Five tips for finding the perfect French baguette

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Return now to one French creation that always sells well; the baguette. And as you plan your Thanksgiving meal tomorrow, how about a baguette instead of those soft dinner rolls we're all so used to? If it's a good baguette, Andrew Janjigian supports that substitution. He's an associate editor at Cooks Illustrated and he went to France recently on a mission to find the perfect baguette recipe. But in the process, Andrew says, he discovered that the French love affair with their favorite fresh loaf is not what it used to be.

Andrew Janjigian: The state of the baguette has been on, unfortunately, steady decline for some years now. People are eating far fewer than they used to. I think the numbers are something like, the average French person eats half a baguette a day, whereas thirty years ago it was one a day, and 100 years ago it was three a day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Werman: And why was that consumption so high? Because people didn't have meat to eat and it was just cheap?

Janjigian: No, actually it's quite the opposite. A baguette is a thing of luxury. A baguette lasts for a couple of hours and so to have one, you have to return to the bakery three times a day, essentially.

Werman: So what was your investigation all about?

Janjigian: I'm working on a recipe for the magazine and the point was if I was going to create a baguette recipe for our readers, I really had to go back to the source and get a sense of what they're really meant to be like.

Werman: How many bakeries, "boulangeries," did you go to and how many baguettes did you eat?

Janjigian: I was there for 36 hours and in that time I went to about ten places. I ate about a half a dozen if you count a couple in restaurants and here and there. One full day, I basically tooled around Paris from bakery to bakery as fast as I could and picked up all the baguettes I could find. The ones that had some reputation one way or another, or the bakers, the owners, have a reputation as being among the best in Paris and in France.

Werman: So, what was the range like?

Janjigian: Most of them fell in the mediocre category. There were some that were quite bad, they were pale and soft and basically no different than you might get in a bread basket in a restaurant here in the states. There were really only a couple that were superlatively good and they were perfect.

Werman: And what stood out? The crust first of all, right?

Janjigian: A baguette is essentially about the crust. Unlike other breads, where there's a lot more interior to exterior, there is a lot of crust and so, if the crust isn't good, the whole thing is not good. So it has to have a crisp crust that sounds a certain way and feels a certain way in your mouth. And it looks a certain way, it's dark, it's a kind of ruddy color.

Werman: What is the hardest part to master for the French bakers in getting that perfect baguette? Is it the temperature, is it the oven, is it the flour?

Janjigian: It's a whole combination of things. It's really not about whether they have the technique or not, it's whether they can dedicate the time it takes to make each and every one come out that way. A good baguette is something that's made by hand and modernization of all these things means that fewer and fewer are being made by hand, they're being made by machines and they're being made using additives and processes that eventually detract from the final product. They can make more of them and they might keep longer, but they're not good.

Werman: Do the French still care about that? Do they place any value in the quality of their bread? You'd think they would.

Janjigian: Yeah, I suspect that they would probably argue that they do, but the statistics argue against that. The bakers I met with say that they have a hard time convincing people to eat bread that's baked properly. They have to talk most of them into buying it in a certain state. In France, they were one time used to the idea that a dark loaf meant a good loaf. One baker I went to, the guy in front of me ordered his "bien qui" and I thought "that guy knows what he's looking for."

Werman: "Bien qui" meaning he wants it well done.

Janjigian: Yeah, well done. They should all be that way, but at the moment there are some that are "bien qui" and then there are the others for everyone else. So if you ask, it means you know what you're looking for.

Werman: Well, as you said, Andrew, your trip to France is basically for a forthcoming recipe on the baguette that will be in Cooks Illustrated. Failing a homemade baguette for Thanksgiving tomorrow, any good suggestions of bread that really ought to be on the table for dinner?

Janjigian: For me, I think for a dinner bread, it should be a really good crusty sourdough loaf. A big boule, one that's going to keep well and you can then put your left-over turkey on the next day.

Werman: Andrew Janjigian, associate editor at Cooks Illustrated, thanks so much for coming in.

Janjigian: It's been great, thank you.