Baguettes are the simplest loaves - using the fewest ingredients. Only flour, water, salt and yeast.
They're also the trickiest to get right, relying on skill and experience. So that's me buggered then.

Parisian Baguettes
bread veg vegan
This is a combination of a very long, bakery-style baguette recipe and a more kitchen-friendly "Farmgirl" recipe that claims to get the job done in 4 hours.

I found those 4-hour timings to be somewhat optimistic, so allow another hour. Indeed the bakery-style recipe timings are all just about double the Farmgirl's. The great thing about starting early is you can always just knock the dough down on its first rise, turn and let rise again to kill some time. Or, put it in the fridge to slow things down.

The idea of making a starter is to develop some extra flavour from the extra proving time, but you can skip this stage if you like. You'll still add the dough ingredients in the amounts listed below - the starter is pretty much self-contained.
Bear in mind that the starter adds a third to the quantity, so you'll probably want to make 4 baguettes out of it, or end up with 3 large ones. Which in my case means fat ones - my oven won't take a 2-foot roll.

According to the Farmgirl:
Steam in the oven during the first part of baking slows crust formation, which allows for the best possible oven "spring." It also gelatinizes the starch on the surface of the bread so that it develops a thin, glossy, beautifully brown crust, but these baguettes will still be wonderful if you want to skip the steam-making step.

You can easily stuff these baguettes with a dry filling such as ham, cheese and mustard. When you get to the folding and sealing stage just roll them up with the filling inside like a roly-poly pudding, sealing the long seam and pinching the ends closed. Don't use too much filling, or a wet filling like meatballs in sauce as it'll make the baguettes soggy.
Then proceed as usual.

Makes 3 or 4 Baguettes

Prepare the starter:
Make the starter by mixing the yeast with the water (no need to do this if you're using instant yeast), then mixing in the flour to make a soft dough. Cover and let rest at room temperature for about 14 hours; overnight works well. The starter should have risen and become bubbly.

Mix the dough:
Place the dough flour in a large mixing bowl. Add the yeast and stir with a rubber spatula to combine. Add the starter and water and stir just until all the water is absorbed and a dry, clumpy dough forms. Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel and let it stand for 20 minutes, to allow the flour to hydrate and the gluten to develop on its own.

Knead the dough:
Sprinkle the salt over the dough and evenly mix it in as best you can. It will fully dissolve into the dough during the kneading process.
Lightly dust the counter with flour. Empty the dough and any stray flour out of the bowl and knead it with smooth, steady strokes for 10 to 12 minutes. Dip your hands in flour as necessary so they don't stick to the dough. You may need to add another ¼ cup or more of flour (depending on your flour, the weather, etc.), but try to avoid kneading extra flour into the dough so your baguettes will be light.
Stop kneading when the dough loses its stickiness, firms up, and feels silky smooth and resilient.

Ferment the dough (first rise):
Transfer the dough to a clear, straight-sided 2-quart food grade plastic container with a snap-on lid. With masking tape or a felt tip marker, mark the spot on the container that the dough will reach when it has increased 50% in volume to 1½ times its size.
Put the lid on the container and leave it to rise at room temperature (about 70°F/21°C; a little cooler is okay) for 45 minutes. It won't double in volume but should increase somewhere between 25% (halfway to the mark) to 50% (all the way to the mark).
If your kitchen is warmer than 70 degrees and your dough is rising too fast, you can put it in the refrigerator for a little while to cool it down. You can also make your dough with cold water rather than room temperature.

Give the dough a turn:
Lightly dust the counter with flour and, using a spatula, empty the risen dough out of the container. Pat it gently into a rectangle about 6 by 8 inches and fold it like a business letter:
  1. With the short side facing you, lift the top edge and fold it into the center of the rectangle.
  2. Lift the bottom edge and fold it up into the center so that it overlaps the top edge by about 1 inch.
  3. Quickly slide both hands under the dough and flip it over so the folds are underneath.
  4. Slip it back into the container, pushing it down to fit.
Put the lid back on and let the dough until it again increases between 25% and 50% in volume, about 45 minutes.

Prepare the oven:
About 1 hour before baking, place a baking stone on the middle rack of the cold oven and (if you want to make the steam) a cast iron skillet or heavy metal oven dish on the lower rack. Heat the oven to 500°F/260°C/Gas 9. Never put a cold baking stone in a hot oven or it may crack.

Divide and pre-shape the dough:
Lightly dust the counter with flour. Uncover the dough and turn it out onto the counter. With a bench scraper or chef's knife, cut the dough into 3 or 4 equal pieces (about 10 ounces) each.
Gently pat each piece into a rough rectangle about 5"x7" and fold it in half. Sprinkle the pieces of dough with flour and drape them with a damp towel. Let them relax on the counter for 10 minutes.

Shape the baguettes:
Line the baking sheet with parchment silicon-coated paper is aces, though you can just lightly grease the sheet if you prefer. Working with one piece of dough at a time, fold the dough in half lengthwise, and seal the edges with the heel of your hand. Flatten it slightly, and fold and seal again.
With the seam-side down, cup your fingers and gently roll the dough into a thin log 12"-14" long. Make them at least 2" shorter than the baking sheet or stone and about 2½ inches wide. They expand more outwards than longways - so make them much thinner than you want them to end up. Lightly dust the parchment on the baking sheet with flour and place the baguettes on the parchment, seam sides down, about 2 inches apart. Lift the parchment paper between the loaves, making pleats and drawing the loaves together.
Tightly roll up 2 kitchen towels and slip them under the parchment paper on the sides of the two outer loaves to support and cradle the baguettes. Lightly dust the tops of the baguettes with flour and drape them with a damp tea towel.
This is where all the flour dusting stops the rolls from sticking to everything. The rolled towels are to help hold the rolls' shape. Though I find wrapping a damp towel all the way around them works too.

Proof the baguettes (final rise):
Let the loaves stand at room temperature (70 degrees) for 30 to 40 minutes, or until they increase to about 1½ times their size. When you press your fingertip into the dough, the indentation will spring back slowly.
Uncover the loaves, take away the towels, and stretch the parchment paper out so that it is flat and the loaves are separated on top of it. Score each baguette with a very sharp knife. Starting from the tip, angle the blade 45 degrees to make 3 slashes, about 3 inches long and 1/2 inch deep. Slash quickly and confidently. You can carefully slice back through the slashes a second time if necessary.

Bake the loaves:
Slide the loaves, still on the parchment, onto the hot baking stone. Carefully place 1 cup of ice cubes into the hot cast iron skillet to produce steam. Quickly close the oven and reduce the temperature to 450°F/230°C/Gas 8.
Bake until the baguettes are caramel-colored, 20 to 25 minutes.

Cool and store the loaves:
Slide the baking sheet under the parchment paper to remove the loaves from the oven. Slide the loaves, still on the parchment, onto a wire rack. Cool for about 5 minutes and then peel them off the parchment paper (if they come off the paper while taking them out of the oven, that's okay).

These Parisian-style baguettes are best eaten within a few hours of baking. Toast day-old baguettes and spread with butter and jam for breakfast. For longer storage, freeze cooled baguettes in resealable freezer bags for up to 2 months.
Very effective, though you'll probably end up with some short, fat, ugly loaves 'til you get the hand of rolling them neatly. Don't worry - they'll still taste great!
I don't have a baking stone, so I just preheated a baking sheet and slid my parchment onto that.