By DAVID MARCELIS
PARIS—Dominique Anract, a baker in Paris’s 16th arrondissement, sells about 1,500 baguettes every day, and most of them he wouldn’t want to eat himself.
The vast majority of his customers, he says, choose the whitest, least-baked baguette on display. So he and his team take 90% of the loaves out of the oven before they are done.
How to Bake And Buy A Proper Baguette
David Marcelis/The Wall Street Journal
“If those were for me, we’d keep them all in two to three minutes longer,” he says. “But that’s not my call—it’s the customer’s.”
One of the great symbols of French gastronomy is under siege. Renowned for its distinctive shape and crusty exterior, the baguette risks becoming known for something else, too: being undercooked and doughy.
Rémi Héluin, the founder of Painrisien, a blog about Parisian bakeries, estimates that 80% of the 230 shops he has reviewed underbake most of their baguettes. “They’ve got to keep the customer satisfied,” he says.
Patrons have plenty of reasons for their preference—and they’re not necessarily half-baked. For Camille Oger, a 30-year-old freelance reporter, eating a well-baked baguette can be a painful experience. “It’s hard to munch,” she says, “and it hurts your gums and palate.” Less-baked loaves “won’t break your teeth,” she adds.
Pura Garcia, a retiree and a regular at Mr. Anract’s bakery, says a well-done baguette gets stale way too quickly. “If you don’t eat it within the hour, it’ll feel like it’s a day old,” she says. Many other customers say they ask for a “white baguette” because it will taste better reheated at home.
The shift in public taste has sparked some outrage in a country so synonymous with the thin, elongated stick.
“Crustiness is the trademark of French bread,” says Jean-Philippe de Tonnac, a French writer and bread enthusiast. “It won’t be as good if it’s not well baked.”
Steven Kaplan, a Cornell University professor of history and author of several books on French bread, says the baguette’s distinctive texture and flavor come from a chemical reaction—called the Maillard effect—that occurs toward the end of the baking process. Without it, a baguette is no more than a tasteless mush, which sometimes—counterintuitively—can be harder to chew.
“The baguette is gradually morphing into something else,” says Mr. Kaplan. “I’m seeing in front of my eyes, the eclipse of one of the great objects of French national heritage.”
Bakers say proper baking time allows for an exchange of flavor between the crumb (the inside of the bread) and the crust, and creates the perfect balance that makes the baguette so special: a crisp, caramelized crust enveloping a soft, airy crumb.
Though consumption of bread in France has been declining since the 1950s, bread is still a staple. Many people eat bread with most meals, viewing it almost as an extension of the knife and fork in pushing food around the plate. French research center Crédoc found that 98% of the French eat bread every day.
The French are particular fans of the baguette, which accounts for three-quarters of all bread consumption, according to France’s National Bread Observatory, which studies and promotes bread.
Despite its honored status, the ubiquitous loaf isn’t even a century old.
The baguette as we know it dates to the 1920s and was a byproduct of a protective labor law that prevented French bakers from working between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. That made it impossible to prepare traditional round loaves by breakfast time. Bakers had to turn to a new kind of bread, whose thin shape made it faster to prepare and bake. The baguette—French for “little stick”—quickly became a breakfast essential throughout France.
In recent years, the corner shop baker has had to adapt, amid growing competition from industrial food companies and supermarkets, which can sell a baguette for about a third of the price. They have also tweaked their product line to attract new customers, rolling out the more artisanal “baguette de tradition,” at a price of $1.30 to $1.90.
In a bid to protect the industry, French law dictates what ingredients can be used to make these baguettes (essentially, wheat flour, water, salt and yeast) and limits the use of the name boulangerie—or bakery—to shops where bread is made and baked on the premises.
But the law doesn’t weigh in on one key diktat: how long the baguette should stay in the oven.
Though cooking time can be influenced by such things as weather and humidity, bakers agree that a typical baguette takes about 20 to 25 minutes to bake. Mr. Kaplan says he doubts the pale, lifeless loaves he sees in so many Parisian bakeries sat in the oven for more than 17 minutes.
Eating undercooked bread can have unglamorous side effects
Eating undercooked bread can have unglamorous side effects, experts say. Laurence Sailliet, a Paris nutritionist, says warm, underbaked bread can cause heartburn and flatulence, in part because its crumb isn’t airy enough for digestive enzymes to penetrate it effectively during chewing. That thick, elastic crumb is a bit like chewing gum, she says, “but the difference is, you don’t swallow the gum.”
Mr. Anract, the baker in the 16th arrondissement—an administrative district of Paris and a largely wealthy neighborhood famous for its museums, 19th-century buildings and impressive avenues—says he realizes that a few minutes more would result in the ideal crust, but he doesn’t want to risk insulting his customers. “People are in and out of the bakery in seconds—you don’t really have time to give them a lecture,” he says.
Some boulangers, however, are determined.
Frédéric Pichard, a Parisian baker famous for his thin, extremely crusty baguette, regularly opens his bakehouse to patrons. He shows them how the bread is formed and baked, and he tells customers how to taste it. “Everybody in France at least knows the basics of wine-tasting, but people have never really been taught how to taste bread,” he says. Bread tasting usually involves cutting a baguette lengthwise, smelling its crumb (which often has hints of nuts, raisins or dried apricot), feeling its texture, tearing off a piece and chewing it slowly.
Franck Debieu, who runs a bakery in Sceaux, a small town south of Paris, tries to be in his shop as often as possible to gently coax his clientele toward a more bronzed baguette. His sales staff, which always includes a baker at the counter, is trained on how to handle requests for “white” baguettes, usually by handing customers a properly baked loaf and suggesting they try it.
Mr. Debieu says his peers who underbake their bread are delusional. “The customer doesn’t know what’s best…It’s the baker’s job to educate him.” Spoken like a true artist. Long live the long loaf!
—Marion Issard contributed to this article.Write to David Marcelis at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared August 21, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: France’s Bread Lovers Have A New Idea—and It’s Half-Baked.