The Art of the Perfect Baguette

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

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?

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

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.”

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

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?

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16 Comments

  1. Did you happen to weigh the different baguettes, in addition to measuring their dimensions?

    • Author

      Unfortunately I did not weigh the baguettes, but that would speak to the authenticity of the baguettes by French standards (250 grams).

  2. yes to Rustica! {although, truly, Margaret Chamberlain, artisan baker extraordinaire (most recently for Mayday Cafe) should win- especially when baked in the neighborhood brick oven.)

  3. Also it might give an idea of why the prices varied (more inputs=more cost), although I am sure there are other factors influencing the price.

  4. “Bread should not be a luxury item; it should be a staple.”

    This is very French. In Paris, there are boulangeries every other block or so, and a good demi-baguette costs around $.40 to $.60 (Euros of course). Bread is a part of everyday life there, not some sort of special luxury.

  5. I’ve been buying Rustica baguettes at Seward Coop for over a year now, and they’re always perfect. New French is pretty good, too, but the plastic they pack the loaves in (at the coop, that is – I haven’t bought an unwrapped one at their actual bakery) pretty much kills the crispness of the crust…

  6. Irene & John 03/21/2009

    Crisy crust, chewy and soooo flavorable. Unfortunately out here in the wild Western suburbs we don’t have Rustica anymore since Coastal Foods moved out. We’d love to have your bread sold out this way again. Nut and fruit load is yummy too!

  7. RussC 10/29/2010

    I’ve been searching for the best baguette since moving to Minneapolis in August. My wife and I spent the summer living in Paris’ 5th arr, two blocks from an Eric Kayser – consistently considered one of the best baguettes in Paris year after year. Upthread, a poster mentioned that a baguette in Paris can be had for 40-60 cents (euro) and I’m here to say that is just not true. The government does have a control over the price of a baguette and ours was consistently 1.05 euro. I should know, we one every day. In Minneapolis, I’ve been a little disappointed in the Rustica baguette only because it feels a bit light to me. The crumb, in particular, is a little light. I like a little denser, chewier crumb with more elasticity. I think Turtle Bread makes a good baguette but I would also throw Patisserie 46 and Salty Tart in there as well. All four are good but I prefer the other three to Rustica.