This step by step guide to making authentic French bread is perfect for those who take their bread seriously. There’s nothing quite like the smell of a simple, homemade loaf to bring out your inner baker…
Makes 4 small baguettes
Active time: 15 minutes
Autolyse: 3 hours
Bulk fermentation: 1½ hours + 15 hours
Resting: 30 minutes
Proofing: 30 minutes
Cooking: 18 minutes
Baguette transfer board (a small wooden paddle).
4 cups + 2 tbsp (1 lb. 2 oz./500 g) bread flour (T65)
Scant 1½ cups (12.5 oz./350 g) water + 2 tsp (0.35 oz./10 g) for dissolving salt
1.75 oz. (50 g) refreshed levain
0.05 oz. (1 g) fresh yeast
Scant 1½ tsp (0.25 oz./7 g) salt
A day before baking, place the flour and scant 1½ cups (12.5 oz./350 g) of water in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Mix for 1 minute on speed 1 (frasage*). Cover the bowl and let the mixture rest for 3 hours (autolyse*).
Add the levain and crumble in the fresh yeast. Combine the salt and 2 tsp (0.35 oz./10 g) water in a bowl and stir or swish to dissolve, then add to the dough. Knead for 8 minutes on speed 1.
Cover the bowl and let the dough rise for 1½ hours. Fold the dough three times during the rise time: once after 30 minutes, once after 1 hour, and once after 1½ hours. Cover and place in the refrigerator for 15 hours (bulk fermentation*).
The next day, dust a work surface and the dough with flour. Turn the dough out onto the work surface, floured side down. With a bench scraper, divide dough into four equal pieces. Shape each piece into a rough oval and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes (resting*).
Shape each piece of dough into an approximately 10-in. (25-cm) baguette, ensuring it will fit in your oven lengthwise (the baguettes will be easier to transfer to the oven if they’re shorter). Place the shaped baguettes between the folds of a floured couche (linen made for baking), or flour a towel and pleat it like an accordion around the baguettes. Let rest for 30 minutes (proofing*).
Meanwhile, place a rack at the lowest oven position and place another rack directly above it. Place an empty heavy-duty baking sheet, oven-safe skillet, or drip pan on the lower rack, and a baking stone or heavy-duty baking sheet on the upper rack, and preheat the oven to 500°F (260°C/Gas Mark 10). Bring 1 cup (250 ml) of water to a simmer.
When the dough passes the poke test*(see below), using a lame or a sharp blade, slash each baguette diagonally in two places. Roll the baguettes one at a time onto the baguette transfer board (paline) and carefully transfer to the baking stone or sheet in the oven.
Carefully pour the simmering water into the baking sheet, skillet, or drip pan to create steam and quickly close the oven door. Bake for 18 minutes, lowering the oven temperature to 450°F (240°C/Gas Mark 8) halfway through the baking time. Remove the baguettes from the oven and place on a rack to cool.
If the proofing time is too short, the dough won’t build up enough CO2 to rise correctly during baking. Conversely, if the proofing time is too long, the gluten network weakens and the bread may fall during baking. Even professional bakers use the poke test to evaluate the dough’s resistance and determine when it is ready for the oven. Gently press your finger about ½ in. (1 cm) into the dough. If the dough is ready to bake, it will spring back slowly but retain a small indentation where you poked it. If no indentation forms, the dough is not ready; leave it to proof a little longer. If the indentation doesn’t spring back at all, it’s too late—the dough is over-proofed.
Extract from Upper Crust: Homemade Bread the French Way, by renowned food writer Marie-Laure Fréchet. Published by Flammarion and available at Amazon, online and high street bookstores (where it can be ordered if it’s not in stock ISBN 9782081517073). Step by step techniques to turn you into a successful bread maker, 100 recipes include delicious desserts and savoury specialities which feature bread. Plus French bread history and fascinating facts…