Techniques for a crusty loaf of French bread, with detailed troubleshooting tips.
Excellent French bread is hard to find in the United States – and expensive. In Seattle you’ll often see a good baguette priced at ten times what a loaf costs in France (though Pike Place
market has “Le Panier”, an excellent and reasonably priced bakery that has offerings far beyond the simple baguette). But baking an excellent baguette requires some adjustments in an American kitchen, including:
- The right equipment, including a bread pan and oven stone
- The right technique, with particular attention to kneading the dough long enough
- The right materials, especially bread flour, as general purpose flour in the U.S. doesn’t have a gluten content that is high enough. And, even using good bread flour, you can benefit from adding gluten flour.
2. Tools for French bread
MIXER OR BREAD MACHINE?
The appearance of bread machines on the American market about 20 years ago had one positive affect: it started more people down the path of baking at home. The machines are useful in producing an acceptable loaf of bread with a minimum of work. However, for a good French loaf you’ll be able to use them only to mix the flour, yeast, water, salt and sugar. You could also allow the dough to go through the first rise in a bread machine, though it isn’t generally recommended because they’ll heat your dough on first rise.
The addition of two to three pounds of dough to a hot oven can reduce the temperature surrounding the loaf by 100o F (380 C) as the loaf is introduced – and a constant application of heat is necessary to set the crust well. Without the controls of a professional oven, the best way to overcome this at home is to add thermal mass with an oven stone. A typical oven stone will cost about $30 to $50 but note that it is also essential to producing a crisp pizza – and is useful with just about any baking.
Bread pan on a cooling rack — with an oven stone at the top.
You can bake a baguette without one but these semi-circular pans support the bread well; provide efficient heat flow to the base of the loaf; are easy to handle when moving the loaf in or out of the oven; and make the use of a corn meal base more effective. I’ve had well-risen loaves collapse during transfer to the oven when using an ordinary baking sheet, so I’d never be without a good bread pan.
Once you have your technique perfected, you want the bread to cool as quickly as it heated. Rather than allow it to rest in a hot bread pan, where portions of it will continue to bake, it is best to get it onto a rack to cool. If only so that you can eat it sooner.
FLOUR: Standard American baking flours, like General Mills’ Gold Medal All-Purpose flour, simply do not have enough gluten content to make a good loaf of bread. You’re better with Gold Medal bread flour or any of the bread flours from Stone-Buhr, King Arthur or other specialty millers. Also pay attention to whether your flour is bleached or unbleached. I tend to prefer unbleached flours for taste.
YEAST: I’ve tried all of the common American yeasts, both ordinary and fast-rising. The biggest difference that you’ll find is in price. Small sachets of yeast good only for one batch of bread may be $2 in the grocery store, while Costco will sell you two pounds of active dry yeast for less than $4.
Your two pounds of Costco yeast will last two years, even baking French bread weekly but careful attention needs be taking to keeping the yeast away from moisture. I don’t even trust plastic Tupperware containers for this but seal the yeast in Mason jars with a rubber-ringed lid, then refrigerate the yeast. A two-pound bag of yeast will fill two Mason jars – but also keeps well for up to two years.
Note too that fast-rising yeasts are unnecessary for baking French bread and can be more costly.
WATER: Water to initiate the rising of your yeast should be 100-110o F (38-43o C), which will be warm to the touch but not scalding.
SUGAR: The sugar that you’re using is present for taste. It takes yeast about 12 hours to break down the cane sugar that you’re likely using in your dough, so unless you’re creating a poolish or letting your dough sit overnight, it isn’t contributing to yeast action.
SALT: Salt too is present for taste. It can be eliminated, if dietary requirements restrict salt.
4. French Bread Recipe
Printable copy here.
1.5 cups Water 375 ml
3 cups Bread (not all-purpose) flour 750 ml
2 Tbsp Gluten flour 30 ml
1.5 tsp Salt* 7 ml
1 Tbsp Sugar 15 ml
1 Tbsp Bread yeast 15 ml
* salt is recommended but is optional for those on low-salt diets
This recipe calls for 3 risings and takes about 3 hours total to complete. If two loaves is too much to use in 24 hours, you can cover the dough and refrigerate half after the first rise.
The dough holds well for up to 12 hours, though it will take about one hour to bring it and the pan back to room temperature before the second rise.
Toss 1/2 cup (125 ml) water into hot oven as the bread pan and dough goes in. The steam helps form the outer crust of the bread.
Bake bread for seven minutes – then crack oven door to let out steam and heat — and reduce temperature to 400 o (205o C) for about another five minutes. Remove to cooling rack.
The kneading surface, prepared with 2 Tbsp flour, one spread and one in reserve.
Kneading accomplishes two primary things: it stretches the glutens in the dough, giving the bread crust texture and strength. Secondly, it helps cool the dough and distribute heat uniformly.
This Epicurious video runs a little over 2 minutes and describes the process well, though classic technique for French bread kneads the dough AFTER the first rise, while Epicurious recommends kneading after mixing and before the dough is allowed to rise:
A good French loaf will emerge if you follow these steps:
· Machine mixing is recommended but machine kneading is not. It is too easy to over-knead the bread and make the dough rubbery (and the bread tough). Cookbook editors at King Arthur flour have said, “The value of a bread machine or mixer is getting ingredients blended. After that, the kneading should be done by hand.”
· If you tire during the process of kneading your dough 50 to 75 times, take a brief break and resume.
· If this recipe produces too much dough, half of it can be covered (with a plastic wrap) and refrigerated for up to 24 hours. It is best to do this before the first rise, then before kneading, allow it to come to room temperature for about 2 hours. During that time it should at least double in size (and it may triple its own volume).
· As the Epicurious video mentions, adding eggs or butter (neither of which are in French bread) lengthens kneading times.
An excellent reference with an extensive section on kneading — and dozens of pictures — is Julia Child’s book, “The Way to Cook”. Child’s book is also an excellent reference on other breads and pastries.
When I read Julia Child’s account in her book “My Life in France” of trying and re-trying French bread recipes hundreds of times I could sympathize, having done the same. Ms. Child realized that one of the key differences was that American all-purpose flour did not have the high gluten content that French bread flour has – and that adjustments needed to be made by adding gluten, using special-purpose bread flours, or kneading far longer.
Any of the following symptoms of failed bread have multiple possible causes, so they are prioritized below in what you should check. But expect to try your recipe and technique several times before serving to guests.
Loaf collapses during final rise
This is an indication that the dough doesn’t have the strength to support the weight of the loaf. Its causes are likely to be:
1. Inadequate kneading to produce the stretched glutens to support the dough.
2. Too little gluten content in the flour. This is common when using the all-purpose flour found in American kitchens for cooking and baking. First switch to a quality bread flour – then if your crust still doesn’t have the density that you’d like, consider adding a tablespoon or two of gluten flour.
3. Old flour.
4. Old yeast.
5. Letting the dough over-rise, so that the dough ferments.
Inside of loaf is dry, mealy
Loaf is damp, unfinished
Your bread may not be baking completely, so the first check would be to confirm that your oven temperature is accurate. If you find that there are continued problems, it may have another cause (an oven stone that is inadequately heated or a heat leak) and can check your loaf for a 200o F (93o C) internal temperature. A second problem may be dough that is old.
French bread fails to rise
The most common problems when a bread fails to rise include:
1. Dough that is too cold. Luckily this can be solved by simply letting it rise longer at room temperature, which helps improve flavor from the yeasts.
2. The opposite: dough that is too hot. It is a good idea to heat your oven for 90 seconds to warm it slightly above room temperature – but let it get any warmer and it will kill your yeast.
3. Too much salt.
7. Variations of Technique
Shortening rise time: can be accomplished by heating your oven for 90 seconds at 250o F (121o C). Each rise should be 15-30 minutes shorter. However, professional bakers argue for longer, cooler rises that can be accomplished at room temperature.
Pre-fermenting: because yeast adds flavor to the bread and longer rises allow a richer flavor, many bakers, including Peter Reinhart (see “References” below) use a pre-fermented mix of dough, water and yeast. However, it doubles the amount of time required and the poolish is sticky and difficult to handle.
There are dozens of books with instructions for baking French bread. Below is a prioritized list of our top choices – and why.
The Way to Cook, Julia Child, Alfred A. Knopf, 1989. This book is marvelously illustrated, particularly in explaining kneading. It is also a first-class resource for other breads and brioche.
The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, Peter Reinhart, Ten Speed Press, 2001. Probably the most-complete book about bread baking, its tools and techniques, written by a former professional baker. Wonderfully illustrated. Reinhart presents many more alternative ways to baking and strongly recommends using pre-ferments or poolishs. A very complete collection of recipes – and alternatives in the process of bread making.
The New Professional Chef, Culinary Institute of America, 1991. A professional’s guide to preparing French bread and other yeast doughs. The “troubleshooting” sections are excellent.
My Life in France, Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Insight into the history of American cooking and how diligent the late Julia Child was in her development of recipes for the American kitchen.