French Bread - Method for the Perfect Loaf
Hot French bread - crusty and golden brown on the outside, light and chewy on the inside, with perfect little holes that just beg for a little butter.
It's easy. I swear. It really is. For years I didn't really mess with bread. I had convinced myself that is was as fussy as anything could be - delicate and temperamental. I wanted nothing to do with anything so unforgiving. I don't know why I changed my mind and tried it, but I'm so glad I did. There are a couple of tricks of course - if you've read my other articles you know how much I love having the magic tricks that make food fabulous. And I'm about to tell you what they are to produce bread perfection.
You will need a couple of special items. Find a couple of bricks or large stones to place in the bottom of your oven. This will help maintain even an even, high heat in the oven while you're ensuring the crust forms properly.You're going to be opening the oven a lot in the first few minutes of baking, so this is essential.
You'll need a small pan of water in the bottom of your oven too. I use a small cast iron skillet. Anything that can handle high heat is fine. This helps form the amazing crust characteristic of French bread.
Finally, you'll need a spray bottle of water. Again, this helps with the crust. Otherwise, that's it. I use a mixer to knead my bread, but 's not necessary. I use the mixer because there's no mess, and honestly my hands get tired when I knead it by hand (I have ridiculously small hands). But you don't have to use a bowl at all if you don't want to. I've made this bread with no bowl, and no measuring - just mixing straight on my counter. It works just as well - I just think it's easier to wash a mixing bowl than the scrub off the whole counter top, and the mixer is faster than I am. So the directions here are for a mixer, but all of it can be done by hand.
You can't say no to a recipe with only five ingredients - flour, water, yeast, sugar and water - and which doesn't even really have to have any equipment other than a hot oven and a spray bottle. Try it. Go. Try it. Really.
3 cups of all purpose flour
1 Tbl yeast
1 Tbl sugar
1 Tbl kosher salt, or 1 1/2 tsp table salt
1 to 1 1/4 cups warm water
cornmeal - for the baking sheet
- In the bowl of a mixer with the bread hook attached, put 1 cup of warm water. Add the yeast and the sugar to the warm water, and allow to bloom for about ten minutes. This just means the yeast will wake up and get busy - ready to make your bread rise. The sugar will feed the yeast and help it wake up - think of the sugar as a quick rush for the yeast.
- Once the yeast has had a few minutes to get going, add the flour and salt to the mixing bowl. Turn the mixer on, and allow the dough to begin working. It will look lumpy and odd at first, but will come together pretty soon. If it just doesn't want to turn into 'dough', add a little more water, a tablespoon at a time. You'll end up with a smooth and elastic dough.
- Knead, or let the mixer knead for you, for about 7-8 minutes. You want to be able to see the elasticity of the dough when you pull on it gently. At that point, oil the interior of a mixing bowl and plop the dough in it, turning it so it gets oiled all over. Cover it with a towel, and let it sit in a warm place until it doubles in size. This takes about two hours, but it could be more or less, depending on how warm the spot is.
- Once doubled in size, punch down the dough, turning it over on itself, cover and let rise again until doubled again. Punch it down a second time and form into a ball.
- Place a piece of parchment paper (if you want, don't have to) on a baking sheet and sprinkle with a handful of cornmeal. This will keep the bread from sticking to the sheet.
- Allow the dough to rest for about fifteen minutes. It will rise slightly. Preheat the oven to 400F. Make sure it's nice and hot!
- Place a small pan in the bottom of the oven, and grab a glass of cold water. Fill your water bottle with cold water as well. You want to be able to generate quick steam, just like in professional ovens. Here's the method:
- Place the baking sheet in the oven, and immediately dump the glass of cold water into the hot pan. This will create an initial burst of steam. Next, mist cold water directly on top of the dough, misting completely but not saturating. Close the door but don't walk away - this is the only 'fussy' part of the process. After two minutes, open the door, reverse the baking sheet, mist the dough and close the door. Move quickly to help maintain the hot oven.
- You'll repeat this two more times for a total of four 'mists'. The allow it to bake for an additional twelve minutes. If your oven temperature is correct, at the end of the total 18 minutes of baking, the bread will be crusty golden brown, and will sound hollow when you tap it.
- Allow it to cool for at least ten minutes before slicing. I've heard French bread is best when cold. Julia Child swore by it, but she was apparently much more disciplined than I. I've never had one go for more than a few minutes - it's just too dang good warm and toasty with herb butter. Or honey. Or olive oil and salt. Mmmmm...I'm going to make some.
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