The secret is patience. Love your dough and don’t rush the process if you want your bread to love you back. It’s a bit like child-rearing, only it doesn’t take 18 years to raise a loaf. And it’s a whole lot easier because bread is so much more predictable than a human being is.
I’m happy to offer this quick photo-illustrated course on French bread baking in response to my son’s and a number of my readers’ requests for it:. For equipment, you’ll need:
- a small bowl or cup for proofing the yeast
- a large bowl for mixing
- a table fork for stirring
- your loving hands for kneading and a clean, clear place on the counter from which to push the dough around
- a baking sheet
- a clean spray bottle with water for misting (these are available at the hardware store for a dollar or two)
- 3 cups bread flour (or my preference, 2 cups bread flour and 1 cup whole wheat flour)
- 1 packet instant/active yeast (I like Hodgson Mill, especially for whole grain)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- approximately 1 and 1/3 cup warm water + 1/4 cup for proofing the yeast
Place your oven baking rack on the center shelf. Turn your oven on to warm (lowest setting) for five minutes (absolutely no longer than 5!) and then turn it off. This little warm-up creates a perfect environment for your dough-rise. But don’t forget to turn the oven off before you start the next step.
Dissolve the yeast in 1/4 cup warm water (100-115 degrees F) with 1/4 teaspoon sugar. The mixture will begin bubbling within 5 minutes. If it doesn’t bubble, start over with fresh yeast (if no bubbles, you’ve got dead yeast and your bread will not rise).
Add the proofed yeast and most of the warm water. Stir to combine. Keep stirring until all the dough is moistened and forms into a ball, adding a little more water if necessary.
Put the dough out onto the counter to knead it. If you want a short course in kneading, click here. The important thing to remember while kneading is–you have to patiently enjoy this 10-minute process and keep thinking good, loving thoughts about the people who will be eating your bread. Bread absorbs and transmits love (and conversely, you definitely don’t want to take out your frustration and anger on your dough or it just won’t turn out right). I’m pretty sure this has been unequivocally proven to be true.
Your dough should feel smooth and silky.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a snug-fitting lid. Set it in your warm, draft free oven for 40-45 minutes.
Your dough will be twice as big in volume as it was when you started. If it’s not double the size, let it rise a little longer. Then poke it like you’re jabbing the Pillsbury Dough Boy in the tummy, and reform the dough into a smaller ball. Cover it and let it rise again. (This double rise is one of the secrets to French-bread texture).
Starting with the long side closest to you, roll the dough up into a somewhat even roll. Don’t get neurotic over this; a little unevenness is fine. This rolling is the other secret to the French-bread texture.
You’ve rolled it and patted it, now mark it with a B and put it in the oven for Baby and me! Well, actually, what you want to do is cut 4 or 5 parallel slashes, with a very sharp knife, about 1/4″ deep into the top surface of each loaf. This will keep the loaf from bursting when it rises a little higher in the oven.
Mist them with water. They’ll glisten. Put the sheet pan on the center rack of the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 375 degrees F. Set a timer for 5 minutes.
Beep-beep-beep. The timer says it’s time to mist your loaves once more. Open the oven door and give half a dozen healthy spritzes, and let water drops fall on the hot pan, too. The steam will work to create a nicer crust.
Repeat this spritzing again in 5 minutes. Then set the timer for another 17 minutes (27 minutes of baking time in all). If they’re good and golden, take them out. If they’re not, give them another 3-5 minutes to brown up.
And there you have it. Let your loaves cool on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes, and then enjoy.
What do you make, dear readers, when you want to feel like a clever and thrifty gourmet?