A baguette is a classically long, thin loaf of bread which is intimately associated with France and particularly Paris. The bread has been made in France since the 1800s, although it started to become truly popular in the early 1900s. Outside of France, baguettes are often found at bakeries and grocers since they make excellent sandwich and picnic loaves. Like other French breads, they are best when fresh, and will stale rapidly.
The word “baguette” is derived from the Latin baculum, for “rod” or “stick.” It is a diminutive, meaning “little rod,” just as other words in French which end in -ette are classified as diminutives. A traditional baguette does strongly resemble a rod, since it is long and classically narrow. Wider loaves are called flutes in French, and they are also very popular. Since baguettes cook quickly, they are often the first offering of the morning at French bakeries.
A true baguette contains only flour, water, salt, and yeast, by French law. Breads with other ingredients cannot carry the baguette name in France, and many bakers take their baguette making very seriously. Paris actually sponsors an annual competition for the best baguette made in city limits. Other artisan breads are also featured in this competition, although the winner of the baguette division is usually a topic of intense interest.
Several things set baguettes aside from other loaves of bread. The first is their dense, crusty exterior, which is typically slashed multiple times before baking to make a puffy, crusty top. The crust also tends to be slightly chewy and elastic. The crumb of the bread is white, with large irregular holes, and it is also rather chewy. This chewy texture is often accomplished with a starter, which will develop a more complex flavor in the finished bread.
Outside France, a baguette may be sold as a French stick or French loaf. The breads are ideally suited for taking on picnics, especially the shorter and more compact versions. Spreads such as cheese and pâté can be applied to baguettes, or they can be used as sandwich breads. A good crusty baguette can also be served with soup, salad, and other meals. If you must store a baguette for more than a day, wrap it in paper and then in plastic. This will allow the bread to breathe without drying out, although the texture and flavor will suffer slightly.