“Baguette” is one of those French words that’s made it into many other languages. When you learn about or experience life in France, you realize why. Not only are baguettes delicious; they’re so much a part of the everyday here that anyone who’s visited will come away with at least one distinct experience of this iconic bread.
Let’s take a look at baguettes, from what they are, exactly, to where they come from, to the role they play in France – and beyond!
What is a baguette?
Although the word baguette instantly evokes a distinctly shaped kind of bread, it’s interesting to note that this isn’t really what it means.‘Baguette’ translates to “baton, wand, or stick”. The reason it’s become associated with this baton-shaped loaf of bread is that for a while, the baguette was called une baguette de pain (a baton of bread). Its name was shortened over time.
The word baguette is still used to mean “stick, baton, or wand”, as well.
For example, if you eat Asian food in France, you might choose to forgo your fork and knife and eat with des baguettes (chopsticks) instead.
Or if you’re reading or watching something in French that takes place in a fantasy setting, you’ll probably come across the term baguette magique – a magic wand. I have to admit that although I’ve spoken French for most of my life now, every time I see this phrase, for a brief second I have a flash of a witch or wizard wielding a loaf of French bread ….
All that to say, don’t be surprised if you come upon the word baguette outside the boulangerie.
When we’re talking about bread, a baguette can be broadly described as a sort of elongated loaf of bread. But since this is French culture, the guidelines for what constitutes an actual baguette are highly specific. A standard baguette must be:
- approximately 65 cm (25.6 in) long
- approximately 4-6 cm (1.6-2.36 in) wide
- approximately 3-5 cm (1.18-1.97 in) high
- A baguette must weigh approximately 250 grams (8.82 ounces).
- Ideally, a baguette should be crusty on the outside and soft on the inside.
– Additionally, the composition of the dough is also regulated by legal decree. Basically, baguette dough is made up of wheat flour, water, yeast, salt, and some additives. You can read details about the dough, as well as the baking process, here.
What are the different types of baguettes
The baguette I described in the previous section is the standard one that most of us are familiar with, at least visually: a long, crusty brownish-gold loaf. This is the kind of baguette you’ll find in any boulangerie, as well as in mass-produced forms in grocery stores, not to mention a few other places (more on this a little later). This kind of standard baguette is usually simply called une baguette, but if you need to be specific, you might hear someone say une baguette ordinaire or a similar phrase.
The reason they might need to be specific is that there are some other types of baguettes, not to mention types of bread that are similar to baguettes but officially don’t make the cut. Here are some that you’re most likely to see in a typical French boulangerie:
– une baguette de tradition. This is considered an artisanal baguette – meaning that it must be made fresh, on site (so you won’t find a baguette de tradition sold in the mass-produced bread section of a grocery store), with no artificial additives. You can read about the ingredients and process of making a baguette de tradition, as well as how it differs from a baguette ordinaire, here. Generally, a baguette de tradition is darker in color and often a bit thicker than a regular baguette. It also has a richer flavor. If you’re a bread fan like myself, don’t miss out on a chance to try one!
– une baguette au chocolat. Okay, so this variety of baguette isn’t extremely common, but in recent years, as younger generations start taking over or opening up boulangeries and shaking things up, I’ve noticed more and more places that offer them. Unlike un pain au chocolat, which is similar to a croissant but with chocolate in the middle, or a un viennois au chocolat, which is a sweet, soft, brioche-like loaf speckled with chocolate chips, une baguette au chocolat is truly a baguette with chocolate mixed into the dough. The result is a rich, bready taste with notes of chocolate. It’s a bread trend I definitely can get behind!
Breads that look like baguettes, but aren’t
In most French boulangeries, you’ll see what seem to be baguettes organized into separate groups. But it turns out that not all of these long loaves are officially baguettes. And sometimes, loaves that have other shapes might taste exactly like a baguette. Regardless of shape or taste, if a loaf of bread doesn’t fit the exact requirements, it can’t officially be considered a baguette.
A common baguette-like bread is the flûte. For me, une flûte is like a smaller version of a baguette, somewhere between a full-sized baguette and a demi-baguette (half-baguette). But it turns out that while this is the case in some boulangeries, in others, it’s the opposite: une flûte can also mean a thicker baguette! So in this case, your own eyes will be the judge.
Une ficelle (literally, “thread”), on the other hand, is always a very thin version of a baguette.
Often slightly wider than a standard baguette, une baguette italienne is based on Italian bread recipes, which means it has a different taste (slightly salty or spicy) and a denser texture than a baguette ordinaire. Des pignons (pine nuts, also called pignoli) are sometimes scattered on top. If you do an online search for baguette italienne, you’ll come upon a lot of different recipes. This one seems closest to what I’ve tasted in boulangeries. Baguettes italiennes are usually an exotic treat, not something most French people would eat with their meals every day.
Un viennois, sometimes called une baguette viennoise, is a small, long loaf of soft, buttery, sometimes sweet bread. Un pain au lait can also look like this. These are both sweet and wouldn’t be the kind of thing most people (or maybe anyone) would pair with things like cheese or sausage.
Un pain, whose name translates to “a bread”, is sometimes baked into a baguette-like form. But it usually looks longer, wider, and darker than a baguette ordinaire. Made with a dough that has more varieties of wheat, it’s often more flavorful than the average baguette, but for some reason seems to be looked down upon. If a baguette is a sophisticated Parisian, un pain is its country bumpkin cousin.
You can see some other forms of French bread here. None of them officially qualify as baguettes, and many aren’t easy to find in just any boulangerie. For example, there’s just one boulangerie in my area that makesune baguette en épis (sometimes written as épi), which looks like a thorny or leafy branch. I often buy it when we have company, because even though it tastes like a regular baguette, its appearance is so unusual (and pretty!).
What is the origin of the baguette?
Interestingly, while the baguette has been the iconic French food for decades, it seems to be a fairly recent invention.
Like many legends, the origin of the baguette is shrouded in mystery. We know the term baguette (short for baguette de pain) wasn’t commonly used in France until the 1920, when the baguette took on its current standard form. In this year, a law was passed which forbade bakers to work between 10pm and 4am. Because of its shape, the baguette could cook fairly quickly, allowing bakers to make up for lost time.
But bread shaped like a baguette has been attested to since at least the 19th century in France, although it was often written about by foreigners who were amazed by how long the loaves were. You can read some amusing examples in this article.
So, we know that bread shaped like a stick or wand was present in France at least as early as the 19th century, but who invented it?
There are four common theories.
1. The French baguette is the product of the French Revolution. Many sources cite a 1793 law proclaiming the invention of “Le Pain Égalité” (Equality Bread). The law stated that all boulangeries had to bake this bread, so that it would be available to rich and poor citizens alike. This idea has definitely continued; baguettes are available in every bakery in France. But the law gives no description of what le Pain Égalité looks like, its exact composition, etc.
2. The baguette’s form was inspired or created by bakers from Vienna. In the early 19th century, bakers like August Zang set up shop in France, delighting the population with their delicious pastries and giving the name to a certain group of French pastries, viennoiseries. Some people think that the shape of some of these pastries, for example the viennois, could have inspired native Parisian boulangers.
3. The baguette was invented by Napoleon Bonaparte. Okay, Napoleon was many things: a solider, a general, an emperor, a writer, an ailurophobe. But he wasn’t a baker. Still, demanding efficiency for his army, he ordered that instead of making soldiers on the march carry the typical round loaves of bread for their lunch, they should have bread in the form of a stick that could fit into the long pockets of their regimental coats.
4. The baguette was invented alongside the Paris Metro. When the Paris Metro’s tunnels were being constructed in the late 1800’s, Metro mastermind Fulgence Bienvenüe worried that tensions between workers from different regions of France could result in flat-out knife fights! This wasn’t as far-fetched as it might seem, since the workmen carried their lunch with them into the tunnels, and that lunch included a thick, round loaf of bread that they’d cut into slices with a knife. So, Bienvenüe came up with the idea of a type of bread that was easy to break into pieces. For what it’s worth, to this day, most French people never use a knife to cut their baguette; pieces are always broken off by hand. Although this theory is the most recent, it’s still been around for a while. French Together founder Benjamin Houy told me that his grandfather has told him this story about the baguette’s origin.
We may never be able to find out with 100% accuracy which of these theories about the origin is the right one -or if any of them are right at all. One thing we can be sure of is that the baguette is now the most common bread in French boulangeries and is still eaten regularly – often daily – by most French people.
French baguette do’s and don’ts
The rules around baguettes don’t just have to do with their ingredients and appearance. Like any iconic French food, they’re also associated with particular customs. Here are the most common:
– Do put your baguette on your plate or on the table. Whether you’re eating at a French person’s home or a French restaurant, you’ll never be given a separate bread plate. Baguettes can be enjoyed many ways, but when they accompany a meal, their role is really to do just that. So, keep your piece of baguette on your plate and use it to saucer (wipe up sauce) before eating it, or just enjoy it on its own between bites of the rest of your food. If you don’t want it interfering with your meal, it’s perfectly normal to place it on the table behind your plate.
– Don’t cut your baguette with a knife. As I mentioned before, baguettes are meant to easily be broken apart. This means that most French people will never cut them into portions with a knife. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but if you’re in doubt, the default etiquette should be to take the baguette that’s on the table and break off your piece with your bare hands (which, of course, should be clean).
– Do eat it on the street. As a general rule in France, eating or drinking as you walk down the street is a faux pas. For the French, meals and drinks are meant to be appreciated, not just bolted down as you hurry along somewhere. But baguettes are the exception. There’s no practical reason – it’s just human nature. Who can resist taking a bite or two (or a lot more?) of a baguette, especially one that’s just come out of the baker’s oven?
– Don’t place a baguette upside-down on the table. The French may not be a particularly superstitious culture, but this is one of the few superstitions most of them seem to believe in. Baguettes are always placed with the flatter side down. According to my research, this comes from the Middle Ages, when bakers would leave executioners’ free bread loaves (I guess if you have to kill people, you should get a few perks, like free bread) upside-down on the counter to distinguish them from the loaves other people were paying for. This gave the upside-down loaf (and subsequently, baguette) an association with death. Most modern-day French people probably don’t have this in mind, though — an upside-down baguette just looks wrong.
– Don’t expect a baguette (or any kind of bread, for that matter) served with meals in French restaurants. Unless the meal typically involves bread (sandwich, spreads, charcuterie, etc.), you can’t be sure. Some restaurants will give you a small basket with a few portions of baguette, while others (I’d say most) won’t.
You can read about a few more baguette do’s and don’ts here.
How to order a baguette in a French boulangerie
Now that you know a bit about baguettes, you probably want to try one! When you come to France, you’ll see that I was definitely not exaggerating about baguettes being in every boulangerie, so access to them is easy. That doesn’t mean couples, families, and roommates don’t occasionally have to figure out who’s going to aller chercher le pain (go get the bread) for the evening meal, but still.
The basic way to order a baguette in a boulangerie is, first, to greet the boulanger or boulangère, especially if you’re planning to be a repeat customer. They are a crucial social part of the neighborhood and will appreciate your politeness. Don’t worry about making conversation, though – they’re often very busy with other customers, especially during the rush just before mealtimes.
Next, you can ask for your baguette, please.
Here’s how you’d say all that: Bonjour, une baguette s’il vous plait.
The boulanger /boulangère will oblige. Then, they’ll usually ask you, “Avec ceci?” or “Ça sera tout?”. The first one means “Anything else with that?” and the second means “Will that be all?”.
You are in no way obligated to ask for anything else – it’s just customary for them to ask. Still, while you’re at the boulangerie, I would encourage you to try a delicious pastry along with your baguette….
If you don’t want anything else, you can just say, “Ça va, merci,” and move along to paying for your baguette.
If you do, you can just ask for the next thing you want, followed, of course, by s’il vous plait.
When you’re finished, say “Merci, au revoir”, “Bonne journée” (Have a nice day), or “Bonne soirée” (Have a nice evening). The boulanger /boulangère will appreciate it!
That’s the basic conversation you can expect. If you’re picky about your bread, or don’t want an entire baguette, here are some words to help you get your baguette order just right:
– une baguette bien cuite – a well-cooked baguette. This means the baguette will be very crunchy on the outside, with very little dough in the inside. If you like crusty bread, you’ll be in heaven.
– une baguette pas trop cuite – a not-too-cooked baguette. The outside of the baguette will still be a bit crusty, but soft, and the inside will have a lot more dough. Also, if you think you might not eat all of your baguette within the next few hours, une baguette pas trop cuite is a good idea because it will take longer to dry out.
– une demi-baguette – a half-baguette. This is the perfect solution if you want to enjoy a baguette but don’t think you can eat all that much bread. It’s also great to use for a sandwich, since boulangers /boulangères are the only exception to the “no knives” rule; they have a big bread slicer that will cleanly cut a baguette in half.
– une baguette sans sel –a salt-free baguette. Some boulangeries make special salt-free baguettes. They’re not very tasty, but if you’re watching your sodium intake, at least you can still enjoy a baguette.
For a funny and very true take on the French boulangerie experience, check out this NSFW video by Paul Taylor, a British comedian who lives in France. Note that while there’s a lot of truth to the video, going to the boulangerie is usually a more pleasant experience than what he describes. For example, one of our local boulangères even bought my son a little present for his birthday! So, don’t worry when it’s your turn to chercher le pain.
Where else can you buy a baguette?
The boulangerie is the traditional place to buy your baguette, and usually it’s the best, since the bread is freshly made. But you’ll also be able to find baguettes industrielles (mass-produced baguettes) at the supermarket. Some of these are ready-to-eat, while others have to be warmed up, thawed, or cooked a little.
If you’re in a rural part of France, you may spot a bread truck, usually called un camion à pain. This may be like a food truck, with a built-in oven, or it could simply be stocked with freshly-made bread from a bakery in a nearby town. Traditionally, a camion à pain travels to remote villages where there isn’t a boulangerie close by, so that inhabitants who don’t have a car or can’t travel far (elderly or sick people, etc.) can still get fresh baguettes.
More recently, camions à pain have taken on a role similar to food trucks in some places. They’ll park in a central location of a small town and sell baguettes and sometimes other baked goods to clients. The one in this article serves both roles.
Another way to get a baguette in France is a fairly recent invention: the baguette vending machine – un distributeur de pain. Although they might seem like a novelty, they’re becoming increasingly popular, especially in small villages where there is no local boulangerie. After all, it’s easier to walk to a vending machine than to wait for the camion à pain to come by.
You might think that they’re filled with baguettes industrielles, it turns out that most distributeurs de pain are actually supplied by an actual bakery in the region. You can read about – and see – a distributeur de pain here.
Although distributeurs de pain tend to be set up in places without access to a boulangerie, you can even find some in Paris. The reason, in this case, is that some people might not be able to aller chercher une baguette during boulangeries’ opening hours. To find a distributeur de pain in a specific place in France, do an online search.
While nothing will replace the experience of getting your baguette at the boulangerie, these other methods mean that a majority of people in France have access to baguettes, continuing the Revolutionaries’ dream of le Pain Égalité!
How do you know if a baguette is good?
Most people define the perfect baguette as being crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, with a light, slightly flaky dough. It should be fresh-baked, ideally, or at the very least not mass-produced.
Of course, like anything else, that all depends on you. Most French boulangeries should sell fresh-baked baguettes that taste good. Some will be more flavorful or have a better texture than others, which is how some boulangers/boulangères win prizes for their baguettes and others don’t.
What do the French put on baguettes?
In some cultures, like the one I come from, we tend to put butter on bread and enjoy it just like that, especially if the bread is supposed to be delicious on its own. For the French, though, baguettes are either all or nothing.
You may see some people put butter on a baguette, but it usually won’t stop there: they’ll add ham and a few garnishes to make a jambon-beurre (butter and ham sandwich, a classic French sandwich), or top the butter with anything from sausage slices, to cheese, to jam.
Baguettes are the most common bread used for sandwiches in France. They’re also used for French-style hotdogs, which consist of a hotdog (or two) drowning in melted ementhal cheese inside a baguette.
But baguettes are also broken into pieces and eaten with something on top: cheese, charcuterie, or radishes, for example.
At breakfast, many French people eat a piece of baguette (as-is or toasted) that’s covered in butter, jam, and/or Nutella. They often dip buttered a baguette into their coffee.
For le goûter (children’s late-afternoon snack), some people give kids a portion of baguette with a piece of chocolate in it. This is the original pain au chocolat (which is why there’s a big, mostly joking debate in France about whether the pastry of the same name should actually be called a chocolatine).
And of course, as I’ve said, it’s extremely common to see French people take a bite or two of their plain baguettes on the way home after buying it. They’ll also use a plain baguette to sop up the sauce on their plate after a meal.
How should you enjoy a baguette if you come to France? If what I’ve just written hasn’t inspired you, do whatever you feel like.
Are baguettes really a big deal in France?
Sometimes, we have perceptions of another culture that are just clichés. But when it comes to baguettes, yes, they are a huge deal in France. They’re such a typical element of everyday life here, that very few stand-out, iconic works of art, literature, or cinema specifically address them. (Only this and this come to mind for me, personally, but please share any other baguette-related art, literature, or cinematic moments in the comments.)
I don’t mean that baguettes are never mentioned or depicted in art, literature, films, etc., just that they don’t really get the spotlight. The reason, to me, is that baguettes simply are. They’re everywhere in France, at potentially every meal a French person eats, and thus not as noticeable as something they’d have for a rare treat or special occasion.
It’s estimated that 30 million baguettes are consumed daily in France. The country’s population is 66.9 million.
Taking into account that the population includes people residing in the same household, you’ll soon realize that this means at least one baguette a day is consumed in a majority of French homes. According to a recent study, bread is constantly available in 92% of French homes, with baguettes ordinaires and de tradition being the type of bread most French people prefer. In fact, many French people are so worried they’ll run out of bread that they keep a baguette frozen in their freezer, to reheat just in case!
But believe it or not, the French eat significantly less baguette today than they did in the past. This is due to both an increase in the price of the baguette (the average price in the article I’ve linked to is listed as 88 centimes, but here in Paris, it’s usually between 90 and 95 centimes), and the current trend of eating less carbs to lose weight (not that the French really seem to have had a baguette-related obesity problem).
Still, the baguette remains the star of the French boulangerie and a quintessential part of most meals for a majority of French people, and it’s also a source of national pride. The French government is even trying to get the baguette onto UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
The vote on that is still out, but one baguette-related ranking that is known is the annual Concours de la meilleure baguette de Paris (Best Baguette in Paris Contest). Each year, boulangers/boulangères from around the capitol bake their best baguette for a panel of judges. The winner gets immense prestige, 4,000 euros, and becomes the official baguette supplier of the Elysée Palace (the French President’s residence) for the year.
Their boulangerie remains open during this time, even so, which means that anyone can go and try what’s considered the best baguette in the city. So, before you come to Paris, do an internet search to find which boulangerie is the current champion and judge for yourself!
The baguette across borders
The French might consume an enormous amount of baguettes, but believe it or not, there’s a country that tops them! According to many sources, Algeria is the top baguette-consuming country in the world, with about 48.6 million baguettes purchased per day!
Some experts point out that this figure is debatable, since not all baguettes in Algeria are the same size (a household might have to buy one per person, etc.) and there may be some corruption or statistical errors involved.
Still, this questionable statistic reveals a real truth: the baguette isn’t just a part of daily life in France. Many former French colonies, like Morocco, Tunisia, Vietnam, and the aforementioned Algeria, of course, are major consumers of baguettes.
My personal favorite result of the cultural fusion this has created is bánh mì, a Vietnamese sandwich that you can find both in Vietnam and in many Vietnamese takeaways in France. Typical bánh mì in France consists of lacquered pork, chicken, or duck, as well as carrots and other vegetables served on a baguette.
The baguette’s origins are uncertain but its popularity and staying power in France and other parts of the world are very real. Are there good French baguettes where you live? If you’ve tried a baguette in France, do you think it lives up to the hype?