As the French baguette enters the race to be given Unesco World Heritage status, American historian and French bread expert Steven Kaplan teaches us how to recognize and enjoy a good baguette de tradition. Six criteria matter: appearance, crust, crumb, mouth-feel, aroma, and taste.
Viewed as a “fancy” food reserved for the bourgeoisie in the early 20th century, the baguette grew in popularity before World War I. “The baguette was developed to satisfy wealthy city-dwellers’ appetites for crusty, fresh bread several times a day,” says Steven Kaplan.
While its shape was hardly revolutionary for the time, as long breads had been around since the 17th century, the baguette’s weight was the real novelty. The new creation weighed in at several hundred grams, compared to 3-12lbs for ordinary breads. The baguette’s taste also developed with time as bakers gradually stopped using wild yeast, which was too acidic and hard to control, in favor of what is now known as baker’s yeast. As a result, bread-makers reduced their workload while producing more consistently flavorsome, high-quality batches.
The Quality Guarantee of the Baguette de Tradition
The birth of the baguette de tradition française accompanied the 1993 French “Bread Decree” that defined traditional French breadmaking methods in an effort to combat industrial breads. A French baguette de tradition is obliged to respect a number of rules. For example, it cannot be frozen in any way while being made (such as freezing pieces of dough), nor may it contain any additives or enhancers that might be used to facilitate or shorten one or several stages in the cooking process.
What’s more, the emblematic bread may only contain wheat flour, water, salt, and wild and/or baker’s yeast, which respectively create alcoholic fermentation, and a gentle but more complicated lactic fermentation. The decree did not however define the weight or price of a baguette de tradition, and this particular specialty tends to cost more as it takes longer to make (around five hours).
Despite the introduction of the Bread Decree, the baguette de tradition is occasionally disappointing. After all, there is no guarantee as to the flours used, nor to the quality of the breadmaking techniques employed. It should generally be eaten within six hours after cooking, unlike bread loaves made using traditional wild yeast, which lasts four days. And once removed from the oven, a baguette can also be frozen and enjoyed later.
Spotting a Good Baguette
Hidden under a dusting of flour (make-up, some would say!), the crust should be smooth and brown, and the sides straight and regular. Five or six slices with a knife before cooking create an even texture on the surface, and act as an artisan bread maker’s signature.
How long the baguette is cooked is also essential: “The baguette should be pressed and lightly cracked to see if it is crispy enough. The more it cracks, the better it is!” Tapping the underside of a correctly-cooked baguette should produce a hollow sound. Steven Kaplan regrets the softness of much of today’s bread, observing that “the French don’t want to chew anymore. And bakers are adapting to this demand by reducing how long baguettes are cooked.”
A multitude of sensations
Opening the baguette will reveal its quality, and the interior of each slice should be riddled with irregular pockets of air. The crumb should be slightly moist, plump, and pearly white. “Very white bread is a true standard for many French people, and is associated with purity, happiness, success, and upward mobility,” says the historian. “But this whiteness is often achieved at the expense of flavor and texture!”
Aromas come next, before any tasting takes place. Steven Kaplan recommends blowing on the crust to air it, and breathing in the caramelized aromas. “Make sure you cut the baguette at the last possible moment, as its aromas will disappear in five minutes,” he says. The perfect crumb will release scents of milk or butter, and connoisseurs may even be able to distinguish notes of banana, leather, dried fruit, or nuts. “Aromas are linked to an individual’s sense of smell, and each person’s memories will create a different experience. The baguette is so loved for what it conjures up for each person,” says the ‘bread sommelier,’ who personally picks up on “base notes of autumn leaves” and a “nuance of chocolate.”
The mouth-feel is created by the balance between the crumb and the crust, and should be a harmonious combination of chewy and melt-in-the-mouth. The bread’s flavor is analyzed in the last mouthful before the final verdict is handed down: Bland, perfect, or salty. Anyone hesitating at the bakery should opt for the baguette de tradition — a gold standard, provided it is beautifully browned.
Steven L. Kaplan is an American historian and bread specialist. He splits his time between France and the United States and teaches in both countries, at Cornell University (New York) and at the Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines University (near Paris). He has authored a number of academic works on French bread from the 18th century up to the modern day, as well as books for the general public such as Good Bread is Back (Perrin, 2002). His recent study Raisonner sur les blés : Essai sur les Lumières économiques was published in French in August 2017 by Fayard.