You will find here 10 suggestions that are, we think, paramount for the home baker cordon bleu. All of them are adapted techniques from the professionals. Following them will insure a good result and a great loaf !


Suggestion 1

Use Good Ingredients
French bread is just flour, water, salt, and yeast. Since that is all you have to work with, you ought to use decent quality ingredients.

The tap water in my area is excellent, so I have no problems baking with it. But if your water is high in minerals that could throw off the flavor, consider spending a quid or two on a bottle of distilled water. Folks here have also reported considerably better yeast activity when using distilled water.

I use Guerrande salt that is slighly more expensive than standard table salt. I can say for certain that it makes a difference, and it is a small investment to make.

When it comes to yeast, there are a lot of different varieties out there. I've heard great things about different Yeast and if your yeast is old and about to expire or not really seeming to do the job, seriously, toss it out and buy fresh yeast. And if you are going to bake more than a couple of times a month, buy yeast in bulk or by the jar or bag, not in the little pouches. You'll save a great deal of money.

Buying all of these costs less than going out and buying a new CD or DVD. If you going to be baking regularly, it is a worthwhile investment.

Suggestion 2

Use a Preferment
Some call it a sponge, others a preferment, a poolish, a bigas, or a pate fermentée. Whatever you call it, the concept is the same: by taking a portion of the flour and water and fermenting it longer than the rest of the dough the baker can evoke better flavor from the ingredients.

If you are going to be baking two days in a row, one of the simplest preferments is to save a handful of the dough from the first batch for the next batch. I typically do not bake two days in a row, so instead I create a poolish the night before I am going to bake. My approach is to use between 1/8th and 1/4th a teaspoon of instant yeast (more if it is cold or I want to bake sooner, less if it is a warm night or I want it to develop slower) and an equal weight or volume of flour and water. Yes, I am aware that an equal weight of the two ingredients (8 oz. water and 8 oz. flour) is not the same as an equal volume of the two (1 cup of water, which weighs 8 ounces, and 1 cup of flour, which typically weighs around 5 or 6 ounces but depends on the type of flour and how tightly the cup is packed). Truthfully, it doesn't make a big difference as long as you adjust the final amount of flour and water by an equivalent amount in your final dough: either one will improve the flavor.

Assuming you combine the ingredients in the evening, cover the bowl with plastic, and leave it out at room temperature overnight, here is what should greet you in the morning:

Mix this in with your final ingredients (reducing the flour, yeast, and water the amount you used in your preferment) and your loaf should develop more interesting flavors and have a longer shelf life than a loaf created without this step.

Preferments can vary from as dry as bagel dough to as thin as a frothy liquid, and can be allowed to develop for minutes, hours, or days. I find that the poolish approach I describe above results in a nuttier, sweeter flavor that I quite enjoy. My impression is that harder preferments give you more of a sourdough-like flavor without having to go through the work of supporting a starter. But your experience and taste may vary from mine, so spend some time experimenting to figure out what you like most.

Suggestion 3

When reading recipes for French Bread, a lot of baking books will tell you to combine the ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer and then beat the bejeezus out of the dough. 10, 15, even 20 minutes of beating is not unusual to read about in order to get maximum gluten development.

But stop and think for a moment: bread has been around for some time, longer than stand mixers have. Do you honestly think the village baker had the strength to knead a trough full of dough for 20 minutes in the days before stand mixers? Or that he had a gaggle of Oompa Loompas to do the mixing for him? Of course not!

Heavy mixing is how boulangeries today make pain ordinaire. But more interesting breads with better, more subtle flavors require different techniques. One of the simplest is known as autolyse.

How do you use the autolyse technique? Simply combine the flour and water from your recipe in your mixing bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic or a damp towel. Walk away for 20 minutes to half an hour. That's it.

While you were away the flour was absorbing the water and the gluten strands have begun to develop. Now you can mix in your preferment, your salt, and the remainder of your yeast and, with very little mixing, achieve a high level of development with considerably less work. The crumb of your dough is also likely to come out much whiter since it has not been highly oxidized by all the beating and whipping.

Better bread, less work. What's to complain about?

Suggestion 4

The Wetter, The Better
I'd bet that the most common mistake inexperienced bakers make when tackling rustic breads is that they keep the doughs too dry.

"You should be able to knead and handle them easily, right?" : WRONG!

Rustic breads require very high levels of hydration, anywhere from 60% to 75%. That means for every pound or kilogram of flour you use, expect to use almost 3/4ths of a pound or kilogram of water.

A dough this wet is quite difficult to handle and knead. The autolyse method I mentioned in the previous tip can cut down on the amount of kneading you need to do significantly. A stand mixer can, obviously, keep your hands from getting so messy, as can keeping your hands wet and using a bench scraper to remove the dough from your work surface. But when you are making doughs this wet you simply need to resign yourself to the fact that you are going to lose some dough when it gets stuck to the bowl, your hands, or the work surface.

"How can you possibly expect to shape a dough that wet?" you ask. That takes us to our next trick...

Suggestion 5

Folding & Shaping

Folding the dough is the most exciting technique I learned. It really is the key to working with slack doughs. Folding occurs during primary fermentation and replaces the "punching down" step. I typically fold my dough twice during primary fermentation at roughly the same time when I would punch it down (when the dough is approaching double it's original size).

To fold the dough, take the risen dough from the bowl it has been rising in and put it top-side down on well-floured work surface. Fold the dough in thirds, like a letter, gently streching it and degassing as you do.

Fold it in thirds again the other way. Flip the dough over, dust off as much of the raw flour as you can, and place it back into the bowl. Repeat this step again when the dough has risen again.

As you do this you will feel the dough begin to strengthen. By the second time you do it the gooey, slack dough you began with ought to have tightened up enough that you can handle it with bare hands.


I have to admit, my shaping for my loaves are beautiful, in their own rustic, misshapen way, but I still don't feel like I should be instructing anyone on how to make nice looking loaves yet.

One thing I can say about shaping closely relates to folding: it is all about surface tension. Both when folding and shaping your final loaf, a good part of what you are doing is creating surface tension. This helps your loaf keep its final shape despite the slackness of the dough. You acheive this increase in surface tension by forming a tight seam on the bottom of the loaf. The tighter you can make it and the more you can increase the surface tension, the better.

While shaping you also want to be degassing and agitating the loaf a little. I'm still working on finding the right amount of degassing to do. I used to really punch down and remove all the gas, but if you do that you typically end up with a very even, tight crumb. Then I went through a phase of not degassing at all and I would find my loaves would run out of steam and not spring at all in the oven. Somewhere in the middle seems to be the key: you want to let some air out and give the yeast more sugars to feed on without wrecking all of the work they've already done.

I heard a quote something along the lines of "A baker should have an iron hand in a velvet glove." It really seems to be true: there are times to be extremely delicate, but other times to treat your dough roughly. Knowing when to apply the right amount pressure appears to be something that requires much experience to figure out.

Suggestion 6

Slow Rise
To really invoke the best flavors from your grains, it takes time. LOTS of time. The more you slow the process down, the better your loaf is likely to taste.

There are exceptions to this rule: breads with a lot of sugars in them, for example. Sugars are yeast's junk food. If you try to stretch out the fermentation of something with a lot of sugar in it, you are likely to get something that tastes more like beer than bread.

But French Bread benefits if you reduce the amount of yeast in your recipe and increase the time you allow the dough to ferment. Reduce the yeast, too, while you are at it. That alone will slow things down significantly.

The lower limit on the amount of yeast you need to add is quite low: I've seen recipes using a pound or two of flour include less than a teaspoon of instant yeast. I typically include 1 teaspoon of instant yeast for each pound of flour I use. Then, depending on my baking schedule, I try to strech the fermentation out as long as I can. Sometimes that means I leave the bowl of dough in the refrigerator overnight. Sometimes I do primary fermentation on the counter then refrigerate the shaped loaves until I want to bake them. Sometimes I just let them rise in a cold room so that it takes 3 hours instead of 45 minutes for them to double in size.

I don't think there is a magic temperature or amount of time that it takes that'll guarantee you great bread every time. So I'll just say "take your time." The flavor of your bread will improve if you do.

Suggestion 7

Scoring is another thing I am loath to give advice on, because I'm stink at it. But I have learned quite a bit this year, so I'll share what I do know.

One thing I have found it is helps to have a decent tool. I made a lame out of a coffee stirring stick from Starbucks and a double-edged razor blade. Although on a baked loaf it often looks like one would score across the loaf, in fact the lines one carves nearly run straight down the length of the loaf.

When the loaf is baked, the scores "blossom" and spread across the loaf.

A few other things are worth noting. Notice how one does not carve straight down into the loaf. If you like the look of a grin on your loaf, carve in at an angle, somewhere between 30 and 60 degrees from the vertical.

Also notice the depth of the cuts. I find I am happiest when I carve at least a half an inch into the loaf. On larger loaves I even go deeper. Under-scoring, by just breaking the skin of the loaf, like this:

Suggestion 8

Bake with High Heat

The next three tips all share the same goal. They all have to do with how to get the most oven spring. By "oven spring" I mean the final, extra rise that happens in the first few minutes that a loaf is in the oven. Good oven spring can make the difference between mediocre and great bread.

When preheating my oven to bake French bread, I turn it up to the maximum temperature. On my oven, that is 550 degrees fahrenheit. Once all of my loaves are loaded into the oven I give them a minute or two and than turn it down, typically between 450 and 475 degrees fahrenheit. The additional temperature during the first few minutes helps compensate for the heat lost while loading the oven and creates a nice, hot environment that will maximize yeast activity.

I guess I should add here, ALWAYS preheat your oven while baking bread. Many other types of recipes tell you to preheat the oven solely so they can give you accurate directions on how long to bake for. But bread actually requires a hot oven to rise completely.

Suggestion 9

Use a Baking Stone
I've finally come around on baking stones, essential for home baking in my point of view. They will give a little extra pop to your loaves.

Preheating the baking stone is essential typically no more than 400 degrees. Only preheating your baking stone for 15 or 20 minutes and only to 375 degrees is not enough to make much of a difference.

So here is what you should do: get a substantial baking stone. You can buy one relatively inexpensively, or you can making one out of bricks or unglazed quarry tiles, which are extremely inexpensive and can be found at any home improvement shop. Place the stone in your oven at least an hour before baking and turn the temperature WAY up to 500 or 550 degrees, whatever is the maximum temperature your oven can safely go. Let the stone get EXTREMELY hot before placing your bread on it. If you do this you'll get much better oven spring and really notice the difference between bread baked on a baking sheet and bread baked on a stone.

Suggestion 10

Steam the Oven
Professional bakers have steam injectors inside of their ovens. Right after placing their loaves inside, they give the loaves a good blast of steam. The steam keeps the outside of the loaves moist and supple so that the bread can spring for as long as possible. Once the outside of the loaf begins to dry out it hardens, preventing further spring. Then the crust begins to form.

Home bakers need to get creative to reproduce this effect. Some folks suggest dabbling the loaves with water before placing them in the oven, but I've found this results in a softer crust. For maximum oven spring and a crunchy crust, the trick is to get a lot of steam in the oven early and then have the oven dry out for the remainder of the baking.

I've use a couple of different tricks to get steam in my oven. The simplest one is a squirt bottle. Right after placing the loaves in the oven, give the walls of the oven a good spray of water, being careful not to nail the light bulb or it will explode. The water will evaporate immediately, creating steam.

If it does not create enough steam I moved on to a scrappy old brownie pan that I punched 5 holes in the bottom of. I'd place it below my baking stone for preheating. When I am putting my bread in the oven I'd pour a cup of hot water in the pan, some of which evaporates immediately and some of which drips onto the bottom of the oven and evaporates there.

As you can see, you can make use of whatever tools you have handy. Just be careful not to get vapor burns while pouring or spraying the hot water into the vessel.

Also, be aware that some people on this site have had their ovens malfunction after using heavy steam. Newer, more computerized ovens appear to be more vulnerable to moisture related problems. "Baker beware" is the mantra when using this technique: what is good for your crust may end up being bad for your pocketbook!