Easy yet great French bread

There’s nothing like a baguette or batard fresh from the oven. While there are many recipes for “authentic” French bread, and many of them produce good results, the following is by far the easiest and most reliable I have found. It is adapted from a recipe in The Best Bread Ever by Charles van Over. Note – you must start the bread the day before.

I have tried French bread recipes from many sources, ranging from Julia Child to Cooks Illustrated. These recipes all seem to have one thing in common: complexity. In particular, the rising usually involves a cloche, a special cloth that is used to hold the dough during certain parts of the rising. Also, the loaf-forming procedures often seem like advanced origami. This is all well and good and can give terrific results, but I think of this bread as an everyday food that should be easy to make. While the total time is 2 days, the time you have to put in is 15-20 minutes in all.

bREAD-1

The flour you use will make a difference. My preferences are King Arthur’s unbleached all-purpose white flour or their French-style flour. You do not need “bread” flour—all purpose works just fine (although you can use bread flour with excellent results). The recipe uses a food processor, which not only saves time and effort but allows you to use a rather wet dough that results in a superior bread but is next to impossible to knead by hand. It also uses a baguette pan, eliminating the hassle of creating nicely formed loaves. You’ll also need a water sprayer. This recipe make 2 batards or 3 of the thinner baguettes.

Measure the flour by weight if you can. You will soon get a feel for the best consistency, and the exact water-to-flour ratio will not always be the same.

1 lb (appx 3-1/2 c) flour
2 tsp salt
1 tsp instant dry yeast
1-1/4 c water (about)

Combine the flour, yeast, and salt in the food processor and pulse to blend. With the machine running, slowly pour about 90% of the water into the mixture and process for 20 seconds. The dough should come together in a single mass and be shaggy and sticky. If it is dry and crumbly add 2 TB water. If it is too “soupy” add 2 TB flour. Process for an additional 35 seconds or a bit more. This dough will be a bit wetter than a typical bread dough. It’ll look like this, more or less.

bread-1

Scrape the dough onto a clean, unfloured counter. The reason for not flouring the counter is that you don’t want to add more flour to the dough so it stays moist. Without extra flour it will stick, so use your dough scraper to pull it up and then slam it back onto the counter about a dozen times. Don’t be shy! This is a good time to take out your aggressions! It will start out looking like this:

bread-2

And finish looking like this:

bread-3

Put the dough in an ungreased bowl:

bread-4

Cover with plastic wrap – just the bowl, don’t press the wrap down onto the dough. Put in the fridge until the next day. The long, slow rise in the fridge really makes a difference in flavor and texture. The next day, it might look like this:

bread-5

When you get up the next morning, take the bowl out of the fridge and let sit at room temperature for 5-6 hours. It will rise a good bit more and may develop some bubbles at the surface.

Turn the risen dough onto a floured counter and use your dough scraper to divide into 2 more-or-less equal pieces:

bread-6

Use your hands to roll and stretch each piece into a loaf. Don’t fuss. They need not be exactly equal in size. Put them in the baking pan:

bread-7

Cover with a clean towel, not terrycloth, and let rise at room temperature for 2-3 hours. While the loaves are rising, place the oven rack slightly below the middle position. Then, 1/2 hour before baking preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Here’s the bread after rising:

bread-8

Just before baking, uncover the loaves and slash the tops diagonally in 2 or 3 places using a razor blade about 1/2 inch deep (see note below):

bread-9

Put the baguette pan in the oven and quickly spritz the inside of the oven 5-6 times with water, using a plant mister. Don’t spray directly on the loaves, although if a bit of water gets on the loaves it will be fine. Reduce the oven setting to 450. After 2 minutes open the oven and repeat the spritzing. Bake for an additional 18-20 minutes until the crust is brown and the loaves sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. An instant-read thermometer will read 205-210 degrees in the center of a loaf. Cool on racks. Eat.

Note on slashing loaves: The slashing is important, not only for appearance but to allow the loaves to expand more while baking. I use a standard double-edged razor blade with the back edge taped over for safety. I make the slash about 1/2 inch deep. The only “trick” I have learned is not to rush it, but to cut slowly. For example, the slashes in the loaves pictured above each took about 4 seconds for me to slowly draw the razor across the bread. For storage, I enclose the razor blade in a small cardboard folder fastened with a paper clip.

Note 2: This bread freezes surprisingly well. Not as good as fresh, but most welcome when you do not have time to bake. Cut into 1 inch slices and put in a zipper bag, then freeze. Heat in the toaster oven for a few minutes before serving.

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