King Arthur Flour Baguette recipe... questions
I have never baked before, but I get the King Arthur catalog. While looking through it today I came across a recipe for "guaranteed" baguettes which I'd love to try. Problem is I already don't understand the recipe. It calls for making a starter which is 1/2 cool water, 1/16 tsp active yeast or instant yeast, and 1 cup bread flour. In the first step of the directions it says to "make starter by mixing the yeast with the water (no need to do if you're using instant yeast." Here's where I'm confused... do I still need to make the starter? Or does mean that if I'm using instant yeast to skip mixing with water and simply mix with flour? What exactly is the difference between active dry yeast and instant yeast? I believe I have both of these... one is powder in a paper envelope and the other is in a wrapper. Which should I use for the best results? Also, how can you tell if instant yeast has gone bad? If you have a tried and true baguette recipe would you please share? Thank you for taking the time to read this long post and any advice you can give!
The starter is generally meant to serve two purposes. The first is to develop a bit more flavor in the bread. However, in the recipe you mentioned, the starter isn't allowed to ferment long enough to develop much flavor. The second purpose for preparing a starter is to give the yeast a better chance to develop before it meets the salt - salt retards the development of yeast.
Instant yeast has been conditioned to be slightly more potent than active dry yeast. Generally speaking, you'd use about 1 1/2 times the amount of active dry yeast than hou would instant yeast. Both will work quite well, it just needs to be activated with a bit of water to get it going where instant yeast works without that activation step and can be added directly to the other dry ingredients when mixing the dough.
You can get away with adding active dry yeast directly to the dough, without proofing it, but that's always risky as it may not develop as well using that method and you could be disappointed in the overall rise of your dough.
You really don't even need to start the active yeast in water, unless you're not sure it's still active. You can test yeast, instant or otherwise. This might be helpful.
I think either will give you good results but you want to use little yeast for a longer rise. The King Arthur recipe is pretty good and an easy one to start with. I don't bake as they recommend: use a hotter oven, roll out on kitchen towels to rise and bake it on baking stones (actually unglazed quarry tile from Home Depot). It gives a better crust. I think the KA version gives you a result better than what you'd buy in a grocery store, as texture goes but taste far better (it has a softer lighter crust than I like). Overall, I like Peter Reinhart's baguettes better but think the KA is a good way to start. If you want the Reinhart version, I can post it, or try to find it online, for you.