A baguette is classically a long, thin loaf of bread that is intimately associated with France and particularly Paris. The bread has been made in that country 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 is derived from the Latin baculum, for “rod” or “stick.” 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 this type of bread bakes quickly, it is 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 this name in France, and many bakers take their production 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 this 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 texture is often accomplished with a starter, which will develop a more complex flavor in the finished bread.
Outside France, this style of bread may be sold as a French stick or French loaf. It is ideally suited for taking on picnics, especially the shorter and more compact versions. Spreads such as cheese and pate can be eaten with it, or they can be used as sandwich breads. A good crusty loaf can also be served with soup, salad, and other meals. If the bread must be stored for more than a day, it should be wrapped in paper and then in plastic. This will allow the bread to breathe without drying out, although the texture and flavor will suffer slightly.