A Guide to French Bread & Baguette
Once upon a time, the French were possibly the biggest consumers of bread in the world. But consumption in the country has declined by half, no less, over the past 50 years.
However, there are still over 100 varieties of bread across the country, including the classic baguette, the sweet croissant, and some delicious savory breads. And there is also a revival in quality, due to both a new generation of creative bakers and changes in eating habits, with a focus on better taste and healthier options.
A few things haven’t changed, though: first of all, the baguette remains the national favorite by a mile – or rather, by the 26 inches it measures.
Secondly, it remains mandatory to use only four ingredients (wheat flour, water, salt, and yeast) for a bread to be officially considered “pain de tradition Française” – this is even a law since 1905!
That’s because we French people take our bread seriously. But hey! that doesn’t mean we don’t make “fantasy breads” including other ingredients. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the most famous French breads, how to eat them, and more…
These are the classic types of French bread
No, we don’t walk around the streets with a baguette stuck under our arm – we use paper bags instead. Yes, we have it with every meal, from breakfast to dinner, and definitely for snacks. In fact, if you want to make yourself a sandwich, ask for a “demi-baguette” (half a baguette) at any bakery nearby.
Thin and long, this classic bread has a crispy crust but is soft and airy inside, as well as a standardized size of roughly 65 centimeters (26 inches) and weight of 250 grams (8.8 ounces). These specific measurements are the result of a technical necessity: in 1920, a new law forbade workers to start their day before 4am, so it became necessary to make a thin loaf in order for the bread to be baked and ready in time for breakfast!
Pains de tradition française
This is pretty much the same idea as the baguette: of similar shape and length, but wider and heavier. While a baguette lasts one day or two at best, a pain de tradition can last one more day before getting either chewy or dry (depending on the climate).
Using the same preparation, you will also find the ficelle, French for “string”, which is smaller and skinnier and often features seeds such as sesame on top; or on the opposite end of the size spectrum, the boule, which is a large ball-shaped bread. While there are many ways to consume this bread, a simple, typical way is to just spread some butter on it and enjoy the crunchiness!
Pain de campagne
Literally “country bread”, this round, rustic loaf is the second most popular in France. The sourdough is made with a mixture of white, whole wheat, and rye flours. Dense and heavy at the center, crusty and hard on the outside, the hearty pain de campagne is the opposite of the light baguette both in consistency, size, and durability (it can be good for up to a week).
When French families were bigger, they had many kids a couple of centuries ago, this was the go-to bread as it could feed an entire family for several days. Pain de campagne is great for cheese, jams, and sandwiches.
Pain au levain
Similar to the pain de campagne, this is another sourdough bread. The difference here is that a culture of natural yeast is used, producing lactic acid bacteria, which eventually allows for the dough to rise naturally. The taste is, therefore, distinctively sour.
Pain de mie
If you are not a big fan of crust, this is the bread for you: pain de mie is soft, fluffy, very mild in taste, and has almost no crust. Made with commercial yeast and a little bit of sugar, it is a brick-shaped bread, produced industrially and sold in supermarkets in plastic packages.
Pain de mie is commonly used for breakfast with butter, marmalade or chocolate pasta. It is also the basis of a famous typical French sandwich: le croque-monsieur, a ham-and-cheese sandwich toasted with butter, and can be also used to prepare pain perdu, which we will talk about in a moment.
A round-shaped, brown-colored bread with a tight, moist crumb, the “complete bread” is named this way because it is made mostly with whole wheat flour – although some white flour is blended into it. A very similar bread, pain intégral, uses 100 percent whole wheat flour. Pain complet is particularly rich in fibers, too.
Pain aux noix
This is one of my personal favorites: a bread with pieces of walnuts kneaded into the dough. This one is prepared with a bit of brown sugar and warm milk, which gives it a different taste and texture than regular bread. Try it with foie gras, or with a slice of soft cheese and fig marmalade on top: it’s delicious!
Pain de seigle
“Seigle” is French for rye. This variety is made with at least 65% rye flour and 35% wheat. The result is a dark, dense bread with a malty flavor – which makes it ideal to have with cheese and a beer.
Pain au son
This is perhaps the healthiest of the classic French breads, made with oat bran mixed with white flour. A bit of honey is also added to the mix. The oat bran brings not only a very specific taste, it also gives this dark-brown bread a lot of fiber, which makes it easier to digest.
It is a French favorite for dipping in a homemade vegetable soup, or eating with fresh cream cheese. Because it’s a rather dense bread, it is usually cut into thin slices and can easily last a week.
If you run out of baguette and the bakery is closed, it’s time to reach out for the biscottes. This is a kind of dry bread which is a handy replacement in case of emergency – since it’s very dry, it can last for weeks, and for that reason, almost any French household has some stored along with noodles and rice.
Very crispy, biscottes are most commonly used for breakfast with marmalade. Unlike any other breads though, they are not found in bakeries but in regular supermarkets. Why is that? Well, just ask any baker: they will tell you that biscottes are not bread, they are an imitation. True. But close enough to be a good emergency replacement.
Savory French Bread Types
The French cousin of Italy’s famous focaccia, fougasse is commonly found in the Southwest of France, specially in Provence.
This flatbread typically features olives, sun-dried tomatoes, anchovies, herbs (thyme, sage, and rosemary, for example), garlic, and sometimes comes with cheese on top. As such, it easily replaces a sandwich or a slice of pizza – some people even call it the “French calzone”. And for the same reason, it is also served warm.
This bread from the Western part of France has one specificity that makes it stand out from other varieties: it has a savory stuffing. While the recipe varies from one region to another, it is common to fill it with mushrooms and cream, with pâté, or even with mashed white beans! And depending on where you are, it can also be name fouace or fouasse
This bread from the Western part of France has one specificity that makes it stand out from other varieties: it has a savory stuffing. While the recipe varies from one region to another, it is common to fill it with mushrooms and cream, with pâté, or even with mashed white beans! And depending on where you are, it can also be named fouace or fouasse
This bread from the Western part of France has one specificity that makes it stand out from other varieties: it has a savory stuffing. While the recipe varies from one region to another, it is common to fill it with mushrooms and cream, with pâté, or even with mashed white beans! And depending on where you are, it can also be name fouace or fouasse – so one can’t help thinking that it might be merely a deviation of fougasse, which we just talked about.
Pain aux olives
Olive bread is a Mediterranean recipe, just like fougasse. The main difference to other breads is that this recipe contains yogurt and cottage cheese, which gives the bread a soft texture and a bit of a sour taste. It is ideal for eating with fresh cheese or a plate of vegetables like ratatouille, another Mediterranean classic from the South of France.
Pain aux lardons
This is merely bread with small dices of bacon spread inside it. This bacon bread can be made with a baguette or with other varieties of bread, like pain brioché for instance (but without sugar). Or it can be made the same way we prepare the pain aux olives, mentioned above, but with bacon instead of olives. Often, small slices of onions are added in the crust and baked along with the bread.
Pain à l’ail
Not a type of bread, rather a popular preparation of garlic bread involving a baguette. The bread is cut into wide slices – but not completely to the bottom, so that the loaf remains in one piece. Then, you add garlic and butter between each space and heat the whole thing up to let the garlic and butter blend in. The result: delicious!
This is nothing other than sliced bread. However, if you go to a restaurant in France, you will often find tartines on the menu, usually as an appetizer.
In that case, tartines are basically open-faced sandwiches, typically featuring gourmet ingredients such as pâtés, local cheese, avocado, dried fruits or other delicacies. But at home, a tartine is mostly what you put your butter on. Still good, though!
French Sweet Bread Types
This French version of gingerbread is somewhere between a bread and a cake. Made from rye flour, it also features honey and soft spices such as ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon – which explains why it’s called “spice bread”. Candied fruits are often added to the mix.
Pain d’épices can be served in slices along with a cup of tea or hot chocolate, for dessert along with vanilla ice cream, or even as a toast for foie gras and fresh cheese. And definitely for Christmas holidays!
Literally “lost bread”, this recipe has been created to avoid throwing away the rest of the bread once it has turned too dry or becomes too old. No wasting the bread, please!
Now, how do you prepare pain perdu? It’s fairly simple: slice the stale bread, soak the slices in a pan with a mix of egg, milk and butter, heat up, and wait for them to turn a golden color: that’s when you need to take the slices out, when they have a nice crispness, just before they get fried. So, if you ever wondered where the French toast came from, this is it!
You may have heard of brioche. Well, pain brioché is basically the same thing, but with the shape of a bread. It’s very soft, fluffy, light, slightly sweet, with an appealing golden color inside – thanks to the generous amount of eggs and butter. A slice of pain brioché goes perfectly with a coffee or hot chocolate (we French love to dip it into the cup so that it absorbs the coffee or chocolate!). By the way, this is the type of bread that is used in the US to prepare French toast… so you may have already tried it!
SOME USEFUL TIPS
1) Go to the boulangerie early!
There is this saying in France: “ça se vend comme des petits pains” (“It sell like hot cakes”). The reason is simple: if you go to your bakery too late, it’s likely most of the bread will be sold already. Better to go there around breakfast to get the good stuff, still warm from the oven.
2) Know the three main parts of the bread:
– La mie: the white part of the bread, inside.
– La croûte: the outside, crunchy part.
– Le croûton: the very end, which is the most crunchy part of the crust – and many people’s favorite!
3) Know “bread etiquette”:
If you go to a fancy place, many rules apply. But let’s limit ourselves to the basics:
– If somebody at your table asks for bread, pass along the entire basket (bread is usually cut in slices and put in a basket). It’s considered unpolite to pick a piece of bread for somebody else.
– Don’t use your bread to push food in your plate – that’s what the silverware is for.
– Any sauce left in your plate? Tempted to finish it up with your bread? Well… you shouldn’t. But it’s OK if you do it. My argument is always the same: if I don’t do it, this delicious sauce will be lost forever and it will be a waste. That should get you a silent smirk and nod from everybody else. And who cares anyway? You are a foreigner and not expected to be aware of such details! Just enjoy your sauce.