There is something innately scary to many people when it comes to making bread- yeast and kneading and proofing. And I completely understand that sentiment. I even grew up with homemade bread around almost constantly, and I still remember feeling helpless the first time I tried it on my own. And maybe the second.
Even now, sometimes it turns out better than others, but I am starting to understand why that’s the case. And I always love the why.
Each week in class, two of us are assigned ‘bread baker’ duties: we arrive early and begin making baguettes. Four baguettes every day until Chef is satisfied they’re acceptable and reproducible. Then, and only then, do we get to delve into other yeast-laden creations.
In part motivated by a classmate that literally produced the perfect baguette today- thick brown crust, inside crumb full of moist, bubbly holes- and also playing with fun shapes on my own time this past weekend… I decided to share our everyday recipe for traditional French bread.
It’s basic, but very, very good. And it only uses three ingredients. Four if you count oil. And five if you count water, but who does that? Give it a shot.
Yeast become active around 100-115F but die around 120F. This usually translates roughly into water that feels warm to the touch, but not burning.
Use as little flour/as much moisture as your dough can stand and still be workable. Chef says “the wetter the better” and this is true. An initial wet, sticky dough will absorb moisture as it is kneaded and produce a tender end product. Usually a hard or tough bread is a sign of too much flour.
If you can rig a moist environment for your bread to rise, it will thank you for it. If your microwave is large enough, it works well to boil water in the microwave, remove the water, and immediately put your bread in to rise. A little residual warmth will remain as well as lots of steam creating your own proof box.
Create steam in your oven as well by placing a small sheet pan or loaf pan on the bottom rack of the oven before preheating. Once the oven has heated and your bread is in, immediately, and carefully, pour a small amount of hot water into the pan on the bottom rack. Close the door and let the steam begin to work its magic.
If you have a sourdough bread starter, a scoop can be added to the flour mixture as you begin to add the water. This will give an extra richness to the flavor. If there is interest, I can surely post a simple recipe for getting a starter… well, started. It will still be a lovely bread without.
- 11 oz lukewarm water, separated
- 1 tsp active dry yeast
- 3 1/3 cups bread flour
- 2 tsp salt
- oil for coating proof bowl
Stir yeast into about half of the warm water and let proof until foamy, about 5-10 minutes.
Turn the dough onto a work surface and knead about ten minutes. Dough should begin to absorb moisture, develop gluten, and become smooth with some elasticity. It should still feel soft. Dry or tough dough is a sign of too much flour. It may take longer, and you might become weary of kneading… but the smell of fresh bread is well within your reach.
Once doubled, fold and turn the dough to deflate it and redistribute the yeast. If time allows, let rise to double once more, and repeat the deflating.
Shape dough as desired. It will make two long baguettes or one large oval. It’s important to score the dough (cutting the surface) to control the escape of steam as it cooks. Without scoring, the dough will most likely ‘explode’ from one point or several as it bakes. In the oval pictured, I used clean kitchen shears to snip multiple ‘v’ shapes over the surface yielding a porcupine-esque loaf. Baguettes are traditionally scored with parallel diagonal shallow knife cuts.
Place shaped dough onto a parchment, silicone mat, cornmeal, or oil-lined sheet pan and let rest at room temperature for a few minutes. It may not double in size this time, but a light finger poke into the dough should almost disappear.
Place bread in a 450F (400F convection) oven and immediately add water to your extra pan (see above) and close the door. Baguettes will bake about 20 minutes or until a golden brown crust develops and the center sounds hollow. An instant-read thermometer should read 190F in the center. When baking a larger loaf it will likely take a bit longer. If crust becomes brown before the center is cooked, cover lightly with foil.