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 !
French bread is just flour, water, salt, and yeast. Since
that is all you have to work with, you ought to use decent
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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
bread, less work. What's to complain about?
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.
should be able to knead and handle them easily, right?"
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.
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.
can you possibly expect to shape a dough that wet?"
you ask. That takes us to our next trick...
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the loaf is baked, the scores "blossom" and
spread across the loaf.
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.
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:
with High Heat
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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!