The Art of the Perfect Baguette
To say that the French are particular about their baguettes is a gross understatement. There are French laws regulating the ingredients, process and dimensions of baguettes — bakers must conform to the standards in order to declare their product genuinely French. A shared definition of “perfect” ensures that every cafe, roadside stand, and street vendor across France sells a light and airy baguette with an impossibly thin, crispy crust — always the same; always sensational.
In the US, on the other hand, one baker’s baguette is another baker’s breadstick.
Throughout the Twin Cities the talent of baguette makers ranges from extremely high (including a member of the 2008 US Bread Baker’s Guild Team that placed 4th in the artisan bread competition in Paris) to mediocre, at best. Bakeries sell baguettes that range not only in size, but also in the quality of their crust and the crumb (bread interior). With multitudes of bakeries out there, we find ourselves in a constant quest for the perfect baguette.
What defines a perfect baguette?
Seven Heavy Table staffers conducted a blind taste test of four metro area bakery’s baguettes, frequently called-out for their delicious product: Rustica Bakery, Breadsmith, Turtle Bread Company, and New French Bakery. The results for the favorite baguette from this small sampling were almost unanimous — Rustica Bakery rose to perfection. When asked “why?,” participants cited the thin, crisp crust and the light, airy crumb.
With this taste test in mind, we went to source – Steve Horton, baker/owner of Rustica Bakery. “It’s all about mouth-feel,” he says about the perfect baguette experience. “We want the crust to be crisp and light with an open crumb structure.”
This open crumb structure is something that was appreciated by our blind taste-testers as well. One participant noted the uniformity of one baguette contender’s interior, contrasting it to the preferred air pockets seen in others. In order to achieve this open crumb, Horton says they emphasize the hydration, mixing and hand shaping of their baguettes. But how does this affect consistency? Rustica is not attempting consistency within the baguette’s crumb (airy pockets are welcome), rather they look for consistency in their product to be “uniform in look and taste.” Their philosophy is for a customer to be assured they are purchasing the same quality product each time they visit.
When asked about the baguette competition in the area, Horton says that his biggest competition is the convenience that grocery chains offer to consumers. He recognizes that if someone is out grocery shopping, chances are they will buy their bread there. Some will go to the source, a bakery, but a lot will buy what’s conveniently available. Rustica battles competition by selling their breads at Eastside, Seward, and Linden Hill Co-ops, Mississippi Market on Selby and at Surdyk’s Cheese Shop.
How much should I pay for the perfect baguette?
The baguettes purchased from Rustica, Breadsmith (the petite baguette), Turtle Bread Company and New French Bakery ranged (in no particular order) from $1.80 to $3.29 for a single baguette bought in the bakery’s retail store. All were relatively the same length and diameter, so what could be the cost differential? The cheapest of these, New French Bakery, cites certified organic ingredients on their website, while none of the others address sourcing or certification of any kind. All state that they are artisan bread makers. The (widely-accepted) definition of that means that a person’s hands touched the bread at some point during its making, allowing for a very loose application of this qualification among bakeries.
Rustica prices their baguette at $2.25, which is mid-range of our four contenders. “In general our breads are priced lower. Bread should not be a luxury item; it should be a staple. People should be able to buy a couple loaves a week and it should not be a question at the counter of ‘Do I really want to spend $x.xx on bread?'” says Horton, regarding his price point. He also says that the baguette is a one-day product — the process and ingredients for a baguette do not allow a long shelf life, so he prices his baguettes to sell.
Which baguette should we buy?
From dimensions to ingredients to artisanal-intervention, baguettes vary from bakery to bakery. Is Rustica Bakery the perfect baguette? Our blind taste test says so. But ultimately, says Horton, the perfect baguette is an individual preference of taste, texture and aesthetics.
Who makes your favorite baguette?