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Oct 18, 2010 01:51 PM

Why are baguettes in the US so bad?

The baguettes in France are light, airy and have a thin crust. I could eat a whole baguette easily. The baguettes in the US are terrible by comparison. Some are just white bread shaped into a tube. All are extremely dense and heavy and chewy. Most have a thick crust that cuts into the roof of my mouth. I have tried nearly every bakery in NYC often recommended as having acceptable baguettes. None come close, IMO.

Are there any bakers on this board that can explain why American bakers can't make a decent baguette? From my limited knowledge, the biggest difference appears to be that the flour used in France is not available in the US. I didn't think this mattered until I made a brioche with French flour. The result was magnificent. But surely there's some way to import it? King Arthur claims to make a comparable flour for baking breads. What else explains this bad bread?


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  1. I don't know, but I've had no luck trying to make them at home, either. I tried yet another "foolproof" baguette recipe and can only conclude that I'm the fool these recipes are proof against. LOL!

    I've not had really good bread since I left Puerto Rico. I came across a bakery in town owned by a "French" baker, where they (allegedly) take orders for baguettes, but when I went there and tried to order one, he huffily refused. Talking to a friend later, it appears the guy thinks he's the bread-baking equivalent of the "soup Nazi" and he'll just arbitrarily refuse to take orders for no apparent reason.

    Which may go a long way towards explaining why the shop was empty.

    45 Replies
    1. re: ZenSojourner

      I'm getting so discouraged about bread baking, I actually went and looked for available baking classes around here.

      This is what I found (slightly shortened):

      "Learn everything about the essential elements of great French bread including Lionel’s signature kneading technique, shaping the dough, and to how to pull the breads out of our European steam-injected oven."

      LOL! I don't think learning "how to pull the breads out of our European steam-injected oven" is going to help me bake baguettes at home!

      1. re: ZenSojourner

        You can't make good baguettes at home. You need a higher temperature and a steam injected oven. If you got your home oven hot enough, you'd burn your home down.

        On the bright side, there are *loads* of breads you can make at home that are lovely. My fave these days is no-knead bread - the long ferment makes for a crazy good flavour:

        1. re: Indirect Heat

          OTHER people make baguettes at home! I know they're not QUITE the same thing as the ones you can get in France (or Puerto Rico in my case) but they're still better than the grocery store stuff.

          I don't have to have a perfect loaf. Heck, at this point I'd settle for edible, LOL!

          1. re: ZenSojourner

            You can make *mediocre* baguettes at home. But you simply can't create a good baguette crust in the temperature and humidity of a home oven. You can make *great* bread at home. Just not great baguettes.

            1. re: Indirect Heat

              Fine. I'll settle for mediocre baguettes. They'll still beat the crappy grocery store baguettes.

              At least OTHER people's "mediocre" baguettes beat the crappy grocery store baguettes. I aspire to one day turn out a merely "mediocre" baguette, as opposed to the total failure I ended up with last night, LOL!

              1. re: Indirect Heat

                what temperature do you need to use for great baguettes?

                1. re: thew

                  I'd like to know this too. Most of the baguette recipes I've come across call for a 475°F oven. This includes the recipes from French bread guru Raymond Calvel.

                  1. re: SnackHappy

                    The last one I tried (total failure, but that's just me I'm sure, not the recipe) called for a 500 oven then reduce to 450.

                    1. re: SnackHappy

                      The reason home recipes call for 475-500 degrees is that that is the highest a home oven can go without burning your house down. Bakery ovens can go to 700+ (a good pizza oven can go to 900). The other part is the venting of the steam. Baguettes start with superheated steam sprayed into the oven to slow down formation of a crust. The last few minutes they vent the steam, giving a dry heat that caramelizes into a super-thin crust. There are ways to mimic this at home (like throwing a few ice cubes into the oven), but you'll never get that superfine control giving you a beautiful baguette crust.

                      1. re: Indirect Heat

                        The recipes I got the temps from are not for home bakers. They are from Le Goût du Pain by Raymond Calvel - a guide for professional bakers. The temps suggested all go from 200°C (390°F) to 240°C(465°F) depending on the type of bread you're baking. I don't know where you get your bread cooked at 700+ degrees, but in French baking 500°F is considered a very hot oven.

                        According to this report, Anis Bouabsa who won the Meilleur ouvrier de France in 2004 and best baguette in Paris in 2008 bakes his baguettes at 250°C (480°F).


                        I agree that it's almost impossible to get the same type of steam injection at home that a professional oven provides, but that doesn't mean one cannot make a good baguette at home.

                          1. re: thew

                            Have you tried making baguettes in it?

                            I'm ready to throw in the towel on making baguettes as home for the reasons Indirect Heat has said. I've made decent ones, far better than I'd get at grocery stores but no where near the quality of what I get can from certain bakeries (and it is only certain bakeries). I think the technique is okay but I can't get that crust, no matter what method I try in my oven.

                            1. re: chowser

                              haven't tried, but i'm not much of a bread baker. slowly getting onto it - starting with pizza doughs and no knead doughs

                              1. re: thew

                                No knead bread works great in a regular oven but you could probably do much better pizza at that temperature.

                              2. re: chowser

                                Yep, the crust is impossible at home (and really, the crust is what distinguishes a good baguette from a long, thin loaf of white bread). What we need is enough demand for high-temp, steam-injected home ovens. *sigh*

                                1. re: Indirect Heat

                                  Oh come on. Steam injected ovens have existed for a very short time in the history of bread baking. I'm sure a baguette baked in a steam injected oven has some wonderful quality that people love, but I don't think it's anywhere near a necessity for wonderful bread, or even wonderful baguettes.

                                  I know for darn sure there were no steam-injected ovens in those corner bakeries in Puerto Rico. And the bread was heavenly.

                                  If you like it that's great, hope you find what you're looking for in a baguette. But the lack of a steam injected oven doesn't make all other baguettes worthless hunks of dough, LOL!

                                  I'll take that "long, thin loaf of white bread" - if I can at least approach the flavor I found in Puerto Rican bread.

                                  1. re: ZenSojourner

                                    Zen, have you tried the cookbook Clarita's Cocina? It's a really good mix of Spanish and Cuban food as prepared in Florida.

                                    Sorry, I don't have a P.R. I'm trying just to recommend something that might at least point you the right direction.

                                    Another book "The Columbia Restaurant Cookbook" by Adela Gonzmart with Ferdie Pacheco (a book from a beloved restaurant in Tampa) says that their Cuban bread has seven ingredients -- A blend of three types of flour - high gluten, spring wheat, and hotel and restaurant flour [yes, yes, I know...that's 3 ingredients, but it's listed as one in the book, so don't yell at me, okay?]

                                    2 - Shortening -- half beef fat (suet?) and half vegetable [I wonder if this is the flavor difference you're looking for?]

                                    3- Salt
                                    4- Granulated sugar
                                    5- Yeast
                                    6 - Water
                                    "7. Yeast food (an additive that speeds up the process)" -- not sure what this refers to -- malt powder? a commercial dough enhancer?

                                    It does also say that the bread is baked at 415F for 35 minutes.

                                    Sorry, there are no proportions there -- but the beef suet might just be what you're looking for to give you the flavor.

                                    1. re: sunshine842

                                      Shortening? Well there's a thought - none of the recipes I've tried so far are anything but water, yeast, sugar, and flour.

                                      1. re: ZenSojourner

                                        that's kind of what I thought...I have seen shortening in sweeter bread recipes, and pizza dough takes a shot of olive oil...but not for "regular bread" -- and I've never seen suet in a bread recipe (I assume you render it and mix it in with the dough)

                                        It may be similar to the difference in making a pie crust with shortening, butter, or lard.

                                    2. re: ZenSojourner

                                      Sure baguettes were baked before steam injected high temperature ovens but not in a regular modern household oven which most of us have. Mine goes up to 550. I've tried different methods of adding steam, from adding ice to adding boiled water to spritzing and can't get the same crust; baked on stone/tiles/cookie sheet (knew that one wasn't the way to go but King Arthur recommended it). It's still a decent loaf of bread and people rave about it--what's not to like about fresh bread? But, I can't get the same results as my favorite bakeries.

                                      1. re: ZenSojourner

                                        In the pre-steam injected oven days, when the wood embers were swept from the stone baking surface the baker threw a measure of water in the oven to create a humid/steam then he/she put in the bread to be baked and sealed the loading door of the oven

                                        1. re: ZenSojourner

                                          It's true. Steam-injected ovens have not been with us very long (historically speaking). Only since the mid-1800s. That said, the baguette in its current form traces to the early 1900s. Go figure.

                                      2. re: chowser

                                        Have you tried brushing with an egg white mixed with 1 tablespoon of water?

                                        1. re: observor

                                          No, baguettes don't seem to lend themselves to glazes, at least, not the ones I've really enjoyed. I like them on softer breads, like challah or brioche, though.

                                          1. re: chowser

                                            It's what makes the shattery crust.

                                            1. re: observor

                                              The French do NOT put egg on their baguettes.

                                              1. re: pikawicca

                                                Sure they do, only that it's called the french toast.
                                                Just kidding!

                                                1. re: pikawicca

                                                  Lucky I'm not French then, so I'm not bound by arbitrary rules like that. LOL!

                                                  I hope to be trying another batch of baguettes this week. My pizza crust experiment worked out very well yesterday, so armed with a bit of renewed self-confidence, I shall march forth to the oven again!

                                                  1. re: pikawicca

                                                    What's the point? We're not talking about a French baguette, we're talking about a baguette that's like in France, and an egg white with water gives a shattering brown crust. for the home baker

                                                    1. re: observor

                                                      All I want is some good bread. Whether or not it meets some arbitrary definition of "french bread" isn't of any concern to me.

                                        2. re: Indirect Heat

                                          Well, I've never been to France to feast on baguettes, but the best method I've found for getting a great crust is a VERY hot oven, and then put the baguettes in the oven, then at four minutes, open the door and quickly spritz with a spray bottle of ice water, repeat at eight minutes and twelve minutes, then leave it alone. I use convection. The convection stops when I open the oven door to spritz. I have been told that you can get a fair simulation by putting a roasting pan in the oven with just enough water to steam during the first part of baking but then go dry for the rest. I prefer spritzing, but hey, whatever works!

                                          And I'm also struck with this quirky mental picture drawn up by my quirky mind of some poor American schmuck who LOVES thick crusty "French" bread, and who finally accumulates enough money for a trip to the home of his most favorite bread in the world only to find the famous French baguettes do NOT have thick chewy crusts. Poor baby...!!! '-)

                                          1. re: Caroline1

                                            It's not just the chew in the crust but there's a nice crispness to a good crust and I can't get it. I've: spritzed with water, both before and during, added water to a hot pan inside, thrown ice and water into the bottom of the oven (am very thankful that it didn't break the oven and will never do that again). Enough water spritzed on can make it chewy but I've also had too chewy crust that challenges my jaws. Maybe the heat makes the water evaporate quickly so it doesn't remain on the dough to make it too chewy. Anyway, as long as I think of it as loaf bread and not try to replicate "baguettes" it's fine. But, when I do get a great baguette, I start thinking, "I wish I could do this at home!"

                                            1. re: chowser

                                              Have you thought about investing in a commercial oven? '-)

                                              Actually, I think there is some sort of magic mystical secret to it all. I'm sure that the flour in France is different than the flour in the U.S. And for that matter, the yeast is probably different too. But there is also something magic and mystical to bread making that does not always follow logic or ingredients. In another thread I shared the tale of a teenage bride of "seriously limited savoir faire," who was a real clunker at most things, but bless her heart, she had absolutely magic fingers when it came to baking powder biscuits. She would whip them up, mold them with her hands, bake them and they came out like fluffy white domes of the most wonderful and smooth bread you can imagine. I can't even get yeast rolls to come out that gorgeous. Nothing else she cooked had much magic to it, but her baking powder biscuits were absolutely phenomenal! I watched her make them, helped her make them, took copious notes but could never get close. Some things are just out of reach. That's why God created bakeries. '-)

                                              1. re: Caroline1

                                                I'd love a commercial oven! I actually haven't had baguettes from France in far too many years but I'm just trying to replicate my favorite in my area. Really, I can't complain because fresh bread is just wonderful, no matter what. I just got on that Holy Grail for baguettes as some point.

                                                I think there are definitely people w/ "magic" fingers who can't explain their success but just do it. Lucky them!

                            2. re: ZenSojourner

                              BAKERY-STYLE FRENCH BAGUETTES
                              This recipe was developed after months of intensive testing and will produce baguettes with a thin, shattering crust that is the deepest golden brown, an open, airy texture, a very light, moist crumb, and will have fully developed flavor.

                              Makes two 15- by 3-inch baguettes.

                              You will need an instant-read thermometer, a scale, a lame or a single edge razor blade, a rectangular pizza stone, and a spray bottle filled with water. SAF instant or Perfect Rise yeast is preferred, but other instant dry yeasts work. The ideal ambient temperature for the sponge is 75 degrees; if it is cooler, fermentation will take longer. This recipe will yield baguettes in time for breakfast. Begin the recipe the day before you intend to serve the bread; the baguettes will emerge from the oven 20 to 24 hours after you begin the recipe. Do not add flour while kneading or shaping the dough. The baguettes are best served within 2 hours after baking.


                              For the Sponge:

                              1/8 teaspoon instant yeast or 1/4 teaspoon regular dry yeast
                              6 ounces bottled water (by weight) or spring water, 110 to 115 degrees
                              6 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour , preferably King Arthur

                              For the Dough:

                              1/2 teaspoon instant yeast or 3/4 teaspoon regular dry yeast
                              4 ounces bottled water (by weight), plus additional two teaspoons if necessary, (or spring water), 75 degrees
                              10 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour , preferably King Arthur
                              1 teaspoon table salt

                              For the Glaze:

                              1 large egg white , beaten with 1 tablespoon water

                              1. For the Sponge: Combine yeast, water, and flour in medium bowl and stir together with wooden spoon to form thick batter. Scrape down bowl with rubber spatula. Cover with plastic wrap and punch a couple of holes in plastic wrap with paring knife; let stand at room temperature. After 4 or 5 hours, sponge should be almost doubled in size and pitted with tiny bubbles. Let stand at room temperature until surface shows slight depression in center, indicating the "drop", 2 to 3 hours longer. The sponge now is ready to use.

                              2. For the Dough: To sponge, add yeast and all but 2 tablespoons water. Stir briskly with wooden spoon until water is incorporated, about 30 seconds. Stir in flour and continue mixing with wooden spoon until a scrappy ball forms. Turn dough onto countertop and knead by hand, adding drops of water if necessary, until dry bits are absorbed into dough, about 2 minutes. Dough will feel dry and tough. Stretch dough into rough 8- by 6-inch rectangle, make indentations in dough with fingertips, sprinkle with 1 tablespoon remaining water, fold edges of dough up toward center to encase water, and pinch edges to seal. Knead dough lightly, about 30 seconds (dough will feel slippery as some water escapes but will become increasingly pliant as the water is absorbed). Begin "crashing" by flinging the dough vigorously against the countertop and kneading dough alternately until soft and supple and surface is almost powdery smooth, about 7 minutes. Stretch dough again into rough 8- by 6-inch rectangle and make indentations with fingertips; sprinkle dough with salt and remaining tablespoon water. Repeat folding and sealing edges and crashing and kneading until dough is once again soft and supple and surface is almost powdery smooth, about 7 minutes. If dough still feels tough and nonpliant, knead in 2 additional teaspoons water.

                              3. Test dough to determine if adequately kneaded by performing windowpane test (well-kneaded dough can be stretched into a nearly translucent membrane). If dough tears before stretching thin, knead 5 minutes longer and test again. Gather dough into ball, place in large bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Let stand 30 minutes, then remove dough from bowl and knead gently to deflate, about 10 seconds; gather into ball, return to bowl, and replace plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 ½ hours.

                              4. Decompress dough by gently pushing a fist in center of dough toward bottom of bowl; turn dough onto work surface. With dough scraper, divide dough into two 12-ounce pieces. Working one at a time, with second piece covered with plastic wrap on work surface, cup hands stiffly around dough and drag in short half-circular motions toward edge of counter until dough forms rough torpedo shape with taut rounded surface, about 6 ½ inches long. (As you drag the dough, its tackiness will pull on the work surface, causing the top to scroll down and to the back to create a smooth, taut surface.) Repeat with second piece of dough. Drape plastic wrap over dough on work surface; let rest to relax dough, 15 to 20 minutes.

                              5. Meanwhile, line an inverted rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Working one at a time, with second piece covered with plastic wrap, roll torpedo seam-side up and press indentation along length of dough with side of outstretched hand. Working along length of dough, press thumb of one hand against dough while folding and rolling upper edge of dough down with other hand to enclose thumb. Repeat folding and rolling 4 or 5 times until upper edge meets lower edge and creates seam; press seam to seal. Dough will have formed cylinder about 12 inches long. Roll dough cylinder seam-side down; gently and evenly roll and stretch dough until it measures 15 inches long by 2 ½ inches wide. Place seam-side down on prepared baking sheet. Repeat with second dough piece. Space shaped dough pieces about 6 inches apart on baking sheet. Drape clean dry kitchen towel over dough and slide baking sheet into large clean garbage bag; seal to close. Refrigerate until dough has risen moderately, at least 12 but no longer than 16 hours.

                              6. To Bake: Remove one oven rack from oven; adjust second oven rack to lowest position. Place pizza stone on rack in oven and heavy rimmed baking sheet on oven floor. Heat oven to 500 degrees. Remove baking sheet with baguettes from refrigerator and let baguettes stand covered at room temperature 45 minutes; remove plastic bag and towel to let surface of dough dry, then let stand 15 minutes longer. The dough should have risen to almost double in bulk and feel springy to the touch. Meanwhile, bring 1 cup water to simmer in small saucepan on stovetop.

                              7. With a lame or single-edge razor blade, make five ¼-inch deep diagonal slashes on each baguette . Brush baguette with egg white and mist with water. Working quickly, slide parchment sheet with baguettes off baking sheet and onto hot pizza stone. Pour simmering water onto baking sheet on oven floor and quickly close oven door. Bake, rotating loaves front to back and side to side after 10 minutes, until deep golden brown and instant-read thermometer inserted into center of bread through bottom crust registers 205 to 210 degrees, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer to wire rack; cool 30 minutes.


                              Begin: 8 AM to 12 Noon

                              Sponge: Rise at room temperature 6 to 7 hours

                              Dough: Rise at room temperature 30 minutes; deflate, then rise 1 1/2 hours longer.

                              Shaped Dough: Rise in refrigerator 12 to 16 hours; let stand 1 hour at room temperature before baking.

                              Bake: The morning after you begin.

                              1. re: observor

                                WOW! OK, gonna try it.

                                Before I begin - any hints or warnings?

                                1. re: ZenSojourner

                                  If the shaping part is confusing, there are lots of baguette shaping videos online. Report back if you actually attempt it. (note timeline at bottom).

                                  1. re: observor

                                    I haven't gotten around to this yet, but I will. I get worn out and have to take breaks, LOL!

                                    However I'm now the proud, if somewhat bemused, owner of 50 lbs of bread flour. Apparently Costco closes at 6 on weekends. At 6:10 they told us so. So as we rushed down the aisles, with me pointing wildly at things I had intended to get, my son heard me say All Purpose Flour (grab) then Bread flour (grab).

                                    Imagine my surprise when we got out to the car. 75 lbs total of flour - I foresee much much pizza in our future.

                                    However at $12 for 50 lbs of flour, I could throw most of it away and still be ahead of paying $4 for a 5 lb bag at the grocery store.

                                    Too bad we were so rushed - I really need some 1 gallon ziploc freezer bags to package all that flour up.

                                    1. re: ZenSojourner

                                      You can keep flour in the freezer to preserve it, I think.

                                      1. re: observor

                                        Yes, I tried to hint that to my son. There are many things we could freeze and keep on hand cheaply. Sent him a link to an $85 chest freezer on craigslist.

                                        Sadly, he's ignored it.

                                          1. re: thew

                                            I would guess that if he's anything like my son, "telling" generally doesn't help - he needs to figure things out himself. Usually the hard way.

                                            1. re: Krislady

                                              of course, but hinting isnt working any better......

                                              1. re: thew

                                                Well honestly, a hint from me is kind of like a smack in the head from anyone else. LOL!

                                                Besides it's really up to him. He'd just be stuck with it once things get back to normal and I'm on my own again.

                            3. Regular supermarket baguettes are very bad.

                              As you are in NYC, I suggest you try the Whole Foods (in chelsea). I really like their bread. Like it significantly better than Amy's Bread (too thick crust). Whole Foods tastes close enough to what I had in Paris.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: dach

                                Funny, I just injured myself on Amy's Bread for lunch today, which spawned this discussion. I'll try WF in Chelsea, but if it's bad I'm coming back here to complain. ;-)

                              2. You are making some very broad statements here. The wife and I enjoy locally baked baguettes (Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia) and have visited France many times. Divorce yourself from the romance of France for a moment and your locally baked baguette (from a reputable source) will be surprisingly good I assure you.

                                1. American flour is softer than European flour - that probably makes a huge difference. I think in general American breads are not as good as those found in Europe ( I am not saying all but in general) and don't get me started on American sliced bread which is too sweet and sticky for me and other expat Brits.

                                  4 Replies
                                  1. re: smartie

                                    Most industrial-scale bread doughs in the U.S. have more in common with cake batter than with bread dough, hence their soft-sweet-stickiness-that-dissolves-in-the-mouth-without-chewing.

                                    1. re: smartie

                                      "American flour is softer than European flour - that probably makes a huge difference."

                                      It's actually the other way 'round. French flour is softer than North-American flour. The protein content of French T55 flour, the one used for baguettes, is lower (10-12%) than that of your average NA bread flour (12-15%).

                                      1. re: SnackHappy

                                        So adding gluten would make the baguette WORSE instead of better? (I THINK adding gluten adds protein - doesn't it? Bread baking newby here, still trying . . . .)

                                        1. re: ZenSojourner

                                          I don't know all the ins and outs of gluten and how it affects the texture of bread. I'm far from being an expert on the subject. I was just citing sources. But from what I can tell, you'll get a softer fluffier baguette with a lighter crust with flour that contains less gluten. I've seen some N. American recipes sometimes call for unbleached all-purpose flour instead of harder bread flour. That would seem make sense if you were trying to get the similar results as with French T55.

                                          The other, perhaps more important, factors are hydration, kneading, shaping, scoring and the use of steam in baking.

                                    2. The original comment has been removed