The History Of The French Baguette

France is baguette crazy, so there must be a deep history of the baguette?! If you visit France you’ll see them eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sometimes as an accompaniment, but just as likely they are indulged by tearing off chunks and eating it on its own.  

It’s popular to eat baguettes as a sandwich, panini or with pate and jam at any time of day. But it wasn’t always like this. The baguette only became popular in the 1920s, before that it was relatively unknown.

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The bread culture of France

Bread has been a major part of French culture throughout its history and it’s unlikely to slow down anytime soon! French bakers follow strict rules for making bread. Although some go against tradition, baguette bakers should only use wheat flour, salt, yeast and water in their recipe. These rules make French baguettes’ and other French bread unique across the globe.

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The characteristics of the depth of flavour, look and texture of a baguette are unique. They are gained by using wheat grown and milled in France which is brought out by the way French bakers use the ingredients. 

Let us discover more about the history of the baguette…

The start of the baguettes history

Before the baguette shot in popularity in 1920, bread would be larger in size and often in a boule shape. They were made by working overnight before being sold to restaurants or local clientele on site. Common history tells us that baguettes were invented in the 1920s. This is not true. 

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The 1920s was the period when Baguettes became popular. It has a long heritage.

Despite being overlooked by many bread historians a long bread was being baked in French bakeries in the 1760s. These loaves of bread were longer than the size we associate with baguettes today, commonly they were 1 yard, sometimes 2 yards long!

In my research, I’ve not able to find the name used for this bread. Not many people know this bread existed!

The first written record of the word baguette has been discovered dated 1920. It described a long, thin bread.

The conditions that made the French baguette rise in popularity

The long unknown stick bread was being made by French bakers at the turn of the 20th century. 

Here’s the story which explains how the baguette became so widespread…

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At the time, popular breads were Pain au Levain (sourdough), Pain de Campagne, Brioche and Pain de Seigle (rye bread).Due to the economic climate after the war, the government enforced a law to stop bakers working between the hours of 10pm and 4am.

The change in working hours caused a massive problem for bakers. Starting at 4am, they were not able to produce the large loaves that were popular for an 8am opening. They couldn’t make them faster, there wasn’t enough time. Nor could they slow it down in an overnight proof. Fridges or proofers with auto timers didn’t exist at the time. So an overnight proof would have been left uncontrolled. The temperature, atmosphere and dough consistency would have to be the same every day for a consistent product. This was far too risky to run a business. 

French bakers required another solution

The French bakers needed to create bread to be ready in 3 hours. Would appeal to their customers and was suitable for breakfast, and ideally lunch.

A new invention had hit town… The steam oven

Well, kinda new.

A guy from Austria had introduced a steam oven to French bakers in the previous century.

Most bakeries now had one of these and could create lighter bread with crispy crusts. The Vienna roll had recently been introduced in France and it quickly became adopted as a national staple. 

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But the proud French bakers were itching to create their own bread to define the nation. The steam oven was the new thing that all bakers wanted to use. The baguette utilised the new technology and like mutual partners, they grew inseparable. 

Why were French bakers forced to start baking at 4am?

After the war ceased, the government had to develop new houses alongside repairing destroyed infrastructure. The economy was swinging, in desperate need of stability. Because of the pressures from the economy, the government had to take strong actions. They did not want to bankrupt the nation. So it was deemed necessary to control the rate of economic growth. One of the objectives was to stop industries over-expanding. They did this by controlling night work. 

The First Baguette was recorded in history

With the legislation in place, the bakers of Paris started to try recipes that could work in the conditions.

Some new recipes, some from their back catalogue. Then one day, somewhere, somehow, a baguette was baked. 

the history of the french baguette

We are not really sure when, there are no records to indicate an exact date. The 1920s seems to be the period in which the history of the baguette kicked off.

It was quickly absorbed by the citizens of Paris, then throughout the rest of France. And then across the world!

Why the baguette became France’s number 1 bread

I have no idea what was discussed by the bakers who developed the baguette in 1920s. But they were very clever in their choice of product.

The baguette becomes stale quickly, is quick to produce and has plenty of people with a desire to eat one every day.

If it was to take off, it was going to be very profitable for the producers. The baguette is best eaten within 5 hours of production after this it deteriorates pretty quick. This means a baguette loving Frenchman must visit his favourite boulangerie every day if he is to continue his addiction. Or even twice a day! Some people go morning and dinner. It is part of the culture derived from French bread history. It’s great for business! Maybe not fantastic for the eater’s health as they are usually white bread.

Further reading: Is white bread bad for you?

But it’s not just about the repeat sales

The baguette was a beautiful contrast to the bread currently in trend. A light aerated crumb was coupled with a crunchy, strong crust which resonated with the French public. But it wasn’t just the texture that won over its customers. The baguette flavour is just as important. Its flavour is delicate to not overpower its accompaniment. Whilst it has enough power to provide excitement and deep aromas when eaten alone. So the baguette was a perfect match of business, cultural climate and customer satisfaction. It made sense from every angle. 

The baguettes popularity grew rapidly from unknown to take the position of the most popular bread in France. Following that, worldwide acceptance followed. Today 10 billion baguettes are sold each year in France, that’s half a baguette a day per person. Crazy!

Why is it called a Baguette?

Translated to English, a baguette means is a “stick” or “wand” due to its shape. In the UK, we often use a slang name like “french stick” or “French bread” but it’s kinda vague and disrespectful (I think).

The characteristics of a standard French baguette

When baking a standard baguette, the baker will scale the price of dough at 390g. Once baked the baguette will weigh 250g. This weight loss is due to the water in the moisture evaporating. The crumb should have large, irregular holes, supported by a thick gluten network.

The colour of it should be chalk-like and have a springy texture. If the bread is pressed by hand, it should return to its original shape upon release. The crust should be golden and crispy but many bakeries tend to underbake them for a lighter, more customer-friendly crust. But artisan bakers frown at this method.

What types of Baguette are there?

The baguette is possibly the hardest commonly produced bread to make in my opinion. It combines many different techniques. To shape a baguette for final moulding, a couche is used. It’s a thick cloth like a curtain liner. The baker will flour dust it and the long moulded dough is placed on the couche and the edges and pulled up to act as a barrier between each dough piece. The couche supports the baguette to rise upwards and retain its shape. Once proved, it’s then placed on a board by using a peel to lift it from the couche. It’s then cut and dropped into the oven. The cut or “la grign” is something that many bakers struggle with. Typically it’s 8 cuts for a full-size baguette though not always.

Getting the right angle takes making a lot of baguettes to master.

In many bakeries, there are differences between bakers who cut the baguettes. To protect the baguette’s signature it is often the same baker who makes the cuts each day.

There are also variations of the baguette that Italians have created, check out the French vs Italian bread article to learn more.

Variations of the French Baguette

The version of the baguette I’ve mentioned is the standard version, or “Baguette Ordinaire.” There are other versions too, the Baguette Moulée and Baguette Farinée.

La Baguette Ordinaire

here are only 4 key ingredients that are allowed in the standard baguette, flour, drinking water, salt and yeast. Yeast can be added in the form of a poolish or sourdough if desired. The flour should have originated from France, but it’s not bread law. French bakers tend to use T65 or T55 grade flour. These give the depth of flavour that’s loved in a real baguette. It’s low in protein which helps the baker stretch the dough into the desired shape.

La Baguette Moulée

This uses industrial baguette trays instead of a couche to prove and bake the bread. The baker would not need to transfer the proved bread onto a board. They simply place the tray it proves on into the oven. This technique is used for low skilled bakers and where volume is of higher concern than quality. A Baguette Moulée is usually made from a low-cost dough made with additives. It’s easily identifiable to spot the fine lattice pattern along the lower half of this bread.

A Baguette Farinée

These are flour-dusted before cutting and going into the oven. It’s baked to give a lighter coloured crust. 

The grades of French bread dough

Generally, we talk about baguettes as a true artisan product, with no additives just the big four ingredients. But this is not always the case. As with the rest of the world, there have been some adaptations to help speed up and reduce the costs of the process. French people are demanding when it comes to knowing how food is made. 

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So there is a legal classification of bread quality in France. This applies to all types of bread, not just baguettes. Knowing the grade to which the bread is made helps inform the customers to know what quality to expect. 

Le pain de tradition Française

This is the standard dough we associate with French bread, no chemicals, only 6 natural additives are allowed. They are:

  • Bean flour
  • Soya flour
  • Gluten
  • Fungal amylase (malt flour)
  • Salt
  • Deactivated yeast

There are limits for how much can be added to a dough. Plus, they do not have to be used. They must be obtained from natural sources and the dough can not be frozen. 

Look out for the Artisan Boulangerie label, or the use of the title when selecting a bakery in France. This is used when the bread is baked on-site.

Le pain courant Français

Translates as “Current bread”, 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 are emulsifiers or enzymes which will speed up the dough development time. Using improvers allows the bread to be created faster and keep fresh for longer (anti-staling).

Pain au levain

This is raised with a sourdough levain. It can include rye or wheat flour and some natural sweeteners if desired. No additional additives are allowed. A baguette au levain tends to be a bakeries signature bread.

Les pains spéciaux

This means pretty much anything goes. It will either be used to make a beautifully special signature bread, or it can contain bread improvers to allow it to be mass-produced quickly, frozen and transported.

Breads related to the baguette worth mentioning

A Pain Flute is long and thin in shape, about twice the length of a baguette. A Batard is a wider bread shape, usually from the same dough. It’s great for a fat sandwich. Its name translates to bastard in English. The Baton is a half-sized baguette, not designed for sharing. Vienna rolls are sweetened bread baked in a steam oven. Usually used for making sandwiches.

Can you use another flour to make a French Baguette?

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The French may not agree, but If you don’t have French t55 or t65 flour available, try mixing 80% strong bakers 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 choose to add wholemeal or rye flour to a baguette mix too depending on personal taste. 

The future of the French Baguette.

Where will it go? There is plenty of history in the French baguette and I can’t see baguette popularity slowing down. Perhaps as more and more people become health conscious across the globe there might be an increase in wholemeal bread and artisan bakeries. So, perhaps an artisan baked wholemeal baguette might become top bread. But this is my opinion, it might not happen. I’ve always hoped healthy artisan bread would explode and completely destroy the commercial loaf. 

It doesn’t seem to be happening right now, but maybe in time real bread will prevail in countries outside of France.

Follow for the authentic French baguette recipe with poolish

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