Hey Everyone! Today's post is a Ghost Guest guest post from Dan, AKA the BF! While normally he's my resident co-taste tester, today he's sharing his recipe for homemade French bread. Dan has become a master bread maker and luckily for you, is sharing his secrets and techniques!
Read on for a complete how-to with step-by-step photos and a full recipe at the bottom!
It’s the BF here, coming at you with a recipe for French bread. My apologies for the length of the post but with bread making, for those that are not familiar, there are a few things that need to be explained.
Before I can even begin, I must start by paying homage to Jeffrey Hamelman. He is the Bakery Director at the King Arthur Flour Company, and a highly decorated baker. His Book “Bread, A Bakers Book of Techniques and Recipes” has been invaluable to me and countless other bakers I’m sure. Many of the techniques described below I learned though reading his book, and both Hamelman and King Arthur Flour have several how-to videos on YouTube that I’d highly recommend watching.
|The Bread Bible|
Also before I start with the how-to, there are two things I must explain. One is ingredient quality and the second is an explanation of the baker's percentage.
Ingredient Quality: The flavor and quality of the bread is a direct correlation with the quality of ingredients used (shocking!). It doesn’t matter how skilled of a baker you are, inferior ingredients equal inferior bread. So go out and get yourself the best flour you can get your hands on with the fewest number of ingredients.
For this recipe, and bread baking in general, I encourage you to buy flour that has the highest protein content, which will give the bread the best rise. These flours are typically labeled “bread flour.” You can certainly use all purpose flour for this recipe, which usually has a medium protein content, but if you can get your hands on bread flour, trust me it’s worth it. If you want my suggestion, please do us all a favor and do not buy bleached flour or flour that has potassium bromate in it, potassium bromate (or flour labeled as bromated) is a “dough improver” that will give you a higher rising loaf, but it has been linked to cancer in laboratory animals, and its use is outlawed in Europe. The FDA has not outlawed it, but has encouraged bakers to simply stop using it. Enriched flour is an interesting story and one that requires more reading for those that are interested. (Have you ever heard of a disease called Pallegra? If not, it’s thanks in part to enriched flour).
Baker's Percentage: One of the most seemingly daunting pieces of information I came across when I started to bake bread was all the percentages and weights involved when reading true artisan bread books. Why couldn’t I just add 3-4 cups of flour, a package of yeast from the grocery store, a few cups of water and salt, and just go from there!? Well the answer is consistency and quality. I noticed each time I filled a measuring cup with flour, it had a different weight, each and every time. Sometimes the flour was packed in tighter than the previous scoop, and to the naked eye it appeared to be the same amount but the weights were drastically different. I realized if I didn’t take the time to ensure consistent amounts of ingredients each and every time I baked bread, the quality of the finished product would be highly inconsistent. The baker's percentage is the solution to this problem, so I made several cups of coffee, sat down, and resolved to figure out how to bake using a baker's percentage. You start with the weight of the flour you want to use and add ingredients in percentages, based on the weight of the flour. With this recipe, I used 18 ounces of flour and the recipe calls for 66% water, by weight, of the flour. This means this bread is a 66% hydration bread. So, if I used 18 ounces of flour I’ll need 11.88 ounces of water.
Here is the recipe I use:
Flour 100% by weight 18oz
Water 66% by weight 11.88oz
Salt 2% by weight .36oz
Yeast 2% by weight .36oz
It still boggles my mind how amazing bread can taste when you only have four ingredients. The best part about the baker's percentage is that it makes it easy to scale a recipe up or down depending on how many loaves you want to make. This recipe is for French bread and this amount of ingredients makes one large miche, or large round loaf, but I’ve also used the same sized recipe to make one large baguette or two smaller baguettes. If you want to make several baguettes simply add more flour and scale the rest of the ingredients up appropriately based on the percentages of the flour used, and the bread will taste exactly the same.
Equipment you will need:
- Large mixing bowl
- Wooden spoon
- Dish towel
- Cast iron skillet that you don’t mind getting rusty
- Baking/pizza stone
- Kitchen scale
- Parchment paper
- Stand mixer (optional)
Step 1: Prepare the poolish
The first step in making this bread is to make something called a poolish the night before. A poolish is a mixture of equal weights flour and water, (also referred to as 100% hydration) along with a very small amount of dry instant or dry active bread yeast. A poolish is classified as a pre-ferment, meaning the yeast is allowed to get started early so it can efficiently rise your bread the next day. I’ve discovered without a pre-ferment such as a poolish, (or the Italian version called a biga) you won’t get the same amount of light, airy, delicious bread that you would if you used a poolish. In terms of water quality, I like to use filtered water, but any water that is palatable for you to drink is fine for bread making, even if it’s straight from the faucet.
So the next question is how it’s made. Take your mixing bowl and using the bakers percentage you take roughly 1/3rd of the flour you intend to use for the entire recipe, and that is the amount of flour you’ll use for the poolish. You hydrate it to 100% and add 1/2 a teaspoon of yeast. There is no need to dissolve the yeast in a small amount of warm water, when the yeast is added to the poolish it will mix in very effectively. Using this recipe for 18 total ounces of flour 1/3rd of that is 6oz, so combine 6oz of flour, 6oz of water, and 1/2 of a teaspoon of yeast and mix well with a wooden spoon. Write these numbers down if you have to, because when it’s time to combine the rest of the ingredients the next morning you’ll need to remember how much flour and water are in the poolish. After mixing, it will look like a soupy mess and that's good! Cover with a dish towel and let it sit for 12-16 hours at room temperature. You’ll be amazed at what happens the next morning.
|Poolish the Night Before|
The next morning you’ll notice a difference in the poolish from the night before. It should have small bubbles throughout, and it should have a pleasant aroma.
|Poolish the Next Morning|
|Poolish The Next Morning|
Step 2: Combine the remaining ingredients with the poolish
Recall that we used 6oz of flour the night before in the poolish, so now we only need 12 oz of flour to get to the total of 18. (I like to add a little whole wheat flour to add more flavor, but you certainly do not have to do this). For this recipe I use 6oz of white flour for the poolish, 6oz of white flour the next morning, and 6oz of whole wheat flour, (meaning this bread is 33% whole wheat.) Combine your 12oz of flour with 5.88oz of water (6oz already in the poolish, and 5.88oz now, for a total of 11.88oz), 2% salt (.36oz) and the rest of the yeast, (recall 1/2 a teaspoon of yeast is already in the poolish, to get to .36oz total its usually another 1 teaspoon or 3/4 of a teaspoon.) Mix the poolish and all of these ingredients well with a wooden spoon, or a standing mixer with a dough hook.
|Flour, Salt, Yeast|
Step 3: Kneading
A word on kneading, you’ll notice I didn’t include a stand mixer in “things you’ll need”. When I first started baking bread I didn’t have a stand mixer. I learned to knead by hand and it was invaluable. When you knead, you’re taking the gluten strands, which are randomly clustered to start, and elongating them into strands. Their purpose is to act as a net so to speak and trap carbon dioxide gas (which is expelled when the dough is rising, thanks to the yeast). This is what creates the airy holes inside the bread and makes for a light crumb. Kneading by hand is an great experience because you learn how the dough transforms from mixing, to when it’s ready to rise. It will start as a sloppy, sticky mess, unable to hold its shape if you form it into a ball, to a much softer mass that will hold its shape. You can literally feel the dough changing as you knead. It’s hard to describe how to tell when the dough is sufficiently kneaded and ready to rise. It’s about feeling the dough and connecting with it, understanding when it feels a certain way it’s ready to rise. Again, the dough should feel soft. A good test is to form it into a ball and using your finger, gently press into the dough. If the dough bounces back from your finger impression it’s ready to rise. If the dough doesn’t recover from your finger impression, or can’t hold its shape in a ball, keep kneading. Don’t worry you’ll be very very tired if you’re kneading by hand long before you over-knead. Using a mixer however, it is very easy to over-knead. Hamelman recommends mixing on the first speed of your mixer for three minutes to incorporate all of the ingredients, and then an additional three to three and a half minutes on the second speed to complete the kneading. I always do less than that and finish kneading by hand, to avoid over-kneading. This way I can also feel when the dough is ready. Form the dough into a ball, place in a large greased bowl (I use olive oil), and cover the bowl with a dish towel. Allow the dough to rise for one to one and a half hours at room temperature.
|Ingredients Mixed Together on Dough Hook|
|Ready to Rise!|
Step 4: Fold the dough
After its done with its first rise, it’s time to fold the dough. Thanks again to Hamelman, in his book we learn folding the dough accomplishes a number of things. First, it degases the dough (think Julia Child pounding the dough down). Remember there is carbon dioxide gas in the dough being expelled by the yeast, and if you leave it all in there it can impair the rise and flavor of the dough. We do want some carbon dioxide gas to stay in because that's why the dough rises and has holes in the crumb.
Second, it increases dough strength. If you maybe under-kneaded the dough or aren’t sure if you under-kneaded, this process allows the gluten strands to be stretched again, and act as an even better net to trap carbon dioxide gases as the loaf rises. Have you seen recipes online for the famous "no knead bread"? Well, the secret and the way you can get away with zero kneading is folding.
Third, folding the dough equalizes the temperature of the dough. Depending on the air temperature there can either be cold or hot spots on the top of the dough, and what we’re looking for is a consistent temperature throughout.
Take the dough out of the bowl and place on a floured surface. Gently press down on the dough to degas it. Take about 1/4 of the dough and gently stretch to create some tension, and fold it onto the other side. Now repeat that process for the 3/4 of the dough remaining until you’ve stretched every side of the dough. Again form it into a ball and place it back into the bowl and cover it.
|Risen Dough, Ready For a Fold|
|Stretch to Create Tension and Fold|
After the dough has been folded, it will continue to rise. Allow it to rise again for another one to one and a half hours at room temperature.
Step 5: Shaping the dough
After it has risen a second time, it’s time to shape the dough. This is the most difficult process by far and one that takes practice. I would highly recommend watching Hamelman’s YouTube videos (see below) for how to shape a baguette and boule which is a round loaf. This miche that I made is similar to a boule, just bigger. When shaping, you want to create tension and a nice tight loaf so that it will rise again one last time.
After the dough has been shaped place it into a floured banneton, which is a basket that will tightly hold the shape of the dough but allow it to rise. I don’t have one (it’s on my holiday wish list) so I use a small mixing bowl lightly dusted with flour to prevent sticking, to hold the shape of the dough. If I’m making a baguette I place it on the parchment paper I bake it on (without flour because the dough will not stick to parchment paper), and to hold the tension on it, I place it in between two pieces of kitchen ware, or anything that will provide resistance so the dough will hold its shape, but rise. I allow the miche to rise for two hours. A baguette generally takes 45 minutes to one hour to fully rise.
|Dough Shaped, Ready For a Final Rise|
|Ready For a Final Rise|
Step 6: Baking
After the dough has risen again for two hours, it’s finally time to preheat the oven. The key to making delicious bread is the ability to get steam in the oven. The steam is what gives the bread a beautiful, delicious crust. Without steam it will be very difficult to make nice crusty bread. The method I use is to fill a cast iron skillet with water and place it on the bottom of the oven. I put the bread on parchment paper which ensures it will not stick, then place the parchment paper on the baking stone and let the aroma of fresh baked bread envelop the home. I tried several other methods, including a dutch oven, but at the suggestion of a family friend and master baker (to protect his identity we’ll call him Tommy), I used this method and have been ecstatic over the results. Professional bakeries have a steam injection system which allows them to inject steam into the oven as necessary to create the crust, and while that would be amazing to have, I’m working with a regular oven that most people would have in their homes.
I usually take the baking stone out of the oven before I pre heat it and cut the parchment paper to size, to ensure I don’t cut a piece of parchment paper too big. Preheat the oven to 500F, place a cast iron skillet filled with water on the bottom rack of the oven, and put the baking stone (without the parchment paper) in the oven to heat.
|Cast Iron Skillet With Water, and the Baking Stone|
After the oven is almost to temperature, take the loaf out of the banneton, and place it on the parchment paper. There is no need to grease the parchment paper, the loaf will not stick to it.
|Dough, Ready to be Baked|
I like to add sesame seeds and kosher salt to the top (you could add any types of seeds you like). This is just a technique and personal preference that I learned from our master baker family friend (again to protect his identity we’ll call him Tommy.) To do this, brush the loaf gently with water, but don’t go crazy. Next score the dough however you like with the sharpest knife you have (professional bakers use razor blades.) Scoring the dough allows the gases to escape during baking in a controlled manner. Next, sprinkle the toppings on, which will stick to the water on the dough.
|Dough Scored, Topped, and Ready For the Oven|
When the oven has pre-heated, take the baking stone out (be careful, everything is very hot). Place the parchment paper with the dough on the stone. Reduce the oven temperature to 480F and put the stone with the dough on it, back in the oven. A baguette usually takes 20-25 minutes, and is done when the crust is golden brown and the internal temperature is 210F. For this large miche it takes roughly 25 minutes at 480F, or until the loaf is dark brown, followed another 25-35 minutes at 425F. The miche needs additional time to bake, compared to a baguette, because of its larger size, and also the inside of the dough takes longer to fully cook. This miche has more inside than a baguette and thus needs time to cook at 425F. The loaf is done when the internal temperature is 210F. An invaluable piece of advice from our master baker friend is, “once you think it’s done, leave it in for another three minutes."
|The Finished Product|
Now, for the hardest part, the loaf needs two hours to cool before eating! The flavors inside need time to settle down after they’ve been taken out of the oven, and at this point it’s best to leave the house because it’s very hard to leave the loaf there uneaten.
When you’re done congratulate yourself, you’ve just completed a process that has been taking place for centuries. Among other things, it was the cultivation of grains that enabled humans to stay firmly in one location and not have to follow animal migrations for food. Bread has dramatically shaped the course of human history; I’d encourage you to read about the French Revolution, specifically the “Flour War” in 1775 and the “Bread Riots” in 1789, or the “Southern Bread Riots” during the American Civil War in 1863. Take the time to think about the historical importance of bread when you take your first bite!
Homemade French Bread
Adapted from Jeffrey Hamelman's Bread, A Bakers Book of Techniques and Recipes
Flour 100% by weight 18oz (whole wheat flour optional)
Water 66% by weight 11.88oz
Salt 2% by weight .36oz
Yeast 2% by weight .36oz
Sesame Seeds and Kosher Salt for toppings (optional)
Cast iron skillet that you don’t mind getting rusty
Stand mixer (optional)
1. The night before baking prepare the poolish.
2. After 12-16 hours mix the flour, water, salt, yeast and poolish together.
3. Knead the dough, either by hand or using a stand mixer. Form the dough into a ball and place it into a large mixing bowl that has been lightly brushed with olive oil.
4. After one to one and a half hours fold the dough, form it into a ball again, and place it back into the mixing bowl.
5. After another one to one and a half hours shape the dough and place it into a banneton, or for a baguette between folds of parchment paper.
6. After the dough has been allowed to rise again for and additional two hours or 45 minutes for a baguette, place a cast iron skillet filled with water on the bottom rack, with the baking stone on the middle rack of the oven, and pre-heat to 500F
7. When the oven is to temperature remove the dough from the banneton and place it on the parchment paper. Brush the dough with water, score it, and add any toppings you wish.
8. Remove the baking stone, place the parchment paper with the dough on the baking stone, then place the baking stone in the oven. Reduce the temperature of the oven to 480F.
9. For a baguette bake at 480F for 20-25 minutes or until the crust is golden brown and the internal temperature is 210F. For a large miche bake at 480 for 20-25 minutes then reduce the temperature of the oven to 425F and bake for another 25-25 minutes, or until the internal temperature of the dough is 210F.
10. Allow the bread to cool for two hours, and enjoy. Note: sharing is optional! :)