Baking French bread

The perfect French baguette is possible at home, if you avoid some common pitfalls.

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Techniques for a crusty loaf of French bread, with detailed troubleshooting tips.

1.        Background

 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.
 
  The process of perfecting your breadmaking can be frustrating but we hope to offer some tips and tricks here.  And take heart: not even Julia Child could get it down without some help.  In her autobiography she writes, “It would eventually take us two years and something like 284 pounds of flour to try out all the home-style recipes for French bread we could find.”  But it wasn’t until she spent a day with Professor Raymond Calvel of the École Française de Meunerie, that she learned how to adapt professional techniques to an American kitchen.

 

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 alternative is a stand-mixer such as the venerable Kitchen Aid mixers that grace many kitchens.  They have a slight disadvantage in being less automatic than a bread machine but are actually easier to clean.  And by using the large stainless steel bowl of the mixing stand, you’ll be washing one less item during cleanup.

 

 

OVEN STONE

 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. 

BREAD PAN

 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.

 

COOLING RACK

 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.

 

 

3.       Materials/ingredients

 

 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.

 CORN MEAL:  The corn meal powdering on the bread pan will help flavor the crust and prevent sticking during baking.  It also adds a slight roasted flavor in baking.

 

4.       French Bread Recipe

  Printable copy here.

 
INGREDIENTS

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

                                    Corn meal

                                    Cooking oil

* salt is recommended but is optional for those on low-salt diets

 

DIRECTIONS:

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.

 1.       Put yeast in 110o (43o C) water for 8 minutes.  (Tap water that is hot to the touch – but not scalding – works well).  Mix well.
2.       Mix gluten flour, sugar and salt, setting it aside until yeast preparation time is done.
3.       Add bread flour and gluten flour/sugar/salt mixture to bowl. 
4.       For the bread machine, mix using the  ‘Dough’ setting on bread machine.  Scrape down the bowl, if portions of the flour doesn’t absorb.  If your flour mixture is having trouble picking up all of the dry ingredients, add 1 Tbsp water.
5.       For a stand mixer, mix on lowest until all dry material is blended.  You may find yourself scraping down the bowl to get everything mixed.  If your flour mixture is having trouble picking up all of the dry ingredients, add 1 Tbsp water.  After blending, raise your Kitchen Aid to setting #2 and mix for an additional 7 minutes.
6.       Let dough rest for five minutes.
7.       Flour a cutting board with 1 Tbsp flour – and 1 Tbsp standby, as the dough will be tacky.
8.       First, flour your hands to ease handling of the sticky dough.  Then pull the dough out of the bowl and onto the cutting board for hand kneading – it should be folded over 75 times to stretch the glutens and cool the dough.  If you tire during the process, walk away for five minutes, then return to resume the kneading.
9.       Place in back in rising pan, cover with plastic wrap (like Saran Wrap) for first rise.  Allow to double in size – 30 to 40 minutes should be enough but judge by the size of the rise.
10.   Prepare your bread pan with a very light oil and powder lightly with corn meal.  Spraying the pan with a cooking oil like Pam works well.  Set aside on your cooling rack.
11.   Remove from dough onto a re-floured cutting board and deflate.  Fold it over three or four times until there is strong cohesiveness to the dough.  Allow to rise a second time, until it is 2-3 times its original size.  This second rise should be about 60 to 75 minutes.
12.   Heat oven to 450o (232o C) at least 30 minutes before planning to bake (especially if you have a baking stone, which is recommended).
13.   Remove and cut dough into two pieces upon completion of the second rise.  Each should be folded lengthwise 3 times, sealed with your finger tips, and rolled out into 2” diameter loaves.  Place into bread pans. 
14.   Give bread a final rise of one hour.  Before placing into the oven, slash the top with a single-edge razor blade (a utility knife with a fresh blade is another option).

 

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. 

 

5.     Kneading   

 

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:

YouTube Video  

A good French loaf will emerge if you follow these steps:

·          Allow the dough to rest after mixing for about 5 minutes.  It ensures that the flour absorbs all of the liquid.  Your dough should be tacky after the initial mixing and stick to un-oiled or non-floured fingers.  Don’t worry: it will be less tacky after the first couple of tosses on the kneading board.
 

·         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.

 

6.  Troubleshooting

 

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.

6.       Lack of a semi-circular bread pan for support.  A well-formed loaf won’t flatten appreciably but the French bread pans do provide additional support and round the bottom nicely too. 
 

Inside of loaf is dry, mealy

There are several likely causes:
* yeast or bread flour that is too old.  Either — or both — will result in little rise and a dense, hard to bake mixture.
* the  next most-likely cause is using too little water (though inadequate mixing will do the same thing).  Your dough should be tacky enough to stick to the bowl and your fingers when initially mixed.  After the first kneading (on a floured board), you’ll get an outer dough that can be handled easily – as shown in the Epicurious video above. 

 

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. 

 
Crust blisters
 
The cause is dough that has not been proofed long enough or the dough has not been worked long enough for glutens to strengthen.  In either case, the dough is “too young” to have been placed in the oven.

 

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.

Oiling the rising pan: In years of using a bread machine, I’d pull the dough out after mixing or first rise, then do the second and third rises in an oiled pan.  It eases the handling of dough but French bakers frown on the concept, believing that the pulling of the dough against the pan helps create character.  Using a stand mixer like a Kitchen Aid eliminates a second pan and I’ve found that sticking isn’t too bad, though you’ll want a silicone spatula to help get the dough out onto a cutting board.
 
A more finished look: for a shiny sheen to the surface of your loaf or buns, try a whipped egg white.  During the final rise, separate an egg, then mix the egg white with 1 Tbsp cold water.  Whip the egg white and water together, then just before inserting your dough into the oven, brush the surface with the egg white.
 
 

8.         References

 

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.

 
Last updated: 11/30/2010