The first step to mixing French baguettes is to combine your water, flour (preferably a mix of high-gluten flour and all-purpose flour), yeast and salt. The goal is to achieve a temperature of ~75 F
When mixing you want to develop the gluten strands by mixing the dough long enough to acquire a smooth, elastic dough (usually between 5 and 10 minutes) at medium speed with mixer. (ie: Kitchen-Aid)
By "feeling" the dough by hand you will eventually learn the texture and consistency of a well-mixed dough. A properly mixed dough should be smooth and elastic which indicates a glutenous structure.
The total mixing time will vary depending on the level of gluten in the flour and the temperature of the water. Cool water is preferable. Developing the gluten structure allows for a better rising.
Keep checking the consistency until it is smooth and resilient. Pull the dough gently. It should stretch without breaking (similar to a rubber band). The gluten traps the CO2 released from the yeast.
Here is a photo of a "proofed" French baguette. Proofed basically means risen for baking. Before placing the proofed loaf in the oven (at least 400 degrees), you "score" the loaf with a sharp knife.
The "proofing' time will vary depending on the temperature of the dough and the temperature of the room or the proof-box. When the loaf is 2/3 the size of the desired final loaf it is ready to bake.
After the dough is mixed - rise until it is double in bulk. Then, punch it down, basically deflating it. Rise the dough twice. After two rises - scale to desired weight (usually one pound baguette).
After two rises, form your loaf by tightening the dough by rolling it into a long cylinder shape. Now you can rise, score, and bake the final loaf. This can be done by covering the dough with plastic.
Normally this will take between 30 to 60 minutes - depending on the temperature and humidity level. When the dough has doubled in bulk, put it in a 400 degree oven for approximately 30 to 35 minutes.
An example of a perfect color and scoring
Some variations of french dough - A baguette on the left and a traditional French "Epi" (pull-apart rolls) on right. Epi are formed like baguettes, but cut and twisted to resemble the wheat stalk.
Test your loaf by tapping the bottom. If it sounds hollow, the loaf is fully baked. Dropping the temperature of the oven to 350 degrees for the last ten minutes will create a crustier baguette.
Another option is to spray the baguette after it goes into the oven or place a pan of water on the bottom of the oven. This will help the crust and give it a shine. For a softer bread bake 25 minutes.
There are many factors in mixing, forming, rising, and baking that will affect the characteristics of the final loaf. You can alter any one of these stages to create the baguette that you desire.
With experience, you can change or transform the flavor, texture, crumb and crust of the final product - to your preference. This takes years of experimentation with mixing, rising, and baking dough.
There are four forms of yeast: Fresh yeast (paste), dry active yeast (pellets), instant yeast (powder) and "wild" yeast (sour culture). Yeast's favorite food is the sugar contained in flour and grains
The "crumb" is the texture of the bread. The bread's crumb can be "holey" or have a cake-like fine crumb, depending on the hydration level. With more water a dough will have more bubbles (more holes).
A perfect baguette specimen
Viva la baguette!