“French” bread

(Skip ahead to recipe)

As I promised in my post about our recent trip to France, I’m writing today about bread. I’ve been making bread for most of my life.  I started when I was in Grade 7, or perhaps a little before then.  That was the time when 10-speed bicycles first appeared, at least for the mass market.  I desperately wanted one … all the cool kids had one, after all.  But my parents felt that my red Supercycle was just fine, and weren’t prepared to fork over the cash for a bike that would almost certainly be stolen.  So, I started making bread and selling it. First to the neighbours; I’d rake in about 6 bucks a day from them.  The family next door, as it happened, owned a camp-ground north of where we lived … and when they offered to buy and then re-sell as much bread as I could bake, I realized I’d hit pay dirt.  I made 30-40 loaves every other day. Of course, I had expenses in the form of the ingredients required … though I didn’t contribute to the electric bill, which was surely going through the roof with the oven being on for so many hours a day. I suspect my parents felt it might have been more economical for them to have just bought me the bike, but I think they were also proud of my gumption, even if my business plan was a little shaky.

To this day, I still love making bread. I like having it on hand the way the French and the Italians do:  all the time, for every meal. Like bagels, the bloom on fresh bread fades quickly; that’s why I like to make it at home, as it’s needed.  That way, it always tastes great.

I know it’s not supposed to be all that good for you … you know, wheat belly, and everything. I don’t care. I love the way the dough feels while you’re handling it, and the alchemy that takes place as the dough ferments; I love the smell of it when it’s baking; I love the sound of the snaps and pops of the crust as it cools, and contracts after you take it out of the oven; I love the crackling sound you hear when you gently squeeze a loaf after it has cooled; and I love the taste.  Best of all is having it sliced, room temperature (never warm!), with softened, unsalted butter. Then again, the combination of really gooey, stinky cheese with fresh, crusty bread is also a match made in heaven.  But it’s good with almost anything, especially when you use it as a “scarpetta” to wipe your plate when you’re finished, as vulgar a thing as that is to do in refined company.

I have to say, even though the Italians have come up with the best word to describe the most important use of bread at a table, I’m particularly enamored with what the French do with bread.  First and foremost, it’s functional: French bread is never flabby; it won’t disintegrate when you mop up a sauce, or fall apart when you soak it with egg for Pain Perdu. The dozens of shapes and sizes all serve a specific purpose. Even with breads that start from the basic dough made from nothing but flour, salt, yeast and water can have many different forms. An epi, which takes the appearance of a wheat sheaf, is designed to be broken apart at the table, rather than cut. A bâtard is not simply a fat baguette; it’s higher proportion of crumb to crust makes it good for when you want more of the soft interior, such as for sopping up a braise with lots of sauce ; a ficelle, which has a higher proportion of crust to crumb than a baguette, makes a terrific sandwich.

On this most recent trip to France, we, predictably, had some great bread.  I, for one, don’t really understand why French women don’t get fat. We’d have freshly-baked rolls with butter and jam for breakfast.  Skate wings or an onglet with a sauce that screamed to be mopped up with bread for lunch. Bread with a paté entrée before dinner; cheese with bread after. Yes, I put on five pounds while we were there, but I wouldn’t have done it any other way.


The first time I ever had real French bread was when I went to France  the summer after I had graduated from university, in 1987. I endured a dismal 10-hour trip from London, first by slow train from Victoria to the English Channel, then night ferry, then by slow train again from Calais, arriving in Paris at about 7am in the morning, completely exhausted, and cursing Rick Steves and his advice to “travel overnight, because it saves you money on accommodations!”.  The youth hostels were closed during the day, and I hadn’t budgeted for a real hotel, so  I wandered around aimlessly with my backpack all day, tired, cranky and wondering what kind of hell I’d gotten myself into.  Finally, in the evening, when the hostel I was going to stay in opened, I checked in, and crashed for the night. So much for my first day in the City of Light.

The next morning, I woke up and went down to the dining hall for my first French breakfast.  Madame in the servery slopped some milky coffee into a bowl and threw a hard roll, and a couple of butter pats at me. “She’s kidding”, I thought. “This can’t possibly be all you get to eat …?”. When I asked in my broken French whether I could have a second roll, she snapped “Non!”; I now realize she was probably the mother of the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld.  Anyway, I took my tray to a table, and started to tear apart the roll.  It was crispy and crusty on the outside, and the inside was filled with holes of various sizes, sort of a bread version of Swiss cheese.  The crumb was the colour of heavy cream, and it was moist and chewy, and had what I now realize was a slightly fermented, yeast-wheaty flavour.  I’d had French bread before, or at least the Dominion or Loblaws version of it.  But those loaves had been limp, and soft, with an interior that resembled nothing so much as wet drywall.  So this is what people were talking about when the raved about French bread, I thought. No wonder people like it. The trip improved significantly from that point on.

I now know that there is no one single kind of French bread.   There are dozens, maybe hundreds of different formulas for bread dough, some that involve whole wheat flour, some that use rye, some that rely on commercial yeast for the leavening, others that make use of natural yeasts in various forms.  I’ve tried, with some success, to replicate the miche made famous by Lionel Poilâne; this round loaf of sourdough is delicious, but it’s time consuming to make, and requires you to make a bit of a mess sifting whole wheat flour to get out some of the bran.  I experimented with sourdough for a while, and while I liked the results, it too was a rather involved process, which worked best if you made bread 2-3 times a week. If you didn’t bake that frequently,  you still had to feed the sourdough mother regularly,  otherwise it would loose it’s oomph. For me, this became a bit wasteful, as I was using more flour to keep the sourdough alive than I was for actually baking bread. 

What I always come back to when making bread is a simple dough consisting of some sort of preferment (more on this later), hard, unbleached white flour, salt, yeast and water.  This recipe works for me because I can whip up a batch when the urge strikes me (rather than when my sourdough mother tells me I need to); the mixing and kneading is fast, and using a few tricks when baking, you can get a crust like a professional baker.  From start to finish, it takes about 6-8 hours, however, there is no more than about 10 minutes actual effort required over this period.  Most of the time is taken up by the dough just doing it’s thing.

Even though I’ve baked for a long time, I feel I need to point out that making bread is really easy.  You don’t need years of experience, or understand bakers’ ratios, or be finicky about temperatures for rising, or any of that. Unlike baking a cake, making bread is very forgiving.  Too much flour?  Add a little more water.  Dough too sticky?  Add a little more flour.  There are just a small handful of key things you need to succeed,  and these are easy for most people to master.


Update – June 2, 2015: It occurred to me that I was being slightly disingenuous when I said making bread was really easy.  On one level, it is easy. Provided I don’t rush things, I can pretty well always get a decent loaf as a result of my efforts.  However, I would also say that I’m rarely 100% satisfied with my results. I have this notion of what the ideal loaf should have: a thin, crispy (but not tough) crust; an interior with a crumb with holes of varying sizes (not uniform, like you would expect to see in sandwich bread), and an overall beautiful shape and appearance.  I can often get two of these three things right.  Sometimes it’s only one.  Very rarely is it all three.  And this is one reason I continue to make bread. I want to see if I can get it right, 100% of the time.  They say that insanity is doing something over and over the same way, and expecting a different result each time. Since I don’t follow the recipe precisely each time – I tweak the proportion of water to flour, or maybe I add a poolish I’ve had in the fridge for a few days – I feel confident I’m not mad.  Maybe just a little bit obsessive?


The most important key to success, and the thing that some people will find challenging is having patience.  You CANNOT rush bread. Your Aunt Dottie might have a bread machine with a cycle that promises to make a loaf in an hour … but I’m sorry … the results will be to real bread as Cool Whip is to whipped cream … a poor, bad-tasting substitute.  Good bread takes time, and generally speaking, the more time you can allow, the better the bread will be. So, once you’ve girded your loins so as not to expect immediate gratification from your first attempt at a loaf, here’s what else you’ll need to make a passable, perhaps even excellent loaf:

  • Unbleached white flour.  If you can get it, buy unbleached hard bread flour.  I get mine at the bulk store near where I live.  Most all-purpose flours available in Canadian supermarkets have a standard gluten percentage of about 12.5%  This actually is pretty good; you need a fairly high gluten level for making bread, and Canadian wheat is among the best wheat there is for making bread. Hard flour has even more gluten in it … not a lot more, maybe an extra percent or two.  But hard flour will make getting good results easier.  Also, make sure you choose unbleached flour.  It’s not critical, but if you use bleached flour, the inside of our loaf won’t have the creamy, appetizing colour that it should have; it will look more like the colour of plastering compound.
  • Yeast. I use instant yeast, the kind you can blend into a mixture without first dissolving it. You can get it in large vaccum-packed packages at the bulk store; you can also get smaller packages of brands like Fleischmann’s at any supermarket.  It’s not critical that you use instant yeast; but it saves a little time, and you have one fewer bowl to wash at the end. If you use dry active or fresh yeast, you’ll need to dissolve it in warm water according to the package directions.
  • Salt.  Salt is essential for making bread.  Not only for what it does to the flavour, but it also has a critical effect during the fermentation (rising)  of the dough and baking. I am not too fussy about what salt I use, though if I have it, I like to use kosher salt, because measure for measure, it is consistently, er, salty.  Brands of sea salt can vary in their saltiness, so if you use sea salt, you might need to start with less and add more depending on how the raw dough tastes (yes, you’ll need to taste it).
  • Water.  Tap water is fine.  Don’t be too fussed about measuring the temperature of the water, unless you are using non-instant yeast, in which case you need to use warm (but not not) water to activate the yeast.  When using instant yeast, tepid water is fine. If the water is cold, the dough will just take longer to rise; but if it’s too hot, not only might it kill the yeast if it comes into direct contact with it, the starches in the flour might do something weird, which could ruin your bread.

Here’s the recipe and method that works for me.  I am assuming you have a stand mixer to do your mixing and kneading.  If you don’t, you’ll need to mix and knead by hand. This video, while a little twee, does a nice job of showing how to knead bread by hand, right in the bowl.

French Bread

About 7 hours from start to finish.

  1. Dump 1 cup of hard, unbleached flour into your mixer bowl.  Add 1 cup of tepid water, and 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast.
  2. Using the paddle beater (not the dough hook), mix this all together for about a minute.
  3. Turn the mixer off, remove and scrape off the beater, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, then go find something to do for at least 3 hours.

What you are doing is creating a pre-ferment for your bread dough. The yeast is starting to become active, beginning a fermentation process that will give your bread flavour. You can skip this waiting step, but I don’t recommend it. In addition to building flavour, it also helps create compounds in the dough that will improve its texture.

Another thing you can do during the initial mixing is add a lump of dough from the last batch of bread you made. I set aside a piece of dough about 2 inches round, wrap it tightly, and refrigerate it .  It will keep for several days. While sitting in the fridge, the dough continues to ferment ever so slowly, and by adding it to a fresh batch of dough, you are building even more flavour.

  1. After 3 hours or so have gone by, the pre-ferment will look like this:
    Pre-ferment, after 3-½ hours.
    Pre-ferment, after 3-½ hours.

    Give the contents a vigourous stir. At this point, you can refrigerate the mixture and pick up again tomorrow (builds more flavour!), or you can finish the dough now. If you do refrigerate the pre-ferment, take it out of the fridge about an hour before you start to continue to allow it to warm up a little.

  2.  Add another 2 cups of flour to the bowl, along with 3/4 of a tablespoon of kosher salt, and 1/2 a teaspoon of instant yeast.

    Added flour, yeast and salt.
    Added flour, yeast and salt.
  3. Using a sturdy fork or a wooden spoon, stir the mixture for about a minute until most of the flour has been absorbed.  I mix by hand first, because I find if I turn the mixer on right away, there’s a good chance I’ll get flour everywhere.
  4. Put the bowl into the mixer stand, attach the dough hook, and then turn the machine on to med-low.

    Initial mixing.
    Initial mixing.
  5. After about a minute, if there is still flour that is unabsorbed in the bowl, dribble in about 1/8-cup of water, and let it go for a minute, then check again.  If it’s still looking dry, add a little more water. If on the other hand, the dough is very wet looking, and looks slack in the bowl, you might need more flour. Add some, a tablespoon at a time, and let it knead for about a minute, then check again.

    Still a bit crumbly. This needs a little more water.
    Still a bit crumbly. This dough needs a little more water.
  6. Let the mixer knead the dough at med-low speed for about 1-2 minutes.  Check the dough again. There should be no flour left in the bowl, though the dough will probably look shaggy, and sticky.

    After adding more water, there's no flour left in the bowl, though the dough is quite sticky and shaggy.
    After adding more water, there’s no flour left in the bowl, though the dough is quite sticky and shaggy.
  7. Turn the mixer off and let the dough rest for 5 minutes. This gives the flour particles in the dough time to more fully absorb the water.
  8. Turn the machine back on, and let it run at medium speed for about 6 minutes. What you are aiming for is a soft, tacky, but not sticky-wet dough.  Generally speaking, more water is better than less … you want the dough to be well-hydrated, but it shouldn’t be so wet after 5-6 minutes of kneading that it smears on the sides of the bowl while the mixer is running.  If the dough looks stiff, sprinkle a few drops of water in, and continue kneading.  If it looks too wet, add flour, a tablespoon at a time, and let it get worked into the dough.
  9. At the end of the kneading period, you should have a ball of dough that has a smooth surface, and should look something like the finish you get from an satin-or eggshell-finish wall paint; it should stick to your finger if you poke it firmly, but it should release fairly easily as well. If it looks like a semi-gloss paint finish, you are probably ok, but if it looks like a high-gloss paint finish, it will be more difficult to work with, and may not rise properly.  The main thing is that the dough should have some body. If you prod it with your finger, it should spring back.  If it doesn’t, and your dough is wet looking, you need more flour and kneading.

    The kneaded dough, ready to rise.
    The kneaded dough, ready to rise.
  10. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap again, and set it aside until the dough has doubled in bulk.  This can take anywhere from 50-75 minutes.  Unless you keep your house at 10 degrees, DO NOT put the bowl into a warm oven or other warmer-than-room-temperature place to “speed things up”. A longer rise = better flavour and texture.

    Dough, doubled in bulk after one hour.
    Dough, doubled in bulk after one hour.
  11. Once the dough has risen, turn it out onto a lightly floured counter, and deflate it.  Press the dough into a rectangle about the size of a book, then fold it in thirds, like a letter. Press it into a rectangle again, and fold it again.  Wipe (or spray) your bowl with a thin layer of cooking oil or cooking spray.  Return the dough to the bowl, and let it rise a second time, until it has slightly more than doubled in bulk, about one hour.  The two rising/fermentation periods give the dough time to develop more flavour and improve the texture of the bread.
  12. At this point, your dough is ready to shape into loaves.Turn the dough out onto a floured counter. This quantity of dough will make 3 short baguettes, bâtards (a shorter, fatter baguette), or 2 boules.  When you’ve decided how many loaves you are making, squeeze the dough into equal pieces using a bench scraper, or by pinching pieces off between your thumb and forefinger. DO NOT cut the dough with a knife; again, you want to retain as much of the CO2 that is in the dough as you can.
  13. Rather than me try to describe how to make the various bread shapes here, take a look at these videos:

Mr. Hitz does a great job of demonstrating the important technique of creating tension on the surface of loaf, and showing how to make decorative slashes that will let your bread expand in the heat of the oven without “bursting”. Do keep in mind that when shaping a baguette, you need to make sure it will fit into your oven; commercial bakers can make baguettes that are 20 inches, or longer, but unless you have a commercial oven, it will be hard to bake a loaf that long at home.

Note: in the videos, Mr. Hitz adds a resting phase after portioning out the dough.   I don’t typically do this, but feel free to try it. In theory, it makes the dough easier to work with, more pliable and receptive to being shaped.

  1. Place the loaves seam-side up on a well-floured, clean kitchen towel, and cover lightly with another towel.
  2. Let the loaves rise until they have just doubled in size, about 45-60 minutes. Don’t let them go beyond this, because if they over-rise, they will collapse in the oven.  The loaves should still feel springy if you poke them gently with your finger.
  3. After the first 20 minutes of rising time, adjust the racks in your oven so that there’s one on the lowest level, and one in the middle. Place a shallow metal (not glass) baking or roasting pan on the bottom shelf, then preheat your oven to 525 degrees Fahrenheit. Most ovens will take at least 20 minutes to reach this temperature. Don’t wait until your dough has risen to preheat the oven; the dough will over-proof, and your bread will collapse in the oven.

    Oven, set up for baking bread, with baking stone (optional) on middle shelf, and water pan on bottom shelf.
    Oven, set up for baking bread, with baking stone (optional) on middle shelf, and water pan on bottom shelf.
  4. When the dough has risen, transfer it to a lightly-greased baking sheet (or line the sheet with parchment paper), as shown in the video in step 15, and then slash it.
  5. Put the baking sheet into the oven, and then pour 1-2 cups of hot water into the pan on the bottom shelf, then close the oven door.  Do this as quickly as you can, so that the oven doesn’t lose too much heat.  The steam from the boiling water will help give your bread a crisp crust.
  6. Reset the temperature to 450 degrees, then let the bread bake for 20 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 400 degrees.
  7. After 20 minutes, baguettes will probably be done.  Larger loaves will take longer; batards about 25 minutes, and boules, depending on their size, 25-35 minutes. The crust should be a deep golden colour, and an instant-read thermometer inserted so that the probe reaches the center of the loaf should register 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
  8. Remove the bread from the oven, and let it cool on a rack for at least 30 minutes. Don’t cut into the bread while it’s still hot; the cooling period is critical to allow the interior of the bread to “set” properly.

    A bâtard and boule.  I didn't get the slashes quite right in my bâtard. Oh well.
    A bâtard and boule. I didn’t get the slashes quite right in my bâtard. Oh well.

Tips

  • For a more rustic loaf, substitute half of the flour with whole wheat flour, and use a little more water. The dough will be stickier at the end of the kneading period, however, during the rise, the dough will absorb the excess water.
  • You can use a rising basket if you have one. Wicker bannetons aren’t cheap (I paid $40 for mine here in Toronto), but they are handy because they make handling loaves easier.  You can use the basket with or without a cloth liner; a liner if particularly useful for sticky loaves, like rye.  They come in round and oblong shapes, for boules and baguettes, respectively. You can fashion an ersatz banneton for a boule-shaped loaf with a mixing bowl lined with a clean, floured kitchen towel.
  • If you are making a boule shape, and you have a dutch oven with a lid, try baking the loaf in the dutch oven.  The sealed environment traps steam from the bread, which makes for a great crust. Put the dutch oven into your oven while it is preheating, then turn the dough into it after it has risen.  After 15 minutes, remove the lid, and continue baking until the loaf is done.  Note: I don’t recommend using an enamelled cast-iron pot, such as a Le Crueset for baking bread, unless you aren’t worried about the enamel discolouring in the 500+ degree oven.  Actually, it’s not the enamel that discolours, it’s the invisible film that remains from washing the pot that turns brown. You can wash the discolouration off using a mild, non-abrasive cleanser and some elbow grease, but it’s a pain in the neck.
  • You can also use a clay baker like a Romertopf to bake loaves of bread. Make sure you put the clay baker into a cold oven before you preheat it, though; putting a cold clay dish into a 525 degree oven will cause it to crack.

    A cast iron Dutch oven (rear) and a clay baker (front). Both are great for giving loaves a super-crispy, light crust.
    A cast iron Dutch oven (rear) and a clay baker (front). Both are great for giving loaves a super-crispy, light crust.
  • A baker’s lame is the best tool to use for creating slashes.  You can order one online from any of a number of sites.  If you don’t have a lame, I suggest using a serrated bread knife; for some reason, serrated knives don’t catch and tug the dough the way flat blades do.
  • When making slashes in long loaves, like baguettes, hold the blade so that the cut is not perpendicular to the surface.  The cut should be about a 30 degree angle to the surface of the loaf. This will ensure that you get the desired “ear”, or gringe, the crusty flap on the upper side of the slash.

For more reading …

There are lots of books about making bread out there. A favourite of mine is The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart.  He goes deep into the science and art of baking bread, and covers virtually everything from white bread to making your own sourdough.

There are also some great web sites you can look at too.  Breadtopia.com has some good videos and recipes; they also sell supplies that are hard to find, like lames for making perfect slashes in your bread. yumarama.com has a good list of bread baking terms, and more theory, recipes and ideas.  www.sourdoughlibrary.org is a good resource for those interested in making sourdough breads.

Copyright (C) 2015, Allan Risk. All rights reserved.

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