24 November 2007

Baking baguettes in America

My topic about going to the boulangerie up in the vineyard started a string of comments about attempts to make French bread in the United States. I've personally tasted the bread made by CHM in California and by Evelyn in Alabama. Both are excellent, I think. The bread CHM made was not in the shape of a baguette, but it was tasty toasted and eaten with butter and jam. Evelyn's baguettes were crispy and delicious.

Most American recipes for bread call for adding sugar or honey, or both, to the dough. Why is that? Is it because the yeast available in the U.S. needs that sugar boost? Is it because American flour needs the boost to rise and produce a good baguette? Or is it just because Americans have such a sweet tooth? I don't know.

CHM recommended SAF yeast as the best yeast to buy and referenced the company's U.S. web site. On that site, there's a recipe for making a nice baguette de pain. Here are the ingredients:
Makes one loaf.

1 (¼ oz. pkg.) or 2¼ tsp SAF Perfect Rise Yeast
1 tsp sugar
¼ cup water (110º-115ºF)
3¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 cup cold water
1 tsp cornmeal (for dusting the baking surface)
For the instructions, go to this SAF web page. Notice that the recipe includes sugar. Is that just for American tastes?

On SAF's French web site, there is no recipe for making baguettes. But there are two recipes for pizza dough, and neither one calls for sugar or honey. Why is that?

Evelyn has succeeded in making good baguettes at home in Alabama. Another successful American baker is Chris from California. Walt and I met her and her husband last year when they were spending a few days in a gîte near Montrichard, just 10 miles from Saint-Aignan. To read about Chris in California's bread-baking adventures, look here and here on her blog.

The King Arthur Flour recipe for baguettes that Chris has used contains no sugar or honey, just flour, yeast, salt, and water.

Does anybody know why most American bread recipes call for sugar and honey, while the standard French ones don't? Is there some technical reason? Or is it just a matter of taste?

Even Julia Child, in her book The Way to Cook, points out that the standard French bread dough is made with flour, yeast, salt, and water. And then on the next page, in her recipe for making French bread, she includes ¼ teaspoon of sugar!


  1. I've always understood that if you're using dried yeast, you need a little sugar in the warm water to start it working before you mix it with the flour.

  2. I've been baking bread in a bread machine for more than twenty years. Until I discovered the SAF yeast, I used Fleischman or Red Star with mixed results. Just like SAF, I just had to add the dry yeast to the mixing flour and water, and voilà. My bread doesn't taste like French baguette but it sure taste better than store bought bread. Wonder...full!
    It seems your can uses SAF yeast for any baking need.

  3. I don't know much about baking bread. While in Tuscany I was surprised to find that none of the bread had salt. This custom is ancient in that part of Italy, supposedly this allows them to bake bread once a week and it doesn't get old as water is not attracted. It didn't taste fresh to me at any time and was very dry. I think the French have the right idea on bread!!

  4. Conn, I guess you are right, it's all cultural. Italy = bread without salt. America = bread with sugar. France = the best bread around.

    And autolycus, I guess that's as good a technical explanation as there is. But I think you can make a starter using dry yeast but no sugar. It just takes longer, maybe.

  5. I'm a bread-baking Chris from California, but not the one you're referring to in your blog.

    I've made bread from various recipes every two weeks or so and have for 7 years. Some recipes call for sugar, and some don't. I've had no trouble with the yeast in sugarless bread, and I use plain old dried Red Star yeast that I buy in a two pound sack from Costco. I keep the bag in the freezer for months and months, and refresh the small jar in which I store the yeast in the frig.

    I haven't made a baguette for years because I can buy really good ones locally. (I don't much care for Italian bread either; I just thought what we were getting was stale.)

  6. You know what a lousy cook I am, so I wouldn't know how to bake a baguette. I must say that I have never tasted a home made baguette that tasted right! :(

  7. If you live in France there's no need to ever make a baguette.

    Since I live in a small town with no bakery for French bread, I make my own bread, but it's nothing like real french bread. The texture isn't right, but it is good for tartines when toasted and it's better than store bought stuff.

    I have no idea why Julia added the sugar to her recipe. I started out with that one, but it was a lot of trouble to make it.

    Speaking of sugar, we don't put it in cornbread here in the South whereas it is often used up North. I have no idea why that is, but know it's so. Sweet cornbread doesn't taste right to me.

  8. Evelyn, I agree about cornbread. I don't want sugar in the batter. The corn is already sweet enough.

  9. I follow this debate with interest....

    I live in London but will soon be moving to France, and while I am in London I miss my daily baguette. Of course, of the two bakeries in town, one does better baguettes than the other, but their patisserie just isn't as decadent.

    You can buy baguettes in London, but they just aren't right. The exception is a really good local bakers, run by a young French couple. Their secret? They use French flour. I believe the difference is that the French flour is harder, and it isnt pulverised the same way. (I am willing to be corrected on this, however).

    Welcome back to France, Ken


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