The Way I Was

Yes, Brian, you really can bake your own French bread

Home baked French loaves.
Home baked French loaves.

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)

Ingredients:

  • 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

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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. DSC_0005

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).DSC_0007

In a large bowl, combine the flour(s) salt and sugar. Mix well with a fork or whisk.
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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.

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Your dough will l0ok craggy and lumpy, like this.DSC_0012

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. 
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Your dough should feel smooth and silky.

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Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a snug-fitting lid. Set it in your warm, draft free oven for 40-45 minutes.

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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). DSC_0017

It looks like you’re starting over. But the 2nd rise will only take 25-30 minutes. The yeast is active and will work quicker the second time. DSC_0019

Divide the dough in half and pat one half of the dough out into a rectangle approximately 9″ x 6.” DSC_0020

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. DSC_0021

Place the dough on a baking sheet (seam side down), leaving room for the other loaf. 
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Repeat the patting and rolling with the second portion. (Isn’t this fun? Roll it and pat it….)DSC_0023

Turn your oven on to 425 degrees F. Cover the loaves with plastic and set them on top of the oven to rise until double in bulk, about 20-25 minutes.DSC_0025

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. DSC_0026

Your loaves will look like this. DSC_0028

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.

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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?

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46 thoughts on “Yes, Brian, you really can bake your own French bread”

    1. Thanks, friends. They were indeed yummy. Yes, I believe you used to make all your bread, Diana. We do. I don’t think I could do it alone, my husband is really the master bread baker. I just do the occasional little projects like this one.

  1. Ohhh, this is a lovely recipe! French bread is not something that I have attempted yet so I will have to tuck this recipe away. With the double rise and letting the bread sit before it goes in the oven, this is definitely a loaf that receives some TLC. I bet it tastes delicious warm right out of the oven 🙂

    1. Oh, yes, it smells good in the kitchen, and does taste best when it’s still a little bit warm. It is a bit of a TLC bread, but it’s worth it.

      I’ve been making it for so many years that it feels second nature to me now. (I feel a show tune coming on… like breathing out and breathing in “My Fair Lady–I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

      1. Oh, yes, Tracy.
        Any times I visit different areas of the U.S.A. but I don’t adapt to the bread of your country! But I like subway, now we have it in Germany, too.
        Greetings from Susanne

  2. Well, they look great Tracy. My husband is the bread maker in our family – he can vent his work-related exasperation on the kneading process! I shall pass your post on to him!!

    1. I love my crock pot!

      Jill, I just reviewed my favorite crock pot cookbook on goodreads, and your comment reminded me that I wanted to ask you. are you by any chance on Goodreads? If so, do you like it? I’m finding it less easy to learn than wordpress is.

      And, what about Rebecca?

      1. I couldn’t live without my crock pot, Tracy! I have two different versions of Fix it and Forget it…I love those books!

        As an avid reader, I’m ashamed to say, I’m not on Goodreads. I haven’t had the time to check it out. I’m discovering I can’t be in too many places at the same time. 🙂 I’m clueless with Twitter and rarely on Facebook.

        My plan was to read Rebecca during my Christmas break, but I got too busy purging my bookshelves. The book remains in my TBR pile…I’m sorry. This is why I’m not in a book club. 🙂

        1. No shame in not being on Goodreads. I’m just checking it out, not sure it’s worth my time…And I haven’t even tried Twitter. I do facebook, though. It works for me to stay in touch with old friends, mostly school chums.

          1. I think Facebook is more user friendly (aka, for me, Dummy Friendly) than Twitter. My blog posts go onto Twitter but that’s only because my friend set it up that way. I’m clueless with Twitter and really have no desire to become familiar with it. I need time to write and I need my sleep. 🙂

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your recipe and process. We will give it a try. I think Candisn wheat is different too. Some recipes in the US call for bread machine flour and note ‘in Canada use bread machine or all purpose flour’.
    We will have to experiment.
    My contribution for baking/pastry is to make scones or Imperial Cookies

  4. My oven hasn’t worked for years – never had a fan, and the seal and temperature gauge fell off a few years ago. I have finally bought a new one and am soooo looking forward to making rolls and bread – it’s impossible if you don’t have a good oven, comes out hard and shiny like a big pebble. This post has inspired me that it is possible!

    1. Exciting! One of the most memorable days in my entire childhood was when I was 8-9 and my mom got a new oven the day before Thanksgiving. She was happy, but she never did love cooking/baking the way I do (and did, even then) and I was ecstatic. It was better than Christmas! I hope you enjoy your new toy! (Oh, yes, it is possible. And if your first loaf attempt fails, let me know and we can figure out what went wrong because you’ll definitely want to try again. There is nothing quite so rewarding as baking your own bread!)

    1. It’s not possible to get them as “crackly” as in the professional ovens, but they are yummy, and they do have the right texture. And oh, yes, it does smell good when we’re baking.

  5. I want a bite of that bread so badly right now! My go-to is my plain Jane, bland, Midwestern style lasagna. It’s a hit (mostly because I never, ever cook) and is so easy I don’t have to look at my recipe anymore! 🙂

  6. You’re making me nostalgic for Paris where you can walk around eating a baguette on the street and no one pays any attention. I have made bread – many years ago. This recipe looks very tempting. Thanks for the step-by-step instructions and photos.

    Happy New Year, Tracy.

    1. Happy New Year to you, too, Judy.

      I think bread-making is one of those things that gets easier when it becomes a habit. We make all our own bread. It was somewhat of a hassle at first, but now it’s as natural and routine as taking a shower.

      And this recipe is nice and easy–so few ingredients…

  7. Your personality as well as your expertise beam brightly throughout your writing, Tracy. I am going to try this. In Kansas I baked a great deal with my mother while growing up, but we’re more than a mile high in Colorado Springs, and I haven’t had a lot of luck with bread. This time I will “proof” the yeast and forge ahead!

    1. I’ve never used a bread machine. I’m a very low-tech kind of girl.

      I would think you could use it for the mixing and the first rise, and then take the dough out and finish the process (2nd rise and bake). Or maybe even do the second rise in the machine, if you set the rise time for 70 minutes (can you do that?) and deflate the dough after 40-45. …

  8. Tracy, Happy New Year!
    And look at you: making baguettes, probably the world’s best bread ever! What a wonderful recipe to start off the New Year! 🙂

    1. Happy New Year, back, Stafano!

      I agree with you, about baguettes being the world’s best bread, unless I happen, at the moment, to be eating Ken’s artisanal multi-grain hearth bread.

      But that’s so different from baguette that it’s not really fair to compare them. They both win the best award, in my opinion.

  9. What a great, and really simple recipe. I hate (and I mean, hate, not dislike) baking, as you know, but I can see myself trying this out.

    What I do when I want to feel clever and thrifty gourmet? Risotto. So easy once you get the hang of it, not really expensive, and definitely gourmet food (those admiring glances when your friends eat what they think was concocted with whatever magic I have in my hands).

    1. And “Risotto” is infinitely more impressive to say than “rice.”

      Besides, it is, actually, better.

      I had forgotten that little quirk of yours about baking–it must have something to do with your lawyerly-ness. But, strangely, I understand it. I didn’t much like baking when I was your age. (Age changes us–really, it does). But, I never HATED it. There’s something very interesting, intriguing, about someone who HATES baking.

      1. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate the results…it’s the act. I feel deprived of all creativity, having to stick pretty much to recipes and rules on what to do when for how long and what ingredients need to be in in what quantity etc. I find that stifling and inhibiting my potential.

        But then again, as you say, age changes us, and it definitely does….we’ll see where it takes me.

        1. I get it! There needs to be a cookbook for people like us — about how to bake with creativity/variation (listing when/where/what can be varied, and what kind of results to expect). Baking is chemistry, and Ken and I do experiment, create, very often. Most of our “recipes” are ones we created (so following them doesn’t feel like following someone else’s “rules” — it feels like we found the eureka thing that gives us the exact result we were looking for).

          Maybe someday I’ll write that book! 🙂

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