French bread: four ingredients, all you, knead

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.

If you’re a bread making expert, feel free to comment and give all of us your tips! A few tips to begin…

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.

Traditional French bread, yields two 12 oz baguettes or one large freeform shape

Ingredients

  • 11 oz lukewarm water, separated
  • 1 tsp active dry yeast
  • 3 1/3 cups bread flour
  • 2 tsp salt
  • oil for coating proof bowl

Method

Stir yeast into about half of the warm water and let proof until foamy, about 5-10 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt. Add the yeast water mixture, and enough of the remaining water to produce a sticky, but not soupy, dough.

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.

Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic or a towel, and let rise until about doubled in size, in a warm, moist place if possible (see above).

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.

Top can be brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt if desired. Let cool slightly before cutting… if you can πŸ˜‰

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30 thoughts on “French bread: four ingredients, all you, knead

  1. Oh my arms are sore tonight! Glad to be done with my “deflouring” of bread making Lol! I think I’ll produce some better breads throughout the week! My parents always made such good bread that I never had the balls to try. Chef gave me a tip on my kneading about an hour into production… I don’t know if it was being the pitcher followed by jiu jistu last night that’s killing my lil wings or just class today!?

    • You crack me up! Your bread was great, and your compound butter was awesome!! I’m sorry you have tired little wings… they’ve taken quite the beating it sounds like. And you should probably actually sleep tonight πŸ˜‰

  2. Bread making scares me a bit more than I’m willing to admit, but this looks pretty straightforward. That’s going to make it that much more frustrating when I find a way to screw it up. I may try this soon.

    • I’ve screwed it up plenty of times. You’ll probably surprise yourself though πŸ™‚ Let me know if you do try it. Or better yet, you can post it with pics on mightstainyourshirt and then I can see it!

  3. So usually when I am kneading dough I add more flour if the dough is sticky. Should I not do that? Will it get less sticky as I knead without the addition of flour? The only kneaded bread I make regularly is challah but I think I should try baguettes! You make it sound so easy. πŸ™‚

    • Your challah looks absolutely perfect… so I sure would have a hard time telling you to do anything differently! ;D It should actually be more tender the less flour you can get away with. I used to add more flour too, just to make the dough less sticky and easier to knead. But it has been true so far that more kneading of a stickier dough (it will get smooth eventually- I’m starting to develop some decent guns, lol) has given me a lighter bread with better texture. I’m sure this is only true to a certain point though. I love baguettes, but challah is hard to beat in my book! Yours is on my list of things I want to make soon πŸ™‚

      • Thanks for the tip! I never have really thought about trying to add as little flOur as possible. I will think about that next time and let you know if it turns out differently. Challah has other things going for it, though, like eggs & sweetener–hard to go wrong!

      • Death by baguette! Looking forward to tomorrow’s attempt, I dig pain Lol! Listening is a slowly aquired skill… “Don’t add all of your water at once.”

        • Lol! Your bread was great today with some nice bubbles. Might just have to get a pic of you resting on the floor- hands encrusted in dough- to put on the Facebook page. No pain no gain πŸ˜‰

      • Ok, so tonight I left my pizza dough much stickier than usual, but after a rise it was no problem to roll out with just a tiny bit more flour and it’s baked texture was very light (full of holes around the edges) despite using half whole wheat flour. Thank you for the insight!

        • YAY!!! I’m so glad you tried it and could tell the difference. Your pizza sounds delicious… you had me at feta πŸ™‚ Haven’t found a crust recipe I really like, so i may give this one a try next time i’m in the pizza market. I love a really thin crust… I’m wondering if it is me not being able to get the dough thin rather than the recipes themselves. If you have any tips, let me know!

  4. Is there any particular flour you recommend for French bread? I usually us King Arthur, but would be interested to know what you are all using in class. And thanks for the tip about the moistness during rising–my oven is the perfect temp when “off” for dough to rise, but now I’ll add some steam. Thanks!

    • Hi tks πŸ™‚ Thanks for always reading- you’re awesome! In class we use Columbine bread flour (a local Colorado flour) and at home I use Blue Bird, also a local flour from Cortez, CO. It’s nice to go local when I can, but I have used many pounds of King Arthur flour, and it seems to work really well. Yay, I’m glad you’ll try the steam- think you’ll like it! Do you have any bread tips of your own?? … definitely have a lot to learn on this end πŸ™‚

      • I like to put just a little bit of honey in with the yeast and water to give it some “food”, and one of my favorite breads is to roll it out, cover it in Italian cheeses, prosciutto and basil, roll it up and bake in small tins like oversized rolls. Great fresh, but also delicious sliced the next day and grilled, served with eggs! Love making bread, but can’t have too much of it around, unless I want to turn into a big lard-butt…

  5. At tks, that sounds lovely- a meal in itself! Do you slice it like a cinnamon roll before baking or bake as a loaf? Definitely understand the not keeping too much around… my neighbors must love (or secretly hate) me for the frequent sharing πŸ˜‰

  6. Pingback: Take That, Bainbridge Scholars! | mightstainyourshirt.com

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