French bakers make plain French bread out of unbleached flour that has a gluten strength of 8 to 9 per cent. Most American all-purpose flour is bleached and has a slightly higher gluten content as well as being slightly finer in the texture. It is easier to make bread with French flour than with American all-purpose flour, and the taste and
texture are naturally more authentic. (The so-called bread flour available in some mail-order houses usually has an even higher gluten content than all-purpose flour, so do not use it for plain French bread.) [I use bread flour and I really like the results I get.] You will undoubtedly wish to experiment with flours if you become a serious bread maker, but because we find that any of the familiar brands of all-purpose flour works very well, we shal not complicate the recipe by suggesting an obscure or special brand. If you do experiment, however, simply substitute you other flour for the amount called for in the recipe; you may need a little bit more water or a little bit less, but the other ingredients and the method will not change.
Bakers’ ovens versus home ovens
Bakers’ ovens are contructed that one slides the formed bread dough from a wooden paddle [I used a stainless steel baking sheet] right onto the hot, fire-brick oven floor, and a steam-injection system humidifies the oven for the first few minutes of baking. Steam allows the yeast to work a little longer in the dough and this, combined with a hot baking surface, produces an extra push of volume. In addition, steam coagulating the starch on the surface of the dough gives the crust its characteristic brown color. Although you can produce a good loaf of French bread without steam or a hot baking surface, you will get a larger and handsomer loaf when you simulate professional conditions. We give both systems – the Master Recipe, which requires no special equipment, and the simulated bakers’ oven system…
Sour dough is an American invention, not French, and you will not find anything like American sour dough in France. But you can adapt your sour dough recipe to the method described here for plain French bread. We think you will find that our recipe will give you an excellent result.
Equipment needed for making French bread
Unless you plan to go into the more elaborate simulation of a bakers’ oven, you need no unusual equipment for the following recipe. Here are the requirements, some of which may sound odd but will explain themselves when you read the recipe.
A 4- to 5-quart mixing bowl with fairly vertical rather than outward slanting sides
A kneading surface of some sort, 1 1/2 to 2 square feet
A rubber spatula and wither a metal scraper or a stiff wide metal spatula
1 or 2 unwrinkled canvas pastry cloths or stiff linen towels upon which the dough may rise [I use a large cotton kitchen towel if I am making batards but for other shapes I don’t use a cloth at all but instead just form the dough directly on the baking sheet that is liberally dusted with corn meal]
A stiff piece of cardboard or plywood 18 to 20 inches long and 6 to 8 inches wide, for unmolding dough from canvas to baking sheet [I use a stainless steel baking sheet]
Finely ground cornmeal, or pasta pulverized in an electric blender, to sprinkle on unmolding board so as to prevent dough from sticking
The largest baking sheet that will fit into your oven
A razor blade for slashing the top of the dough
A soft pastry brush or fine-spray atomizer for moistening dough before and during baking
A room thermometer to verify rising temperature [I don’t go to this trouble but slower rises at cooler temperatures have produced better results for me]
Plain French Bread
Count on a minimum of 6 1/2 to 7 hours from the time you start the dough to the time it is read for the oven, and half an hour for baking. While you cannot take less time, you may take as much more time as you wish by the delayed-action techniques at the end of the recipe.
For 1 pound of flour, making 3 cups of dough, producing:
1) The dough mixture – le fraisage (or frasage)
Stir the yeast in the warm water and let liquefy completely while measuring flour into mixing bowl. When yeast has liquefied, pour it into the flour along with the salt and the rest of the water. [I only use half the flour and then I add additional flour until the consistency is correct.]
Note: We do not find the food processor satisfactory here, since the dough is so soft the machine clogs; however, you can use a heavy-duty mixer with dough hook, and finish it up by hand.
Stir and cut the liquids into the flour with a rubber spatula [I use a big spoon], pressing firmly to form a dough, and making sure that all bits of flour and unmassed pieces are gathered in. Turn dough out onto kneading surface, scraping bowl clean. Dough will be soft and sticky. Let it rest for 2 to 3 minutes while you wash and dry the bowl.
2) Kneading – petrissage
The flour will have absorbed the liquid during this short rest, and the dough will have a little more cohesion for the kneading that is about to begin. Use one hand only for kneading and keep the other clean to hold a pastry scraper, to dip out extra flour, to answer the telephone, and sor forth. Your object in kneading is to render the dough perfectly smooth and to work it sufficiently so that all the gluten molecules are moistened and joined together into an interlocking web. You cannot see this happen, of course, but you can feel it because the dough will become elastic and will retract into shape when you push it out.
Start kneading by lifting the near edge of the dough, using a pastry scraper or stiff wide spatula to help you if necessary [I just use my hands], and flipping dough over onto itself.
Scrape the dough off the surface and slap it down; lift edge and flip it over again, repeating the movement rapidly.
In 2 to 3 minutes, the dough should have enough body so that you can give it a quick forward push with the heel of your hand as you flip it over. Continue to knead rapidly and vigorously in this way. If it remains too sticky, knead in a sprinkling of flour. (Whole kneading process will take 5 to 10 minutes, depending on how vigorous and expert you become.)
Shortly after this point, the dough should have developed enough elasticity so that it draws back into shape when pushed, indicating that the gluten molecules have united and are under tension like a thin web of rubber; the dough should also begin to clean itself off the kenading surface, although it will stick to your fingers if you hold a pinch for more than a second or two. Let it rest for 3 to 4 minutes. Knead again for a minute; the surface should now look smooth; the dough will be less sticky but it will still remain soft.
It is now ready for its first rise.
3) First rising – pointage premier temps (3 to 5 hours at around 70 degrees F)
You now have approximately 3 cups of dough that is to rise 3 1/2 times in original volume, or to about 10 1/2 cups. Fill the mixing bowl with 10 1/2 cups of tepid water and make a mark to indicate that level on the outside of the bowl (note that the bowl should have fairly upright sides; it they are too outward slanting, the dough will have difficulty rising.) Pour out the water, dry the bowl, and place the dough in it; slip bowl intal a large plastic bag or cover with plastic, and top with a folded bath towel. Set on a wooden surface (marble or stone are too cold) or on a folded towel or pillow, and let it rise free from drafts anyplace where the
temperature is around 70 degrees F; if the room is too hot, set bowl in water and keep renewing water to maintain it at around 70 degrees F. Dough should take at least 3 hours to rise to 10 1/2 cups; if the
temperature is lower; it will simply take longer.
(*) Delayed action: See chart at end of recipe.
When fully risen, the dough will be humped into a slight dome, showing that the yeast is still active; it will be light and spongy when pressed. There will usually be some big bubbly blisters on the surface, and if you are using a glass bowl, you will see bubbles through the glass.
4) Deflating and second rising – rupture; pointage deuxieme temps (1 1/2 to 2 hours at around 70 degrees F)
The dough is now ready to be deflated, which will release the yeast-engendered gases and redistribute the yeast cells so that the dough will rise again and continue the fermentation process.
With a rubber spatual [I just use my hands] dislodge dough from inside of bowl and turn out onto a lightly floured surface [I leave it in the bowl], scraping the bowl clean. If dough seems damp and sweaty, sprinkle with a tablespoon of flour. Lightly flour the palms of your hands and flatten the dough firmly but not too roughly into a circle, deflating any gas bubbles by pinching them.
Lift a corner of the near side and flip it down onto the far side. Do the same with the left side, then the right side. Finally lift the near side and tuck it just under the edge of the far side. The mass of dough will look like a rounded cushion. [I just give a few gentle kneads in the bowl.]
Slip the sides of your hands under the dough and return it to the bowl. Cover and let rise again, this time to not quite triple, but again until it is dome-shaped and light and spongy when touched.
(*) Delayed action: See chart at end of recipe.
5) Cutting and resting dough before forming loaves
Loosen dough all around inside of bowl and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Because of its two long rises, the dough will have much more body. If is seems damp and sweaty, sprinkle lightly with flour.
Making clean, sure cuts with large knife or a scraper, divide dough into 3 equal pieces, for long loaves, or whatever is specified for other shapes and sizes.
After you have cut each piece, lift one end and flip over onto the opposite end to fold the dough in two; place dough at far side of kneading surface. Cover loosely with a sheet of plastic and let rest for 5 minutes before forming. This relaxes the gluten enough for shaping, but not long enough for the dough to begin rising again.
While the dough is resting, prepare the rising surface smooth the canvas or linen toweling on a large tray or baking sheet, and rub flour throughly into the entire surface of the cloth to prevent the dough from sticking.
6) Forming loaves – la tourne; la mise en forme des patons
Because French bread stands free in the oven and is not baked in a pan, it has to be formed in such a way that the tension of the coagulated gluten cloak on the surface will hold the dough in shape. Following are illustrated [well, in the book, anyway] directions for the familiar long loaf – the batards (baked size is 16 by 3 inches); other shapes are described and illustrated at the end of the recipe. Baguettes are much too long for home ovens.
After the 3 pieces of dough have rested 5 minutes, form one piece at a time, keeping the remaining ones covered.
Working rapidly, turn the dough upside down on a lightly floured kneading surface and pat it firmly but not too roughly into an 8- to 10-inch oval with the lightly floured palms of your hands. Deflate any gas bubbles in the dough by pinching them.
Fold the dough in half lengthwise by bringing the far edge down over the near edge.
Being sure that the working surface is always very lightly floured so the dough will not stick and tear, which would break the lightly coagulated gluten cloak that is being formed, seal the edges of the dough together, your hands extended, thumbs out at right angles and touching.
Roll the dough a quarter turn forward so the seal is on top.
Flatten the dough again into an oval with the palms of your hands.
Press a trench along the central length of the oval with the side of one hand.
Fold in half again lengthwise.
This time seal the edges together with the heel of one hand, and roll the dough a quarter turn toward you so the seal is on the bottom.
Now, by rolling the dough back and forth with the palms of your hands, you will lengthen it into a sausage shape. Start in the middle, placing your right palm on the dough, and your left palm on top of your right hand.
Roll dough forward and backward rapidly, gradually sliding your hands toward the two ends as the dough lengthens.
Deflate any gas blisters on the surface by pinching them. Repeat the rolling movement rapidly several times until the dough is 16 inches long, or whatever length will fit on your baking sheet. During the extension rolls, keep circumference of dough as even as possible and try to start each roll with sealed side of dough down, twisting the rope of dough to straighten the line of seal as necessary. If seal disappears, as it sometimes does with all-purpose flour, do not worry.
Place the shaped piece of dough, sealed side up, at one side of the flour-rubbed canvas, leaving a free end of canvas 3 to 4 inches wide. (The top will crust slightly as the dough rises; it is turned over for baking so the soft, smooth underside will be uppermost.)
Pinch a ridge 2 1/2 to 3 inches high in the canvas to make a trough, and a place for the next piece, Cover dough with plastic while you are forming the rest of the loaves.
After all the pieces of dough are in place, brace the two sides of the canvas with long rolling pins, baking pans, or books, if the dough seems very soft and wants to spread out. Cover the dough loosely with a flour-rubbed dish towel or canvas, and a sheet of plastic. Proceed immediately to the final rising, next step.
7) Final rise – l’appret – 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours at around 70 degrees
The covered dough is now to rise to almost triple in volume; look carefully at its pre-risen size so that you will be able to judge correctly. It will be light and swollen when risen, but will feel still a little springy when pressed.
It is important that the final rise take place where it is dry; if your kitchen is damp, hot, and steamy, let the bread rise in another room or dough will stick to canvas and you will have difficulty getting it off and onto the baking sheet. It will turn into bread in the oven whatever happens, but you will have an easier time and a better loaf if you aim for ideal conditions.
(*) Delayed action: See chart at end of recipe.
8) Preheat oven to 450 degrees dough onto baking sheet – le demoulage
The 3 pieces of risen dough are now to be unmolded from the canvas and arranged upside down on the baking sheet. The reason for this reversal is that the present top of the dough has crusted over during its rise; the smooth, soft underside should be uppermost in the oven so that the dough can expand and allow the loaf its final puff of volume. For the unmolding you will need a non-sticking intermediate surface such as a stiff piece of cardboard or plywood [I use a stainless steel baking sheet] sprinkled with cornmeal or
Remove rolling pins or braces. Place the long side of the board at one side of the dough; Pull the edge of the canvas to flatten it; then raise and flip the dough softly upside down onto the board.
Dough is now lying along one edge of the unmolding board; rest this edge on the right side of a lightly buttered baking sheet. Gently dislodge dough onto baking sheet, keeping same side of dough uppermost; this is the soft smooth side, which was underneath while dough rose on canvas. If necessary, run sides of hands lightly down the length of the dough to straighten it. Unmold the next piece of dough the same way, placing it to the left of the first, leaving a 3-inch space. Unmold the final piece near the left side of the
9) Slashing top of the dough – la coupe
The top of each piece of dough is now to be slashed in several places. This opens the covering cloak of gluten and allows a bulge of dough underneath to swell up through the cuts during the first 10 minutes of baking, making decorative patterns in the crust. These are done with a blade that cuts almost horizontally into the dough to a depth of less than half an inch. Start the cut at the middle of the blade, drawing it toward you in a swift, clean sweep. This is not quite as easy as it sounds, and you will probably make ragged cuts at first; never mind, you will improve with practice. Use an ordinary razor blade and slide one side of it into a cork for safety; or by a barber’s straight razor at a cutlery store.
For a 16- to 18-inch loaf make 3 slashes. Note that those at the 2 ends go straight down the loaf but are slightly off center, while the middle slash is at a slight angle between the two. Make the first cut at the far end, then the middle cut, and finally the third. Remember that the blade should lie almost parallel to the surface of the dough.
10) Baking – about 24 minutes; oven preheated to 450 degrees F
As soon as the dough has been slashed, moisten the surface either by painting with soft brush dipped in cold water, or with a fine-spray atomizer, and slide baking sheet onto rack in upper third of preheated oven. Rapidly paint or spray dough with cold water after 3 minutes, again in 3 minutes, and a final time 3 minutes later. Moistening the dough at this point helps the crust to brown and allows the yeast action to continue in the dough a little longer. The bread should be done in about 25 minutes; the crust will be crisp, and the bread will make a hollow sound when thumped.
If you want the crust to shine, paint lightly with a brush dipped in cold water as soon as you slide baking sheet out of oven.
11) Cooling – 2 to 3 hours
Cool the bread on a rack or set it upright in a basket or large bowl so that air can circulate around each piece. Although bread is always exciting to eat fresh from the oven, it will have a much better taste when the inside is thoroughly cool and has composed itself. [Jack and I can never wait. We let it cool for 2 to 3
12) Storing French bread
Because it contains no fats or preservatives of any kind, French bread is at its best when eaten the day it is baked. It will keep for a day or two longer, wrapped airtight and refrigerated, but it will keep best if you freeze it – let the loaves cool first, then wrap airtight. To thaw, unwrap and place on a baking sheet in a cold
oven; heat the oven to 400 degrees F. In about 20 minutes the crust will be hot and crisp, and the bread thawed. The French, of course, never heat French bread except possibly on Monday, the baker’s holiday, when the bread is a day old.
13) Canvas housekeeping
After each bread session, if you have used canvas, brush it thoroughly to remove all traces of flour and hang it out to dry before putting away. Otherwise the canvas could become moldy and ruin your next batch of dough.
Starting and stopping the dough process
As noted in the Master Recipe, there are numerous points at which you can slow down the action or stop it altogether, by setting the dough in a colder place, or refrigerating or freezing it. Exact timings for any of these delaying procedures are impossible to give because so much depends on what has taken place during the slow-down, how cold the dough is when it starts to rise again, and so forth. All you need to remember is that you are in complete control; you can always push down a partially risen dough; you can slow the action with cold; you can speed it with warmth. You will work out your own systems and the following chart will help you:
To delay the first rising, set dough in a colder place
Approximate Hours of Rise at Degrees F.
To stop action altogether after first or second rise
Deflate, wrap airtight, and freeze. Limit: A week to 10 days, probably mroe for plain French bread dough, and risky after 10 days for doughs with butter and eggs. (We shall not venture farther upon this uncertain limb.)
To delay second rising
a) Set dough in a colder place.
b) Set a plate on top of dough and a 5 pound weight; refrigerate.
To delay or freeze after dough is formed
a) Set dough in a colder place.
b) Form dough on lightly oiled sheet; cover airtight and refrigerate or freeze, but not preceeding time limit.
To start action after thawing
a) Thaw overnight in refrigerator; complete the rise at room temperature.
b) Set at 80 degrees F until thawed; complete the rise at room temperature.
Other Forms for French Bread
Long thin loaves (ficelles, bakes size; 12 to 16 by 1 1/2 inches)
- Cut the original dough, Step 5, into 5 or 6 pieces and form as illustrated in the recipe, but making thinner sausage shapes about 1/2 inch in diameter. When they have risen, slash as illustrated, Step 9.
Oval rolls (petits pains, tire-bouchons)
- Cut the dough into 10 or 12 pieces and form like batards, but you will probably not have to lenghten them at all after the two foldings and sealings. When they have risen, make either 2 parallel
slashes, or a single slash going from one end to the other.
Round loaves (pain de manage, miches, boules)
- When you want bread for big sandwiches or for toast, a big round loaf is attractive. The object here is to force the cloak of coagulated gluten to hold the ball of dough in shape: the first movement will
make a cushion; the second will seal and round the ball, establishing surface tension. To being the process, after the risen dough has been cut and has rested 5 minutes, Step 5, place it on a lightly
Lift the left side of the dough with the side of your left hand and bring it down almost to the other side.
Scoop up that side and push it back almost to the left side. Revolve dough a quarter turn clockwise and repeat the movement eight to ten times. This movement gradually smooths the bottom of the dough and establishes the necessary surface tenstion; think of the surface of the dough as if it were a fine sheet of rubber you were stretching in every direction.
Then turn the dough smooth side up and begin rotating it between the palms of your hands, tucking a bit of the dough under the ball as you rotate it. In a dozen turns you should have a neatly shaped ball
with al little pucker of dough, la cle, underneath where the edges have all joined together.
Place the dough pucker side up on flour-rubbed canvas; seal the pucker by pinching your fingers. Flour lightly, cover loosely, and let rise to almost triple its size. After unmolding upside down on
the baking sheet, slash it as follows:
Large loaves are usually slashed in a cross: make one vertical slash and complete the horizontal cuts as illustrated. Medium loaves may have a cross, a single central slahs, or a semicircular slash around half the circumference.
Round rolls (petits pains, champignons)
- Cut the original dough, Step 5, into 10 to 12 pieces. After they have rested 5 minutes, form them one at a time, leaving the rest of the dough covered. The principles are the same here as for the
preceding round loaves, but make the preliminary cushion shape with your fingers rather than the palms of your hands.
For the second stage, during which the ball of dough is rotated smooth side up, roll it under the palm of one hand, using your thumb and little finger to push the edges of the dough underneath and to
form the pucker, where the edges join together.
Place the formed ball of dough pucker side up on the flour-rubbed canvas and cover loosely while forming the rest. Space the balls 2 inches apart. When risen to almost triple its size, lift gently
with lightly floured fingers and place pucker side down on baking sheet. Rolls are usually too small for a cross; make either one central slash or the semicircular cut.
The simulated baker’s oven
Baking in the ordinary way, as described in the preceding recipe, produces an acceptable loaf of bread, but does not nearly approach the glory you can achieve when you turn your home oven into a bakers’ oven. Merely providing yourself with the proper amount of steam, if you do nothing else, will vastly improve the crust, the color, the slash patterns, and the volume of you bread; steam is only a matter of plopping a heated brick of stone into a pan of water in the bottom of the oven. [This was a disaster for Jack and me. The water in the pan boiled over and onto our floor. It extinguished the oven’s pilot light. We no longer do it this way. We just spray the oven.] The second provision is a hot surface upon which the nake dough can bake; this gives that added push of volume that improves both the appearance and slash patterns. When you have the hot baking surface, you will then also need a paddle or board upon which you can transfer
dough from canvas to hot baking surface. For the complete setup, here is what you should have, and any building-supply store stocks these items.
For the hot baking surface
Metal will not do as a hot baking surface because it burns the bottom of the dough. The most practical and easliy obtainable substance is ordinary red floor tiles 1/4 inch thick. They come in various sizes such as 6 by 6 inches, 6 by 3 inches, and you need only enough to line the surface of an oven rack. Look them up under Tiles in your directory, and ask for “quarry tiles,” their official name. [I use a kiln shelf bought from a pottery supply store.]
For unmolding the risen dough from its canvas
A piece of 3 16-inch plywood about 20 inches long and 8 inches wide. [I use a stainless steel baking sheet.]
For sliding the dough onto the hot asbestos
When you are doing 3 long loaves, you must slide them together onto the hot asbestos; to do so you unmold them one at a time from the canvas with one board and arrange them side by side on the second board, which takes the place of the baker’s wooden paddle, la pelle. Buy a piece of 3/16-inch plywood slightly longer but 2 inches narrower than your oven rack.
To prevent dough from sticking to unmolding and sliding boards
White cornmeal [I use yellow cornmeal] or small pasta pulverized in the electric blender until it is the consistency of table salt. This is called fleurage.
The steam contraption
Something that you can heat to sizzling hot on top of the stove and then slide into a pan of water in the oven ot make a great burst of steam; a brick, a solid 10-pound rock, piece of cast iron or other metal. A 9 x 12-inch roasting pan 2 inches deep to hold an inch of water and the hot brick. [I will never do this again.]
Nonessential professional equipment
Instead of letting the formed dough rise on canvas, sur couche, many French bakers place each piece in a canvas-lined wicker or plastic form called a banneton; from this you turn the risen dough upside down directly onto a board and then slide it into the oven. Various sizes and shapes are available in French bakery supply houses.
These are baker’s blades, lames, for slashing dough; they are about 4 inches long and 1/4 inch wide with very sharp, curved ends.
Using the simulated baker’s oven
At least 30 to 40 minutes before the end of the final rise, Step 7, line the rack of your oven with quarry tiles, slide onto the upper-third level, and preheat oven to 450 degrees F. At the same time set the brick or metal over very high heat on top of the stove so that it will get sizzling hot, the hotter the better.
Provide yourself with 2 stiff spoons or spatulas, or with fire tongs for lifting brick from stove top into pan of water in bottom of oven when the time comes, and test lifting the brick to be sure you have the insturments to do the job.
Note: You may use a spray bottle rather than a brick; it works reasonably well though less dramatically. [Choose this option.]
When the final rise is complete, sprinkle pulverized cornmeal or pasta on the long side of the unmolding board and on the surface of the sliding board. Your object now is to unmold the loaves one at a time from the canvas to the sliding board, then to slide the 3 of them together onto the hot tiles in the oven. Place the long side of board at one side of the dough, then raise and flip the dough softly upside down onto board.
Slip the dough, still upside down, fromthe unmolding board onto the right side of the sliding board. Line up the rest of the dough side by side in the same manner.
Slash the dough as described in Step 9.
Place pan of cold water on the lowest rack of an electric oven or on the floor of a gas oven, add sizzling hot brick, and close oven door.
The 3 pieces of dough are now to be slid together off the sliding board onto the hot tiles in the oven: the movement is one quick, smooth jerk like that old magician’s trick of pulling the cloth from under a tableful of dishes. Open the oven so the far end of the board rests on the far end of the asbestos at the back of the oven. Then with one quick jerk, pull the board toward you and the three loaves will slide off onto the tiles. This must be a fast and confident action because if you pause midway, the dough will rumple off the board and once it touches the hot tiles you cannot move or reshape it, although it will come loose after 5 to 6 minutes of baking. You may muff this every once in a while, and produce some queerly deformed shapes, but they will all bake into bread.
Remove the brick and pan of water after 5 to 8 minutes of baking; the crust will have started to brown lightly. The oven should be dry for the rest of the baking. Total baking time will be about 25 minutes for batards; the bread is done when it makes a hollow thump if tapped, and when the crust is crisp and, hopefully, nicely browned.