Mix the dough Pour the water into a large mixing bowl. Add the yeast, flour, and salt and stir with a rubber spatula just until all the water is absorbed and a dry, clumpy dough forms. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap [or a damp tea towel] and let it stand for 20 minutes, to allow the flour to hydrate and the gluten to develop on its own.
Knead the dough Lightly dust the counter with flour. Using the spatula, empty the dough and any stray flour out of the bowl and knead it with smooth, steady strokes for 10 to 12 minutes. After about 2 minutes, the dough will collect into a ball. It will feel tacky and you’ll start to see it stretch. Continue to knead, dipping your hands in flour as necessary so they don’t stick to the dough. Try to avoid kneading extra flour into the dough so your baguettes will be light. Relax into the rhythm of kneading. Take a 2-minute break if you become tired. Stop when the dough loses its stickiness, firms up, and feels silky smooth and resilient.
Ferment the dough Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled, clear, straight-sided 2-quart container with a lid. With masking tape or Sharpie, mark the spot on the container that the dough will reach when it has increased 1-1/2 times in volume.
Cover and leave it to rise at room temperature (70 to 75 degrees) for 45 minutes. It won’t double in volume but will increase by about 25 percent.
Give the dough a turn Lightly dust the counter with flour and, using a spatula, empty the risen dough out of the container. Pat it gently into a rectangle about 6 by 8 inches and fold it like a business letter; with the short side facing you, lift the top edge and fold it into the center of the rectangle; lift the near edge and fold it into the center so that it overlaps the top edge by about 1 inch. Quickly slide both hands under the dough and flip it over so the folds are underneath. Slip it back into the container, pushing it down to fit. Cover the dough and let stand until it expands reaching halfway to the masking tape mark, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Prepare the oven About 1 hour before baking, place a baking stone on the middle rack of the oven and a cast-iron skillet on the lower rack. Heat the oven to 450 degrees.
Divide and pre-shape the dough Lightly dust the counter with flour. Uncover the dough and turn it out onto the counter. With a bench scraper or chef’s knife, cut the dough into 3 equal pieces each. Gently pat each piece into a rough rectangle and fold it in half. Sprinkle the pieces of dough with flour and lightly drape them with plastic wrap or damp tea towel. Let them relax on the counter for 10 minutes.
Shape the baguettes Cover a baker’s peel or rimless baking sheet with parchment paper. On a lightly floured countertop, pat the dough into a rough rectangle measuring about 3 by 5 inches. With the longer side facing you, fold the top of the dough down about one third of the way toward the center. With the heel of your hand, press along the seam, using firm but gentle pressure. Fold the bottom of the dough about one third of the way toward the center and seal the seam firmly. Fold this skinny rectangle in half by bringing the top edge down to meet the bottom edge. Working from right to left, cup your hand over the log of dough and press the heel of your hand down firmly to seal the seam. Dust the counter with additional flour to prevent the dough from sticking. To stretch the log, place your hands together, palms down, over the middle of the log. Using light, even pressure, roll the log back and forth as you spread your hands apart. Repeat three or four times, until the log is the desired length. Leave the ends rounded. Avoid over-handling the loaves, which will burst their air cells.
Form the couche Lightly dust the parchment on the peel or rimless baking sheet with flour and place the baguettes on the parchment, seam sides down, about 2 inches apart. Lift the parchment paper between the loaves, making pleats and drawing the loaves together. Tightly roll up 2 kitchen towels and slip them under the parchment paper on the sides of the two outer loaves to support and cradle the baguettes. Lightly dust the tops of the baguettes with flour and lightly drape them with plastic wrap.
Proof the baguettes Let the loaves stand at room temperature (70 to 75 degrees) for 30 to 40 minutes. They will increase about 1-1/2 times in size. When you press your fingertip into the dough, the indentation will spring back slowly.
. Score the baguettes Uncover the loaves, take away the towels, and stretch the parchment paper out so that it is flat and the loaves are separated on top of it. Score each baguette with a lame, a single-edged razor blade, or a very sharp serrated knife. Starting from the tip, angle the blade 45 degrees to make 3 slashes, about 3 inches long and 1/2 inch deep. Slash quickly and confidently.
. Bake the loaves Slide the loaves, still on the parchment, onto the hot baking stone. Carefully place 1/2 cup of ice in the hot cast-iron skillet to produce steam. Bake until the baguettes are caramel-colored, 15 to 20 minutes.
. Cool and store the loaves Slide the peel or the rimless baking sheet under the parchment paper to remove the loaves from the oven. Slide the loaves, still on the parchment, onto a wire rack. Cool for about 5 minutes and then peel them off the parchment paper. Parisian Daily Bread is best eaten within a few hours of baking. Toast day-old baguettes and spread with butter and jam for breakfast. For longer storage, freeze in resealable plastic bags for up to 1 month.