La Baguette Royale: Tips for Finding the Best French Bread
Updated: Apr 14, 2020
You've probably tasted many a bread loaf in your time on this earth, but in France, eating bread is like a religion. The act of finding the perfect baguette is a daily ritual, to be accomplished in the most French way possible, with a particular set of rules.
Few acts are more exciting (or more French) while traveling through the country of Napoléon Bonaparte than choosing a good baguette. Since the famous loaves are eaten with most meals in France and are thus one of the staples of French cuisine, their importance can not be understated.
In the decades that I've traveled to France, I've learned firsthand how a baguette can make or break an impression. I've been privy to discussions about which boulanger's goods are the best and which are not worth exploring. I can imagine that over the centuries towns have been split in opinion and generations of bakers have either succeeded or failed based on their comprehension of the subject. I've also seen that [disappointingly] the new generation of Français has slowly started to lose the ability to choose between quality and quantity, as the notion of "baguettes offertes" (free baguettes) grips the country. For the older generations who grew up without hypermarkets or mass production, the reality of this new development can be unsettling, and has resulted in more discussion and debate on the subject. But for the younger generations, of which I am a part, let's hope that the ability to know the difference between good and bad hasn't entirely gone by the wayside.
In my many years of scientific experiments and dégustations, and of absorbing carbs and calories that were [mostly] worth it, this is what I've learned and been taught about the golden rules of choosing the perfect baguette.
1. Nothing Beats the Handmade Baguette
All around France, one can easily find mass-produced baguettes. They fill supermarket shelves, clog stands in small grocers and are even found these days wrapped in plastic and "prêts a cuire" or ready to cook. Quelle horreur, as my friend Michelle would say! Nothing (and I mean nothing) beats bread made by a human being. Boulangers have been making bread in France for centuries, so naturally they would know best how to prep the materials and execute the precious task best. Why mess with perfection?
2. It's All About the Crust
In the United States, we always had hundreds of breads to choose from. White bread with no discernible crust, breads with wheat inside, breads with seeds outside, breads with fruit and cinnamon and nowadays other weird and wacky ingredients embedded in the dough or stuck to the outside. In France, the famous baguette has remained the same for centuries, mainly because once again, why mess with perfection? Rather than add extra ingredients to change the flavor, and make bread taste like something other than bread, the secret to the French baguette is the crust. The rule has always been "if the crust is crunchy, it's worth it. If not, it's not even worth your time". In a supermarket, for example, it's not unusual to see a Frenchman walk up to a stack of bread and start pressing on the loaves to check for a crust that crackles. That's just the way it is.
3. The Color
The perfect French baguette is neither light nor dark. It's color is a golden hue, with variations of lighter dough and darker crisped areas on the center slits of the loaf. You should be able to see the stretch and pull of the dough on the top of the loaf, and imagine it rising and then cooking. While one can specifically ask for a lighter or undercooked baguette at a boulangerie, or a bien cuite or well-cooked loaf, the baguette traditionelle has a beautiful balance that lands right in the middle, and would make Goldilocks proud. Perfection.
4. The Smell
Yes, I'm serious. If you know anything about French bread, you know that the smell of a baguette is also key. A baguette should smell slightly sour, with a hint of yeast. Putting your nasal sensors up to a real French baguette should make you feel like you're standing in a bakery, surrounded by a stack of rising dough, standing next to a wood-fired oven. In the mass-produced supermarket breads, you won't get that same sensation.