Baguettes are loved for their great taste and shatteringly crisp crust. Served whole, they're wonderful with any main dish. Sliced, they are perfect on a cheese plate or as crostini. Baguettes are a little more difficult to form than your average loaf, but after practicing these techniques, you'll be able to shape them easily.
1. Home bakers can employ a trick called the "autolyse" method when mixing the dough: mix the unbleached bread flour and water and let it sit for 20-30 minutes before adding the fresh, instant yeast, or proofed active dry yeast. This gives the flour time to absorb the water and makes a dough that's easier to work with. Mix in the yeast and salt, and knead as directed. After the dough has risen once, deflate the dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Use a bench knife or serrated knife to divide the dough.
2. The recipe we used calls for the dough to be separated into four equal pieces. Be sure to consult your recipe before dividing the dough. Use a dough cutter or serrated knife to cut the dough. Same-sized loaves ensure the baguettes all bake in the same amount of time.
3. Roll the baguette tightly so that it will rise evenly. Flatten the portioned dough with the palm of your hand to force out any excess gas. Roll the dough up and away from you, tucking it in with your fingers as you roll. You should feel the outside of the dough stretch (but not tear) as you roll.
4. When you finish rolling up the loaf, pinch the dough together tightly to seal the seam. If the seam isn't well sealed, the dough might unroll as it rises and bakes. If there's too much flour on the dough or the seal doesn't stick, moisten the seam slightly with water and pinch the sides together again.
5. Begin rolling the baguette by placing your hands on either side of the loaf's center. Working from the center outward, apply a gentle downward pressure, rolling the dough back and forth on the work surface. The loaf should lengthen into a rope and you should feel the dough stretch but not tear. Any air bubbles should work their way out toward the ends, where you can pop them.
6. Shape the additional dough into long loaves as directed above.
7. Place the shaped loaves seam-side up on a well-floured baker's couche, pastry cloth, or kitchen towel on a sheet pan. Tuck folds of floured cloth around the sides of the loaves to help support the dough as it rises and to separate the baguettes. Place the dough in a warm area to rise for 30 to 45 minutes; an oven warmed by a pan of hot water is ideal.
8. When the dough is nearly doubled in size, remove the tray from the oven and cover the loaves with a damp towel to finish proofing. Preheat the oven. If you have a baking stone, place it on a lower oven rack to preheat as well. Carefully lift the loaves with both hands and place them seam-side down on a baking sheet that's been sprinkled with cornmeal or in a ridged baguette pan. If you have a peel or small cutting board, tuck the board's edge between two loaves and use a fold of the cloth to flip one loaf onto the peel. Transfer to cornmeal-sprinkled pan. Be gentle: if mishandled, the dough might fall and you will have a tough, flat baguette. Repeat with remaining loaves.
9. Use a serrated knife or single-edged razor blade to make three or four long, quick slashes down the length of the loaf. Hold the blade at about a 20-degree angle--you want to cut just under the surface of the dough. These scores allow gas to escape without bursting the seam and form the characteristic crusty "ears" on each loaf. Immediately transfer the sheet pan or baguette pan to the oven and spritz the walls of the oven with water to create a burst of steam. Bake until golden brown; the loaves should sound hollow when the bottoms are tapped.