The French baguette’s flavour, look and texture makes it an international symbol for France. Its iconic shape is the most notable bread in the world with millions eaten each day. 10 billion baguettes are sold each year in France, that’s half a baguette a day per person! Crazy!! For tourists, it is a formality to at least try a real French baguette when visiting France. But the origin of the baguette is filled with myths and mysteries, so I asked myself, “what is the history of the baguette?” and “what is it that makes baguettes so popular?” Here is what I found out.
Translated to English, “baguette” means a “stick” or “wand” due to its shape. It derives from the Latin word “baculum” which has now been replaced in modern Italian by “baccheto”. Outside of France, it is common to refer to them as “french stick” or simply, “French bread”.
The crumb of an authentic baguette contains large irregular holes, supported by a strong gluten network. The colour of the crumb will be chalk-like, not white, with a springy texture. If pressed down, the crumb will return upon release to its original shape. Its iconic crust is golden, thick and crispy.
Baguettes are usually made with yeast, often with preferments such as poolish or sourdough. Yeast provides much of the leaving power, whilst the preferment boosts flavour, texture and keeping quality.
When making a baguette ordinaire (standard baguette), the baker divides a batch of dough into 390-gram pieces.
Traditionally, baguettes are proofed in a linen cloth called a couche. The couche is floured, and a moulded baguette is placed on top. The couche is folded along both long sides of the dough. The fold acts as a barrier to stop the baguettes from spreading sidewards as they rise. It also prevents the baguettes from touching each other.
Once proved, they are removed from the couche using a baguette peel and placed on a large board. They are scored with a razor blade, then slid into the oven. The score or “la grign” is typically 8 cuts for a full-size baguette. The perfect angle and distance between each cut take experience to master.
There are noticeable differences between each baker’s scoring angles. To protect a bakeries signature it is often the same baker who cuts the bread each day.
Once baked, each baguette weighs around 250 grams. The high amount of weightloss is due to moisture evaporating from its large surface area. See my authentic French baguette recipe with poolish to give them a go yourself!
There are a few stories that surround the first origins of the baguette:
Napoleon Bonaparte wanted his soldiers to eat between battles. A specifically measured pocket was inserted in every fighter’s jacket. Napoleon then requested bakers to produce a long stick-like bread to go inside.
When the metro system was being built in Paris, fighting struct between workmen from different suburbs. They just would not get along! It was common for workers at this time to carry a knife for cutting bread. So to prevent an escalation in violence, a supervisor from the Metro asked local bakeries to produce bread that didn’t require a knife to cut.
There could be some truth in both of these tales. We know that a long, stick bread was produced around the time of Napolean. Although, for reasons I’m about to explain, there are major differences between the stick loaves back then and the baguettes we enjoy today.
The metro system was built at the turn of the 20th century, only 20 years before they became popular. This could have been the first conception of the baguette, although there is little evidence to prove or deny it. Let’s cover a timeline of what we know about baguette history.
Bread was the base of every peasant’s diet. It was a cheap and available source of carbohydrates, protein and minerals which would have accounted for around 50% of their diets. Milling processes were basic. Not too long ago peasants would be grinding their own flour from the whole of the grain. The grains they used included wheat, rye and buckwheat, but would be depend on what region they were in.
As milling methods improved it became possible to separate the bran from the grain to produce white flour. The process to do this was expensive and it meant that white bread became a product only reserved for the rich.
It is documented that a long bread was baked in French bakeries during the 1760s. These loaves are described as 1 yard, sometimes 2 yards long! They would have to lie along the length of the table as they would fall on the floor otherwise! In my research, I’ve not been able to find a name for this bread, but it is likely to be related to the Ficelle.
During the late 1700s, poor harvests and a growing population led to wheat prices soaring. The poor couldn’t afford to eat and they were not happy about it. This, amongst other political issues, started the 1789 French Revolution. After the king was removed, a 1793 decree stated:
“Richness and poverty must both disappear from the government of equality. It will no longer make a bread of wheat for the rich and a bread of bran for the poor. All bakers will be held, under the penalty of imprisonment, to make only one type of bread, The Bread of Equality.”
The bread of equality ruling made bread accessible to all. Popular bread types were; Pain au Levain (sourdough), Pain de Campagne, Brioche and Pain de Seigle (rye bread).
The emergence of baker’s yeast during this century changed bread making for good. It was no longer necessary to make bread in small batches or spend a whole day preparing sourdough. Bread started to be produced en-mass in boulangeries (bakeries) and less by the housewife. It was also a period where Hungarian roller milling was brought to France. This new method meant that there was less damage to the grain, resulting in better flour quality.
One of the most revolutionary pieces of baking equipment was also introduced in this century. In 1839, the first steam-baking oven was unveiled by August Zang in his bakery “Boulangerie Viennoise” at 92, rue de Richelieu, Paris.
The Viennese steam oven changed everything. Bakers could create lighter loaves with incredibly crispy crusts. The steam added at the start of baking delays the setting of the crust to promote a larger oven rise. It also contributes to starch at the outer perimeter of the bread to absorb moisture. The starch eventually over-hydrates, bursts, and the dextrins that seep out harden. The process produces a crispy crust with a shiny gloss.
August Zang used this oven to wow Paris with the introduction of Vienna bread, a long sweetened soft bread that has a similar shape to baguettes. He also brought the Kipfel to France which he developed into the French Croissant. These products and others are now classified as Viennisioree.
There is a theory that August Zang also invented the baguette. But, there is no evidence other than the connection between the steam oven and baguettes. As far as what has been recorded, the baguette was unheard of at this time.
After the first world war ended in 1918, France was suffering in rebuilding its nation. Because of this, the French government invoked a ruling to stop bakers from working between the hours of 10 pm and 4 am.
The government were struggling to build enough houses alongside repairing France’s destroyed infrastructure. From my research, the economy was swinging at the time, in desperate need of stability. Because of these pressures, the government took strong actions to avoid bankrupting the nation. It was deemed necessary to control the rate of economic growth to stop industries from over-expanding. They did this by restricting night workers.
The change in working hours caused a massive problem for bakers. They were not able to produce their traditional large loaves for an 8 am opening and couldn’t make bread in 4 hours without destroying its quality. Nor could they leave the dough overnight to rise, fridges or automatic proofers didn’t exist! Leaving the dough unattended overnight would have meant that the temperature, atmosphere and dough consistency would need to be the same every day. It was far too risky to produce bread this way. They needed a new product that was quick to make, tasty, and profitable.
Steam ovens were now common in many bakeries in France. Despite improving traditional classics, all of the new types of bread that utilised the technology originated from Vienna. I bet it would have angered French bakers that they didn’t have a symbolic product that was actually French!
Whether invented for the metro workers, or French bakers putting their twist on Viena bread, the modern baguette was born somewhere between 1900 and 1920. What we do know for sure is that the first written record of a bread named “baguette” was in 1920. This record was found in a regulation of the department of the Seine. It declared that a baguette was not to be sold for more than 0.35 Francs apiece. It was also determined that it must have a minimum weight of 80 grams and a maximum length of 40cm. The citizens of Paris quickly warmed to the baguette and the new bread spread its popularity to the rest of France and later, the world.
If you visit France you’ll see baguettes eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sometimes indulged as an accompaniment, a sandwich, but just as likely by tearing off chunks and eating it on its own.
Going to a boulangerie is a part of daily life in France. There is one located on every shopping strip. Baguettes turn stale quickly. They are best eaten within 5 hours of production. This means that the majority of residents visit their boulangerie every day to pick up a fresh loaf. Some even visit more than once a day!
Bakers find that it is very profitable to produce baguettes, and because they are cheaper than a large boule, a convenient price for consumers.
Its light aerated crumb is coupled with a crunchy, strong crust. But it isn’t just the texture that’s won its reputation, its flavour is just as important. The flavour of a baguette is delicate enough to not overpower, whilst its deep aromas are interesting enough to provide excitement. This makes baguettes perfect as an accompaniment to food, sandwiches or on their own.
The baguette was the perfect match for business, cultural climate and customer satisfaction. It makes sense from every angle.
There is a misconception that a French baguette should only be made of flour, water, salt and yeast. Whilst a beautiful baguette can be made of just those ingredients, it is possible to include others in line with the ‘bread decree’ of 1993.
Bakeries in most countries are free to add whatever additive or improver into their bread as long as they are listed on the packaging. Enzymes which naturally occur in the flour are also often added, which do not need to be declared. The regulations in France are more stringent. Their bread is legally classified based on the ingredients and techniques used to produce the dough. By clearing categorising each method it is easier for customers to know the quality of the bread.
This is the standard dough we associate with French bread. No chemicals and only 6 additives allowed. They are:
There are limits for how much can be used can be found in the French bread ingredients post. All ingredients must be obtained from natural sources and the dough can not be frozen. Look out for the Artisan Boulangerie label when selecting bread or a bakery in France as it is a sign that the bread is baked on-site.
Translates as “Current baguette”, there are fourteen bread additional improvers allowed in this grade of dough. They are E300, 301, 302, 304, 322, 471, 270, 325, 326, 327, 260, 261, 262, 263. Improvers can be emulsifiers or relaxing agents which remove the need for long fermentation.
This bread is raised with a sourdough levain. A small percentage of yeast can be added to the dough, but not the starter. It can include rye or wheat flour and natural sweeteners if desired. No additional additives are allowed.
This means pretty much anything goes under EU law. It will either be used to make a beautifully special signature bread or a mass-produced low-cost option. It may be frozen or par-baked and reheated on-site.
Somewhat open to interpretation but in general, lumberjack bread is made with rye sourdough.
A dough containing cracked grains and seeds such as sunflower, linseed, pumpkin, millet and poppy.
Wheat is grown and milled in France to make baguettes. The wheat grown in France is weaker than in North America. Strength is shown in the protein content of the flour, and the ratio of glutenin protein vs gliadin protein. French bread dough is less elastic, stretches well without tearing, and benefits from medium-length bulk fermentation.
French flour is graded by the weight of minerals that remain after 10 grams of flour is burnt. The more bran in the flour means a higher weight and therefore, grade. An ash level of 0.55 (T55) is typical for standard white bread. Baguettes can be made with T55 flour, yet T65 is preferred. Whole wheat flour contains the bran in its entirety so registers as T85 or T100.
If you can’t find French T55 or T65 flour, try mixing 80% strong bread flour with 10% all-purpose flour and 10% wholemeal flour. This will give you a lower protein, hearty flour that is fairly reminiscent of French flour. Bakers may also add rye flour for a warming depth of flavour.
Aside from the ingredients in the dough, there are several varieties of baguettes in France. These use different production techniques, equipment or inclusions to make them special.
The ordinary baguette uses traditional methods of hand shaping, proofing in a couche and baking in a stone bake oven. It requires a certain level of skill to master each technique, but as baguettes are so popular French bakers get a lot of practice! Baguette bien cuit is a baguette that has been baked “well-done” and is popular in Parisian bakeries.
This method uses baguette trays (or moulds) to prove and bake the baguettes. The baker is also likely to use baguette moulding machines to roll the dough into shape. As it requires less skill from the baker and is quicker to make, baguette moulée is the popular choice in high-volume production.
Baguette moulée is low-cost baguette made with courant Français or spéciaux dough recipes. It’s easily identifiable by the fine lattice pattern along the lower half of the bread. Outside of France, it is common for bakeries to use this method to make baguettes.
These are flour-dusted before cutting and going into the oven. They are usually baked gently for a lighter-coloured crust.
Épi is made from a baguette. When the dough has proofed it is cut into leaves. This produces a beautiful tear ‘n share loaf.
A pain flûte is long and thin in shape, about twice the length of a baguette. Also called a Parisienne in the US, however in France a Parisienne baguette relates to a baguette ordinaire from Paris.
The ficelle is a thinner variation of the baguette that’s perfect for a lighter sandwich.
A bâtard is a wide, stubby bread shape, made from the same dough as baguettes. It’s great for a fat sandwich. Bâtard translates to “bastard” in English.
Vienna bread is a sweetened bread that’s baked in a steam oven. It is often used for sandwiches but just as likely enjoyed naked with coffee. A popular variation is with chocolate chips.
The Italian baguette uses Italian flour which produces a slightly denser crumb and a chewier, less crispy crust. See the French vs Italian bread article to learn more.
A short Vietnamese bread that is sliced through the middle to be made into sandwiches. It has a thinner crust and a softer, lighter crumb. This is produced by using high protein flour and adding small amounts of sugar and fat to the dough.
Bread has been a major part of French culture and is unlikely to slow down anytime soon! Where will it go? There are plenty of signs in history that the French baguette’s popularity has no signs of slowing down! Let me know if you have more facts to add or any questions in the comments below. If you would like a recipe, check out my French baguette recipe with poolish.