Realistically, 'french bread' should be a baguette. That's pretty much THE bread in France. But because we're Americans and we always get this stuff wrong, it's not. Instead, French Bread is more or less the same bread, but in the shape of a batard, or a torpedo.
French bread is a lean bread, meaning it doesn't use oil, nor sugar. I put a little sugar in to get the yeast going, because I have a big container of active dry yeast, whereas most recipes for home cooks call for instant yeast. I'm pretty sure by the time it gets to the bread, there's little to no sugar left. That's what the yeasties ate.
To get the shape of a batard seems to require two things: A properly rolled dough that has been pinched and sealed to create surface tension so that it rises upward, not outward. It also requires being baked on a stone (or in a french loaf pan, but I don't have one nor do I think it's necessary). The stone provides even heat radiating from the bottom which seems to help create that perfect crust.
The last trick I have for french bread is to put about half a cup of water into a small metal pan at the bottom of the stove, which is situated to the side (so the steam can more easily travel upward). This steamy environment helps provide that perfect crust which is essential to a proper french bread.
The ingredients here are super simple:
- 4 cups bread flour (or as I use, 4 cups AP flour and 1 tablespoon of Vital Wheat Gluten)
- 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water (I go for right around 110 degrees)
- 1 tablespoon active dry yeast (many recipes call for less, it's possible I'm using too much but it seems to work for me)
- 3/4 tablespoon kosher salt (many recipes just call for salt; I use kosher salt which has lower volume due to ragged crystals, so I have to increase the amount by 50% to be correct).
- 1 tablespoon sugar.
In the meantime, whisk together the flour, gluten if using it, and the salt. Place in a stand mixer and put in the dough hook.
When the yeasts are bubblin' and troublin', pour the water in, and turn the standmixer on one of the lower settings until combined. Because the density of flour changes considerably due to many factors, you may have to add a little flour or a little water to get to the right consistency. For me, that consistency means that there's a little bit of stickiness to the bottom of the bowl, but it doesn't stick to the sides. Once combined, allow the dough hook to knead it for 3 minutes.
Take it out of the mixer, remove the dough hook, cover the bowl with a cloth and let sit for 20 minutes. This phase is called the autolyse phase, and it allows the gluten to hydrate which will give a better structure to the bread later. My experiments show this phase definitely matters.
In 20 minutes or so, take your lump of dough and turn it out onto a floured surface. Knead the dough by flattening out with your knuckles and palms, then fold it in half, rotate a quarter turn and repeat. I find it takes 10-12 rotations to get the dough ready. You can tell it's done kneading when you push a knuckle into it and it springs back most of the way fairly quickly, and the rest of the way after a short time. When it's fully kneaded, pull the corners down and pinch them together so you have a nice, tight little dough ball. Place in an oiled bowl, oil the top, cover and place in the refrigerator for an overnight rise.
I like the overnight rise a lot. This gives the yeast time to do their thing, which is to eat up the rest of the sugar and some of the starch and provide flavor. In the refrigerator it slows things down a little. The No Knead bread did its thing on the countertop, and the flavor from that was fantastic. As an experiment I want to try to let this rise on the countertop once and see if it's different. Maybe I'll do a batch, split it into two and let one rise on the counter and the other in the refrigerator to see what happens. Anyway, I digress.
The next day, pull your dough out of the refrigerator. Give it an hour or two to warm up; I find that the chilled dough is hard to work with at first, so warming it up makes things easier. Punch the dough down and flatten it into a rectangle. Cut the rectangle in half.
I'm not fully there on all the experiments I can try with rolling the dough, but what's working for me right now is this one: wet the top of the dough just a little bit, then fold one side of the dough so the edge is about halfway. Use the palm of your hand and smash this down so it forms a nice little seal. Wet and fold this side again so that it's now about 2/3s of the way across, and then pinch and punch that down to seal it. Finally, wet and fold the remaining third across and seal it all the way down. Fold the end just a little bit and pinch that closed.
Place the dough, seam side down onto a cookie sheet, oil the top, cover with a towel and set aside to rise for 30-60 minutes.
In the meantime, preheat your oven and baking stone to 450 degrees. Give this one a good long time to heat to make sure that the baking stone is fully hot. Place a pan at the bottom of your oven (or you can just throw the water on the bottom of the oven, but the one time i tried that I didn't think the results were great. With that much surface area it evaporates very fast).
Once the dough has risen, take a good sharp knife and make several diagonal slashes across the top of the loaf. These slashes allow the bread to continue to expand while cooking; without them it'll crack (and even with them I've had a couple loaves crack along the sides, so perhaps I need to make longer slashes). I find that if I oil my knife a bit first, I get slashes without tearing the dough. Otherwise the dough likes to stick to the knife and will drag a bit.
I put the cookie sheet directly onto the baking stone. It's a lot easier than transferring the dough and potentially deflating it, and the cookie sheet should conduct the heat just fine. It seems to work great for me! Make sure the sheet is to one side so the pan has a clear path for steam to get up above the bread; it wont' do any good if it's all trapped underneath. Pour 1/2 cup of water into your nice hot pan, which should shoot steam up at you so be a bit careful.
Bake for 20-25 minutes (i'm finding 24 is the right number for my oven) and remove. Allow to cool a bit. If you can. I never can, because hot fresh bread.