there is still plenty of room for improvement. I guess that’s not a bad place to be.

Update, 16 April: I made another batch of baguettes this past Saturday, and they turned out even better. As I had suspected, the lack of moisture in the dough was the culprit, and simply adding the needed moisture was enough to remedy the lack of oven rise I had with the first batch. I decided to take the baking pan out and quickly flip it around toward the end to make sure they loaves were browned evenly. I also finally remembered to use the scale when dividing up the dough—this was a first for me—so the baguettes came out more or less uniform, as you can see in this photo.

After the initial post last weekend, Kevin pointed out that I had not taken any photos of the insides of the baguettes. It was probably just as well, since they were rather dense and not too pretty. But after I tore off the end of one the latest batch of baguettes I quickly set it down again to take a photo. What you see in the next photo is a fleeting moment—the poor baguette didn’t last long at all.

The improvement over the first batch was significant. It always amazes me how the slightest change in even one of the variables can be enough to throw the whole thing out of balance. The first batch was crackly on the outside but too dense on the inside. As you can see in the above photo, though, this batch had the light, fluffy inside associated with a true baguette. Still, it wasn’t quite as crackly as I would have liked, and while the tops were well browned the sides were still white.

I solved this final problem today, not with another batch of baguettes, but with my first attempt at another recipe from the Book: pain de campagne (“country bread,” a wheat-and-rye bread). I raised the temperature a little more and left the loaves in a little longer, and I finally got the crust I was looking for. The tips of the loaves (which narrowed to a point) were slightly darker than I wanted, but they didn’t burn. The rest of the crust was thick, brown, and very crackly. In fact, when I took the loaves out of the oven I could hear the crust crackling as it cooled. This next photo shows a cross-section of one loaf I cut with a bread knife. If you look closely, on the upper right crust you can see a crack running away from the cut. As the loaf continued to cool, more cracks appeared, and after an hour or so I was delighted to see that the loaf was starting to look like the one Kevin was kind enough to bring us from the Cordon Bleu at Sookmyung Women’s University (site in Korean). The powder on the top, by the way, is rye flour.

So the answer to the riddle of the crackly crust is simple: high heat, and lots of it. Basically you have to bake the bread as long as you can without burning it. Now that I have the basics of French bread down, I’m going to start experimenting with some of the other recipes in the Book—there are some very mouth-watering breads in there.

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