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Dan Leader's 4-Hour Baguette

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Every week -- often with your help -- Food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: You can make baguettes at home -- in 4 hours, from nothing -- and they'll disappear faster than your favorite bakery's. 

Raise your hand if you've always wanted to get into the rhythm of baking your own bread. Now raise your hand if you've actually done it. 

Too many of us have hesitated, then let the thought slip away. We froze at the technical abyss of caring for a sourdough starter, couldn't commit to consecutive days of planning and tending. We don't know what we're making for dinner tonight, let alone in three days. (But one day we swear this will all come naturally, just as soon as we've got that wood-burning oven and proofing cabinet.)

Right. This recipe is the aggressive, no-more-excuses shove that we need.

It comes from Dan Leader, founder of Bread Alone, via William Alexander's IACP-award winning Saveur Magazine story on American Bread. Leader developed the recipe to fit in home cooks' ovens and nestle into their schedules, with ingredients and equipment they've got nearby -- but he told me, "If I had to make it at Bread Alone, I'd make this recipe."

If I can make a really good baguette -- in 4 hours, from nothing -- you can too. It will have a resilient, toffee-colored crust and a honeycombed middle that huffs hot, yeasty air when you tear into it. The smell of it baking will simultaneously make you feel hungry, safe, and accomplished. It will taste like home and like Paris. It might have arrhythmic slashes across the top -- some would call them unprofessional; I call them spunky. (If you want to look like a pro, buy a nice lame.)

And it will only take you 4 hours of intermittent attention, and won't require a starter nor any equipment you don't already own. You have an oven, baking sheets, an ice cube tray, a skillet, parchment, and a pair of scissors, right? (Don't you love quizzes like this?) I'd bet you also have salt, flour, and water, probably even active dry yeast. (If not, the closest corner store does.) 

"There are times when I plan out a menu only to realize I forgot to buy a baguette or two and can make this quick." Food52er Ashley Marie told me. "In addition, I find they're fun for when I want bragging rights for guests ('Why yes, these are really HOMEMADE baguettes I made fresh today')."

Here's how to do it -- as Leader says, "bread baking is more wait than work."

  

Stir together yeast and warm water. 10 minutes later, stir in flour.

  

  

Let that hang out for 20 minutes to hydrate.

  

Now add salt and knead for about 10 minutes, till it's smooth and springy. You could do this in a stand mixer with a dough hook -- or food processor, which Alexander prefers -- but I think a good knead is better than an hour of psychotherapy, and it's free. 

  

Plop it in a greased bowl, seal it with plastic, and park it in a cold oven (or microwave) for about 45 minutes. Its girth will double.

  

Fold it like a T-shirt, then put it back. Within an hour, it will double again.

  

  

Now roll it into three baguette-like tubes. Don't use much flour -- a little sticking will help keep them from sliding around.

Line your tubes up on a floured piece of parchment, then scoot them together with parchment poking up between each tube of dough. Stick rolled towels on each side as ramparts, so the baguettes rise up, not outward in their last stint.

 

While they double again, heat your oven to 475° F, with a baking stone (or rimless or upside-down baking sheet) in the middle and a cast iron skillet in the bottom (you'll see why soon).

Once the baguettes are puffed and the oven is scorching, slash the tops with your fancy lame, or just snip them with scissors -- a trick I learned from our Test Kitchen Assistant, Erin McDowell. A knife that isn't razor sharp won't help you here.

Now this is the only part that takes coordination -- pull out your middle oven rack, confidently slide the parchment with loaves onto the stone (or faux-stone), then tuck the rack back in and pour ice cubes into your hot skillet. Shut the oven and walk away. Set a timer for 20 minutes. This steam will help the loaves finish rising before the crust forms. 

  

And what a crust it will be. Four hours ago, this was still flour in a bin and yeast in a packet. You brought it to life, with the hands you have, the bread experience you don't. And you'll do it again soon.

Dan Leader's 4-Hour Baguette

Adapted slightly from Local Breads (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007) and Saveur Magazine

Makes 3 baguettes

1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) tap water, heated to 115° F
1 teaspoon (1/8 ounces) active dry yeast
3 1/4 cups (14 2/3 ounces) all–purpose flour
3 teaspoons (3/8 ounces) Diamond Crystal kosher salt
Canola oil, for greasing bowl
1/2 cup ice cubes

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected] Thanks to Food52 community member Ashley Marie for this one!

The Genius Recipes cookbook is here! (Well, almost.) The book is a mix of greatest hits from the column and unpublished new favorites -- all told, over 100 recipes that will change the way you think about cooking. It'll be on shelves in April, but you can pre-order your copy now.

Photos by James Ransom

Tags: baguette, bread, baking, french bread, yeast, proofing, dan leader, genius, how-to & diy

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Comments (202)

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24 days ago celia younger

THE WHEAT FLOUR IS DIFFERENT IN EUROPE, this is why it taste different. THE USA wheat lacks something. The sourdough needs a old ''mother starter' that i'ts reused again and again also needs to be fermented from 12 hrs up to 20 hrs..

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24 days ago celia younger

In France, Spain, Portugal porssible in Italy, they use a different kind of wheat for their bread. The butter is unsalted. and some bakers use O.oil instead of butter.

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24 days ago Lexi Smart

NOTE: 3 and 1/4 cups flour does not equal 14 and 2/3 ounces. It equals 26 ounces. I had to look twice when the dough after adding flour to yeast mixture was very runny.

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about 1 month ago peg denton

No.

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about 1 month ago Kellie

Wish I could but I just don't know. Please let us know what you learn.

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about 1 month ago Dave

Anyone out there care to comment on my comment that the French bread actually made in France seems to have an interior dough with a somewhat "waxy" sheen/feel to it? That's the only way I can describe it. Again, any chance they mix olive oil or perhaps unsalted butter into the dough?

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about 1 month ago Sharon

Dave, the baguettes in France absolutely taste different than any made here. It's all about age-old starters and location, location, location. Not to mention baking equipment that's been seasoned for centuries. But then, I've never tasted sour dough French bread anywhere like what I grew up on in San Francisco, either. Larraburu Bakery. I'll never forget it. It's about the perfect storm of air, humidity and regional micro-climates. It's handed down and unspoken. Above all, it's the touch of the master's hand.
Google "Larraburu" if you'd like to get some French bread knowledge under your belt and enjoy a good read. One link even posts their original sour dough formula. Priceless. Bon Appetit!

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3 months ago Dave

I'm gonna try this because while I have all the ingredients and "tools" I have been too timid to go for the "standard" multi-day prep for traditional french bread. I lived in Paris for two years as a student and one year in Belgium -- then, later, three years in Paris with the State Dept. With rare exceptions, I have been disappointed with :"French" bread made in the US. Call me a snob, but there it is. The crust and holes are critical. But there was something else -- dare I write "je ne said quoi" -- a very slightly "waxy" sheen and feel to the dough after baking. I have no idea what that was but it is lacking in US made breads. Could it possibly be that French bakers add a small amount of olive oil to their dough? Look forward to others' thoughts and comments on this.

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3 months ago Dave

P.S. I hate auto spelling correction -- that should be "sais" and not "said". Also, the "waxy" feel I describe is in the interior bread and not the crust, jest to be precise.

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3 months ago Brian

I spent a semester in Belgium during school and visited many parts of Europe. I'd agree that most bread there is simply better than most bread here. It's the technique and the ingredients. That being said, I make this bread recipe about twice a week since it can be done in 4 hours and is far better than anything I can buy in "regular" grocery stores. Now, we have some French Bakeries here in Omaha that produce some excellent breads, but I can make a really great loaf with this recipe and save $4 a pop. $8 a week translates into a decent amount of beer money over the course of a year. Or, at least that's how I justify it.

In this recipe, I use bread flour and add .5oz of rye or barley flour to the mix (or some of each) to enhance the flavor. It makes quite a difference. I also typically just make one big oblong loaf and cut it down the center before baking on a parchment-covered sheet. Turns out great every time.

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3 months ago May

What's slightly incongruous is that we can get really good bread flours up here in Canada: shared continent, terrain and even weather in parts, so how come our flour is better?

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3 months ago Dave

Well, gee...it is Canada, right? (Just having fun here -- Mom born in Canada and some good friends there.) I'd still like to see some comments regarding "waxiness" of French Bread in France and how they achieve that.

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3 months ago May

Hehe...and it would have helped if I'd been awake enough to finish my sweeping statement, eh! What I meant to add was, the good bakeries way up here in the great white north do manage to churn out a baguette with the crust you describe, very much so....but I don't know how they accomplish that, sorry. So, a total shaggy dog story after all.

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5 months ago celia younger

I always heard that you never mix salt with yeast... salt kills yeast. Is that true?

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5 months ago Keith Wright

Salt controls the fermentation of the yeast. Too much will kill it. You merely want to inhibit the rise.

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5 months ago Sharon

Yes, it's absolutely true. Yeast feeds on sugar. If you introduce salt too early in the process it will definitely kill the yeast. Middle school science class experiment proved this.

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5 months ago Gary

Most bread recipes have you adding yeast last as it impedes the action of the yeast. But, I wouldn't think it would stop all action if added first. Perhaps the water was too hot, the yeast old or a combination of all three things. Hard to say.

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5 months ago Keith Wright

Saf-Instant doesn't require proofing. You can add it in the beginning. I've used it for 30 years.

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5 months ago Mike

I messed up somehow, could not get to rise not sure what I did wrong. Water temp to high for active yeast? Adding salt in first step not second step? No rise at all I think the yeast, any ideas.

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5 months ago Keith Wright

I skip the ice cubes. You lose too much heat in the jump. I have a Scünci steamer. I simply remove the burner and drip pan from the right rear of my stove top, aim the nozzle into the vent immediately after closing the door and hit the trigger for 15 seconds. You will love the golden brown color you get and enjoy the sound of the crust cracklin'.

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5 months ago celia younger

I THINK THEY sell mold specifically for this type of bread. it's curved to hold it in shpe.

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6 months ago giorgitd

This was my first attempt at baking bread. The result: crust excellent top and bottom, color very good - but the crumb... I prefer a very airy, full-of-holes baguette. This one wasn't super dense, but had mostly small holes. What adjustments should I make for a more airy loaf? More yeast? Longer 2nd rise (it was certainly doubled)? Something else?

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5 months ago Julie

Seems to me like the most important things to do to create bigger holes in the crumb are 1) make sure the dough has enough water in it to be slightly sticky, 2) judge the final shaped rise perfectly - this takes practice with the poke test, and 3) steam in the oven during the first half of baking time.

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7 months ago Joan Stickles

Made these today. Followed the directions to a T. They were beautiful to look at and absolutely delicious.

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7 months ago Tina

Hey my bread turned out nice too the second time. I had to change the oven temperature to 425 instead 475.

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7 months ago Cheryl Wilton

The bread was great! I was worried because yes, it is a sticky, sticky dough. I measured by weight, used bread flour and regular active dry yeast, proofed. I kept the parchment pleateded up between the loaves during baking because the bread didn't have much structure to hold its shape and it turned out great.: a little tang, great crust and nice airy loaves although not terribly big. I really think refining the recipe to include weight by grams would help more folks have better success. Also, it's REALLY important to let that oven preheat for the entire last 50 min rise. Mine didn't hold the cuts but the crust looked just like the photo. Really enjoyed it with dinner!

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7 months ago Kellie

Cheryl..........nice last name for baking. :)

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7 months ago Kellie

Todd Fitzgerald......always use a quick-read thermometer to judge the temperature of your water. Don't try to guess. You'd be surprised how off you actually are.

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7 months ago Cheryl Wilton

I love to bake bread. This intrigued me. I just now have my flour hydrating - and yes you should ALWAYS do this as well as "proofing" your yeast (which I did). After reading the recipe and comments and as I am just getting started I wish that the recipe was in grams rather that/as well as ounces, although ounces are far better than 'cups" and "tsp" because there is much variety amongst manufacturers. It is a much more accurate way to measure and any good scale offers grams.

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8 months ago Kelly

Thanks for this recipe, I thought it was pretty good. My partner often makes bread, but this was my first time. Just wondering though how long I am supposed to let it rise for after shaping the baguettes and setting them up between the towels (before baking)? I live on a sailboat, so didn't have any ice, and my gas oven doesn't heat very well but they still turned out ok. I just had to cook them for about an hour (yep, the oven is that bad) and the crust didn't go very brown at all. Taste good though, and I don't think too salty at all and I used 3tsp of Himalayan salt. Will definitely make them again, however would love to know if there's another method I can use that doesn't involve ice?