When guests come to visit me in Montreal, I insist they try two things; the poutine and the baguettes. Opinions on the poutine vary, but everyone loves the baguettes and asks me why they're so much better here. I wanted to know why so I did some poking around.
It turns out that the difference between a baguette that makes you moan with pleasure and a long piece of bread is pretty simple.
Shelf Life is Short: Ideally, a real baguette should be eaten the same day that it's baked because they start to go stale quickly, even within just a few hours. Small bakeries make batches all day long so their bread is always fresh. In contrast, grocery stores bake bread in much larger batches, and less often, so they often alter the recipes and add preservatives to extend their shelf life. The bread keeps longer, but ultimately, the quality suffers.
Moisture Content is Key: The higher the moisture content of the dough, the better the bread. As the water inside heats up, it 'boils', creating air pockets that leave large voids in the bread. More voids means more moisture and you can tell just by looking. More industrialized processes use dryer bread, as wetter bread is messy and requires more careful handling. Small bakeries are hands on, so they can have higher moisture content in their bread. Just take a look at a piece of wonder bread - you'll notice that all of the holes are very small.
Good Things are Worth Waiting For: Once the dough is made, it needs to ferment for 12-18+ hrs at 8 deg C. During this process, enzymes from the yeast break down the starches. Using less yeast and longer fermentation time produces more flavour. Industrialized processes do the opposite, reducing the fermentation time by adding more fast-acting yeasts and additives that can bring the fermentation time down to mere minutes. The laboratory of Stephen Jones found that the longer bread rises, the less potent the gluten that remains in the finished product, which is an important factor to consider if you find that you have a sensitivity to some gluten products more than others.
All of these factors point to one thing - if you want the real deal, you have to buy your baguettes from a local artisanal bakery. Despite the efforts by large grocery stores to mask the industrial baking process, you can't fake a locally made baguette, hand crafted by people who have the patience to do it right. Like everything else in this world, nothing good ever comes from cutting corners and using inferior materials. It's common sense: Favouring faster processing over quality will only ever result in an inferior product.
If you're biking around to get groceries in Montreal, feel free to stick a baguette in your bicycle wine rack... assuming you've already got wine at home of course ;)