1) 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. If it hasn't, your yeast may not be working. Dissolve 1/4 teaspoon of yeast in 1 tablespoon lukewarm water with a pinch of sugar, and wait 15 minutes. If nothing happens, replace your yeast, and begin the starter process again.
2) If you're using active dry yeast, mix it with the water, then combine with the starter, flour, and salt. If you're using instant yeast, there's no need to combine it with the water first. Mix and knead everything togetherby hand, mixer or bread machine set on the dough cycletill you've made a soft, somewhat smooth dough; it should be cohesive, but the surface may still be a bit rough. Knead for about 5 minutes on speed 2 of a stand mixer
3) Place the dough in a lightly greased medium-size bowl, cover the bowl, and let the dough rise for 3 hours, gently deflating it and turning it over after 1 hour, and then again after 2 hours.
4) Turn the dough out onto a lightly greased work surface. Divide it into three equal pieces.
5) Shape each piece into a rough, slightly flattened oval, cover with greased plastic wrap, and let them rest for 15 minutes.
6) 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.
7) With the seam-side down, cup your fingers and gently roll the dough into a 15" log. Place the logs seam-side down into the wells of a baguette pan; or onto a lightly greased or parchment-lined sheet pan or pans.*
8) Cover them with a cover or lightly greased plastic wrap, and allow the loaves to rise till they've become very puffy, about 1 1/2 hours.
9) Towards the end of the rising time, preheat your oven to 450°F; if you're using a baking stone, place it on the lowest rack.
10) Using a very sharp knife held at about a 45° angle, make three 8" vertical slashes in each baguette. Spritz the baguettes heavily with warm water; this will help them develop a crackly-crisp crust.
11) Bake the baguettes until they're a very deep golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove them from the oven and cool on a rack. Or, for the very crispiest baguettes, turn off the oven, crack it open about 2", and allow the baguettes to cool in the oven.
Yield: Three 16" baguettes.
*Advanced baker version: Place the shaped baguettes, seam-side down, in the folds of a heavily floured cotton dish towel. Allow them to rise as directed. When fully risen, gently roll them onto a parchment-lined or lightly greased baking sheet, floured side down. Bake as directed. Or roll them onto a baker's peel, and then onto a heated pizza stone in the oven. Bake as directed above.
Variation: Make six stuffed sandwiches, perfect for picnics or lunchboxes.
1) Divide the baguette dough into six pieces instead of three, and shape each into a 5"-long rectangle.
2) Layer with your favorite filling; we like mustard, ham, and Swiss cheese. Don't use too much filling, as it'll make the baguettes soggy. Also, use a dry filling (e.g., sliced deli meat, cheese) rather than something wet like meatballs in sauce.
3) Roll up like a jelly roll, sealing the long seam and pinching the ends closed.
4) Place on a lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheet.
5) Slash each baguette twice lengthwise, if desired. The cheese will ooze out. Some people like this look; some don't. Your choice.
6) Bake until golden brown, as directed above. You may need shorten the baking time a bit from the original recipe.