French Artiisan Bread finished loaf.

French Bread in Words and Pictures

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Discussion

Many people think that a French baguette, a long, thin loaf, is a good test of a baker's skill. The baguette seems so simple, just flour, water, salt and yeast, kneading, fermenting, shaping, rising, slashing and baking. The reality is that a lot of very good bakers have spent a considerable amount of time and energy perfecting their baguette.

If you don't have the materials to make a super couche like I use, you can use heavy canvas or a kitchen towel in its place. Just dust the canvas or towel with flour and form it to make folds that look like my couche. Or you can let the baguettes rise on parchment paper with a slightly dampened towel over them. Either way will give you well-formed baguettes.

What follows is a master procedure for French bread baguettes that will show you how to make French bread five different ways, mostly dealing with the type and aging of the pre-ferment. These methods unlock almost all the potential of the flour and the process. The process can start in one of five different beginnings. After the dough is put together and the mixing starts, the process is the same for all options.

  1. All ingredients are mixed at the beginning and proceed to completion without any delays. This is the straight-dough method.
  2. Make a pre-ferment, either a biga or a poolish, age it a few hours and then proceed to make the bread.
  3. Make a pre-ferment and age it on the counter overnight, then proceed to make the bread.
  4. Make a pre-ferment and age it on the counter overnight. At the same time, put together the remaining flour and water and allow them to age overnight. The next day, put them together and proceed to make the bread.
  5. Make a pre-ferment, age it for 3 days in the refrigerator, then proceed to make the bread.

There are many more variations we could come up with, but these five will give you enough variations to satisfy most needs.

This recipe is for a 60% hydration French bread dough, the so-called classic French bread. You can experiment with a bit more water, raising the hydration in stages, until you get to a 66% hydration. A 66% hydration will be 30 ounces / 850 grams of flour and 21 ounces / 565 grams of water. (You won't have to change the salt or yeast amounts because you will have kept the flour constant.) The higher hydration will produce a loaf that has larger holes and a different crust, a bit thicker and chewier. Once you try the higher hydration, you may find you like it better than the classic bread.

Remember to make allowance for any pre-ferment you may use. In other words, subtract the amounts of flour, water and yeast you use in the pre-ferment from the amounts to be added to the dough. If you use a 100% poolish that has 100 grams each of water and flour and a quarter-teaspoon of yeast, then add 750 grams of flour, 410 grams of water, 2 teaspoons of yeast and 1 tablespoon of salt to make the dough. The amounts of the pre-ferment and the additions will give you the correct total amount of each ingredient. It may sound a bit complicated, but once you've done it a few times, it'll become second nature.

Ingredients for Full Batch

Ingred Ounces Grams
Bread Flour 30 850
Water 18 510
Salt 1 tbsp 22
Dry Yeast 1/4 7 2 1/4 teaspoons

Ingredients for Smaller Batch

Ingred Ounces Grams
Bread Flour 15 425
Water 9 255
Salt 1/2 tbsp 11
Dry Yeast 1/2 packet 3 1 rounded teaspoon

Method

  1. Add flour and water to a mixer bowl.
  2. Mix up for a minute ot two. Then let rest for 20 minutes.
  3. Add salt and yeast and any preferment and knead for 5-7 minutes. You should get a firm, slightly sticky, dough.
  4. Place in a bowl and cover. Let ferment for 45 minutes.
  5. Remove the dough from the bowl and do a fold or a roll. (see the section on folding)
  6. Put the dough back in the bowl, cover and let ferment for 45 minutes.
  7. Repeat the fold or roll. Place the dough back in the bowl, cover and let ferment 30 minutes.
  8. Remove from the bowl, repeat the fold or roll and place the dough on the counter and let it rest for 10 minutes under a towel.
  9. Divide the dough into as many portions as you need, then let the dough rest for 10 minutes under a towel.
  10. Either shape into baguettes. (see the section on shaping baguettes)
  11. Or shape into boules. (see the section on shaping boules)
  12. Either place the loaves in lightly greased baguette pans, on the counter on parchment paper or in a couche.
  13. Let rise 45 minutes. I cover the rising loaves with a towel and mist the towel once or twice with a spritzer bottle. Heat oven to 440F / 225C. Use tiles or stones on the oven rack. Provide steam in the oven.
  14. Bake 15 minutes. Turn the loaves to equalize baking. Bake until done, an internal temperature of 195-200F / 90-95C, about 32 minutes total time.
  15. Turn the oven off and let the loaves sit in the cooling oven for 5 minutes. Remove the loaves from the oven and allow to cool.

Notes on the Various Methods

For instructions on a biga.biga

For instructions on a poolish. poolish

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French Bread

I use an aged biga right out of the refrigerator for this demonstration. The process is the same from this point on.

French Artisan Bread Biga, cold. French Artisanal Bread Biga after an hour. French Artisan Bread Cutting up the biga. French Artisanal Bread Added flour to the biga. French Artisan Bread All mixed, now to rest. French Artisanal Bread After the autolyse.
French Artisan Bread Added salt, mixed a bit. French Artisanal Bread Cohesive dough on counter. French Artisan Bread Dough after partial fermentation. French Artisanal Bread drop-hook fold. French Artisan Bread After drop-hook fold. French Artisanal Bread After fermentation.
French Artisan Bread Dough ready to divide. French Artisanal Bread Dough divided. French Artisan Bread Shaping the baguettes. French Artisanal Bread Baguettes all shaped. French Artisan Bread The couche. French Artisanal Bread Baguettes rising en couche.
French Artisan Bread Baguettes slashed, on tiles. French Artisanal Bread Adding steam. French Artisan Bread Baguettes partially baked. French Artisanal Bread Baguettes finished. French Artisan Bread Bottom of a baguette. French Artisanal Bread Crumb and crust of a baguette.
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So there they are, 4 good-looking baguettes. No special equipment. (Except Super Couche!) Just a simple recipe, time and technique.

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