Introduction: Traditional Baguettes by Hand

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Bread making can be one of the most zen things a cook can do. And while companies who make bread machines and bread mixes have a vested interest in convincing you that it is a time consuming, difficult process requiring a ton of equipment or specialized mixes; in fact, it's a really simple, really easy process.
This instructable will walk you through making two loaves of baguette bread. Following the French tradition, measurements for flour and water are by weight. Because there can be a huge variance when using measuring cups, I've found this method the most successful.
For a traditional white recipe you'll need:
  • 18 ounces of bread flour
  • 1.5 teaspoons dry active yeast, or 1/3 ounce of fresh yeast
  • 2 teaspoons salt (I use Kosher salt that I've pestled down to a smaller grain)
  • 12.5 ounces of water
Tools: Mixing bowl, kitchen scale, counter-top or other smooth surface, bowl scraper, clean hands, baking sheet, kitchen scissors or razor, oven.

Step 1: Measure and Mix

Measure your bread flour into large bowl.
Add salt
Add yeast to flour and crumble into the flour with your fingertips. (I don't proof the yeast, I've never found it to be necessary.)
Make a well in the flour mixture and pour in the water.
Using your scraper, fold the water and flour mix together into a shaggy blend.

Step 2: I Need You to Knead Me

Using your scraper, plop your shaggy mess out onto the counter, and scrape any flour that is still in the bowl out with it.
Now, this part is sticky and messy, but it's important to remember that the dough will come together in a few minutes of working it. You want to try to avoid adding flour at this stage because it will make your bread really tough and hard to rise. You may want to flour your hands a little, and maybe add a tablespoon or less of flour to your work surface, but what you really want is to work the ingredients you've already got into a smooth elastic dough.
I know, at this stage, it seems hard to believe this sticky glue ball will do that...but trust does.
Initially try to incorporate any flour that was left in your bowl. Then pushing and pulling the dough, start folding it over itself, then change directions and fold again. Keep doing this. It adds air to the mix, and activates the gluten and the yeast.
Keep kneading and folding until your dough becomes elastic and stretchy.I usually pick up an end and swing it out, then fold it back on itself, then fold that rectangle in half, lengthwise.
This process takes about 10 minutes to get it to a smooth, elastic texture.
Here's a slideshow of me doing it. You can see how the dough goes from sticky and shaggy to smooth and elastic as air gets worked in, and the gluten starts to develop.

Step 3: Resting

Now that your dough is smooth, elastic and activated, fold it in quarters a final time, making a big loose ball. (You want the air pockets to stay in your folds.)
Put the ball in a lightly greased bowl, and roll it once to coat the bread with butter/crisco/your fat of choice.
Cover loosely with a lint free tea towel, and put somewhere warm and draft free to rise.
(I usually turn on my non-convection oven for a minute or two to get the temperature to about 98 degrees F (37 C), turn off the oven, and pop the big stoneware bowl in there. Make sure you don't get it too hot though, or you'll start cooking the bread. You don't want that. An accurate oven thermometer is a big help here if you don't have a digital readout.)
Rest the dough for about an hour, or until it has doubled in size.

Step 4: Preparing the Loaves

Once your dough has risen, gently scoop it out of the rising bowl with your scraper onto a floured counter or workspace.
Divide the dough into two pieces.
Roll into baguettes by pressing each piece into a rectangle.(Not too hard, just lightly press) Fold one third of the rectangle into the middle, and press down along the edge to seal. Fold the other third into the middle, and press to seal. This gives the bread a strong "spine". Then fold the log lengthwise in half again, and seal.
The slide show I linked in the previous step has pictures of this step towards the end of the slide show.
Flip your baguette over and place on a lightly floured parchment lined baking tray, seam side down.
Once on the tray, use a sharp pair of kitchen scissors or a razor to slice 5-7 slices in the top of the loaf.
Cover your prepped baguette with a lint free and floured tea towel, tucking a bit of it between the loaves to keep them from touching during the second rise if necessary.
Let rise for about an hour in a draft free and warm spot. (I pop mine back into the oven where I did the first rise, but don't add any additional heat.)

Step 5: Second Rise

Your loaves will look like this after the second rise.
During the last 10 minutes or so of your rise, preheat your oven to 450 degrees.(If you're rising your bread in the oven...take it out BEFORE preheating the oven. )

Step 6: Baking

Bake your loaves at 450 for 15 to 20 minutes, until they are a rich golden brown. (Times may vary due to oven temperature variances.)
For a crunchier, thicker crust, spritz your oven with a few squirts ofwater just before you add the bread, or place an oven safe bowl of hot water in the rack below the bread.
When done, remove to racks and let cool.

Step 7: Enjoy!