Basic French Bread Making For Geeks

Update: Sorry, I accidentally deleted the video on my last update. Fixed now. Thanks Harold for the spelling corrections and pointing out a few unclear bullets in the method.

Someone contacted me and asked how I make bread. So here’s my basic french bread recipe with a video showing the kneading and oven loading techniques. Please read the steps below because I edited the video late last night and the continuity might not be that great.

Errata: In the video there are two errors. 1. You let it rise before each punch down. One of the punch-downs gives the impressions you punch it down, shape it and immediately punch it down again. There’s always a rise before a punch-down. 2. To clarify regarding the bakers peels: I rub all purpose flour onto my peels every few weeks just to fill the wood grain. Every time I bake I spread a thin layer of corn meal onto the area where the bread will sit. When I load the bread, some of the corn meal ends up on the baking tiles which is fine and I just clean it out after baking each time. I never layer anything on my tiles besides the bread itself and I don’t ever have sticking problems.

This uses flour, salt, yeast and water (French law doesn’t allow anything else in a baguette dough). I make this bread about 6 times a week, hand kneading every time because you can’t replace real kneading with a mixer. It takes about 30 minutes of your day once you have the routine down. There’s nothing quite like the smell, texture and taste of fresh french bread.  Much of the enjoyment I’ve derived from bread has been the learning process, so take your time, don’t be afraid of the dough and have fun making a few funny loaves because you’ll soon be making perfect French Batards.

Ingredients for 2 large loaves:

  • 2.5 pounds organic unbleached all purpose flour (I use the Organic – or is it Organics – brand)
  • 5 cups of water
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons of salt to taste
  • 2 teaspoons of yeast. You should probably use 3 if you’re at sealevel. Experiment.

 

Equipment:

  • Scale that can weigh up to 10 pounds
  • Bread thermometer that measures at the very least from 80F to 220F
  • Dough Scraper
  • Double edged razor blade. (from any pharmacy)
  • Two wooden bakers peels that have had flour rubbed into them occasionally and coated with corn flour.
  • Enough baking tiles to fit two loaves into your oven
  • A large cast iron pan to go under the baking tiles and preheat with them
  • A kettle with boiling water for when you load the bread
  • Cooling rack
  • Hungry friends and a bottle of good red wine

Method:

  1. Add the 2.5 pounds of flour and 5 cups of water together in a bowl. I like to use slightly warm water, but cold is OK.
  2. Mix the flour and water until all the flour is wet. I use a wooden spoon and it takes about 3 mins.
  3. Let stand for a minimum of 20 minutes and a max of 3 to 5 hours. This is called an Autolyse and was invented by the late chef Raymond Calvel. It has a profound effect on the quality of bread. It becomes moister, the crust is crunchy but chewy (yeah, believe it or not), the bread lasts longer and you get a better oven bounce. The process relaxes the gluten and lets the flour absorb more water. It also makes kneading easier. Initially the dough is stickier than normal, but it saves you having to knead as long because the gluten develops sooner.
  4. Once the autolyse has finished…
  5. Add 2 tsp yeast and 2 tsp warm water (no hotter than 100F – measure it with your bread thermometer) to a cup. Mix with your thermometer. Let stand for 30 seconds.
  6. Add flour into your autolyse (just guess how much – don’t dry it out) and mix with a wooden spoon until it gets a little firmer than the porridgy consistency you currently have.
  7. Pour the mess onto your counter.
  8. Fold in the yeast and water.
  9. Now you can start kneading (see video for technique). As it gets too wet, add a little more flour to make it more manageable. It’s very important you keep the dough as wet as you can possibly handle.
  10. Now alternate between folding air into it and french banging-the-dough kneading technique. Do this for about 2 minutes until the yeast is well blended into the dough.
  11. Now add salt. I measure about 3 tablespoons for 2.5 pounds of flour using my hand. You might try measuring 3 tablespoons into your hand and then you’l know for future reference.
  12. Pour the salt over the dough and knead the dough to pick up the rest of the salt.
  13. Now the real kneading starts. Knead alternating between folding and banging for 7 minutes. French chefs teach that you have to bang the dough about 600 times. I don’t think I’ve ever reached that much.
  14. Once the dough is kneaded, shape it into a ball and cover with a floured towel.
  15. Let rise for 1 hour.
  16. Knock down, shape and cover and let rise for another hour.
  17. Knock down shape and cover and let rise for another hour. (that’s not an accidental duplicate paragraph)
  18. Knock it down one last time and fold over two sides to make a roll.
  19. Prepare two baker’s peels with corn flour. I put the breads on the edge of the peel because I load them sideways into the oven. (see video)
  20. Cut the roll in half.
  21. Shape each half into a ball and roll flat with a rolling pin.
  22. Roll or fold each flat half into a batard and pinch closed the seam. A batard is french for Bastard and it means an inferior baguette. Your oven probably isn’t big enough to make a proper baguette and a boule (round bread) isn’t as good for sandwiches.
  23. Load each loaf into each bakers peel. See video for technique for working with very wet dough when doing this.
  24. Cut cross cuts on top of the bread with a old fashioned double edged razor blade. Not too deep.
  25. Preheat oven with baking tiles and cast iron pan (see video for the positions I use in the oven) to 400F and let the bread rise for about 30 minutes (about as long as the preheat takes).
  26. When oven is preheated, boil kettle.
  27. Load loaves into oven . This is the toughest part and I screw up the first loaf in the video, but it turns out fine. Just relax and if you mess it up, adjust the loaf position with the scraper. This whole process takes practice and timing.
  28. As soon as the loaves are loaded do the following:
  29. CAUTION: PLEASE BE CAREFUL DOING THIS. Cover your oven door glass with a dry towel. Also some ovens don’t handle steam well – it can mess up electrics. And you’re about to pour boiling hot water into a boiling hot pan. You may want to wear goggles because you’ll probably get splashed in the eyes at least once.
  30. Pour the boiling hot water into the cast iron pan and immediately close the oven door. I manage to pour into the pan while it’s in it’s final position with the door closed. But it may help to pull it out slightly and then use the door to push it closed (CAREFULLY, you can smash your glass if you’re too quick).
  31. Close the oven quickly to trap the steam. You’ll see the loaves get nice and wet from the steam on the outside if you do this right.
  32. At 6500 ft I bake for 44 minutes.
  33. After 44 minutes, take the loaves out and measure internal temp with a bakers thermometer. It should be 190F to 200F. Any hotter and it will be dry. If the temp is lower than 188F then put it back in for another 5 mins and check again using a different hole.
  34. Let cool for 20 minutes. You can eat them right away, but you’ll crush the bread slighly and the cutting will probably make the crumb a bit doughy. Every minute you can stand waiting will make the bread a little stronger and give it a better texture.
  35. As the bread cools the crust will soften.
  36. If you like a very soft crust you can put a towel over the bread while it cools.
  37. If you like a very crispy crust, alter this recipe to either bake at 425F or higher. Or you can start as high as 550F (which smells up the kitchen) and preheat for 1.5 hours. Then put the bread in and immediatelly drop the temp to 400F or even 375F.
  38. Experiment!!!!! This recipe is one I took months to develop and it’s reliable for the altitude I’m at and the kind of bread I want. I also recommend getting the basic french ingredients of flour, salt and yeast perfect before you start adding things like butter, cheese, nuts, grains, etc.

If you enjoyed this recipe or are also a baker, please post your feedback in the comments. I love learning from other bakers.