Sunday, December 30, 2012

Becky's Cooking Lessons: How to Make Delicious French Bread Every Time

Most people are afraid to make bread, but it's actually really easy.  Although you do need to plan ahead for rising time, the actual hands on prep takes no more than 15 minutes and can make very little mess.  I make bread at least 3 times a week.  A good baguette (French bread) is hard to find. There is no comparison to store bought, even bakery bought, bread.

This recipe is very forgiving.  They say baking is an exact science, well, not this bread.

In another of Becky's Cooking Lessons, I'll give you all the tips and tricks, and answer questions a beginner would have.  Not just a recipe, but how to cook (or bake in this instance).


Use Instant yeast.  If you have bread machine, rapid rise, or active dry yeast, that's ok too.

*Fresh Yeast is used by professional bakers.  Don't even worry about it at this point.

It's Alive!
Each dot of yeast is a living organism.  You need to care for it by giving it food, water, and warmth.  And don't upset it.

Food = sugar (1 tsp/loaf)

How to Tell the Water Temperature without a Thermometer:

100-102F = warm-hot bath water
104F = very hot bath water
110F = almost, but not quite, burning skin - just at the point where you can't stand the heat
120-122F = most home water heater max temps

So, for Instant Yeast, use hottest tap water.
For Active Dry Yeast, use the hottest water you can stand to keep your hand under for a couple seconds. (If you're a super-tough-guy and that temp is the same as the hottest tap water, then use hot bath water).

Yeast needs at least 100F to start doing its thing.


Proofing is where you give the yeast all its needs before adding the flour.  You put the yeast in with warm water and sugar, then let it sit 10 minutes or until nice and foamy.

You don't actually have to proof any more with any grocery store dry yeast, but I still like to.  Proofing will let you know if your yeast is still alive.


Store any dry yeast in a cool, dry, dark place.  Once the package is opened, it's recommended to store in the fridge or freezer.  I store it in the pantry in a sealed jar, and it does fine.

Don't Upset Yeast

When it's getting all cozy and warm with its water and sugar, don't slosh it or knock it around.  When the dough is rising, also, don't touch it or hit it, or its container, or it could deflate.

  • A packet of yeast = 2 1/4 tsp of yeast which makes about 1 loaf of bread.
  • High altitude will greatly affect the amount of ingredients and the baking process.


Instant Yeast
2 1/4 tsp instant yeast 
3/4-1 cup warm water (see above for temperature details)
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 cups bread flour
1 T vegetable oil

Salt and SugarNotes:
    Cup of Water
  • Salt: you can omit, but you'll definitely miss it.
  • Water: amount will depend on humidity of the day

Bread Flour

Bread Flour vs. All-Purpose Flour

Do you have to use bread flour?  Yes and No.  No, if you just want to make bread and only have all-purpose, it'll work just fine.  Yes, if you want to make a better bread.  Bread flour has more gluten (and other things) that make the bread taste chewier and fluffier


Proof the yeast
  • Put your yeast in the mixing bowl
  • Add water to mixing bowl: 
    • Yeast mixture
    • Day = Humid -> 3/4 cup
    • Day = Dry -> 1 cup
    • Day = In Between -> in between amt
    • Day = ? -> don't worry, you can fix it later
  • Add 1 tsp sugar 
  • Add 1 tsp salt (this can go in later, but I forget it if I don't put it now)
  • Let the yeast bath sit for 10 min
  • If it doesn't get foamy, your yeast is too old or your water is too hot or too cold.
Yeast proofing foaming
10 minute timer

Knead the dough

Kitchen-Aid Mixer
  • Add flour to yeast bath
  • Using a Kitchen-Aid mixer with a dough hook, mix until a ball forms. If you don't have a Kitchen-Aid mixer - get one. For now, search for a video on how to knead dough by hand.
This part is where it gets tricky, but have no fear, you can correct any errors!

In my videos, I'll show you what to do when the dough is too dry, too wet, and how to tell when it's just right.

To test the dough for moisture:
Poke your finger in the dough.  
If a little bit sticks to your finger, then it's just right.  
If nothing sticks, add water 1 T at a time until right.
If you can't get your finger out of the dough, it's too wet. Add some flour 1 T at a time until right.
Stickier is better than drier!

In this video, the dough has just formed a ball.  I test it and it's just the right moisture.  But the dough dries somewhat while kneading, so I'll add a little water. It's best to add the water at the beginning than after kneading a while.

Adding water when it's too dry can make the dough slippery so that it does not connect with the mixer dough hook.  Add a little flour (~1 tsp), to give it some traction.  If it still slips, fold dough over by hand to make thicker.

[Due to technical difficulties, I am not able to show you the video of adding water and flour to make the right consistency.  Sorry!]

Periodically check the dough to see if it's the right moisture.  

Once you've reached the right moisture, knead the dough for about 5 minutes with the dough hook. But don't go much longer than 10 minutes total kneading time.

This dough is a bit stickier than it should be, but stickier is better than too dry!  It could probably go another 2 minutes under the hook.
Bottle of Canola Oil

  • Form the dough into a ball - it doesn't have to be perfect.
  • Roll the ball in oil in the mixing bowl until lightly coated
  • Cover the mixing bowl with plastic wrap
  • Let dough rise in a warm place or a briefly pre-heated oven the temperature of a hot day.  Not too hot! You don't want to start baking the bread yet! 
  • Let rise until doubled in size.  I usually let it go 45-60min

Bread Dough Ready to Rise

Bread Dough Ready to Rise
I don't like having flour on my bread when I'm eating it, so the oil keeps the dough from sticking later on and keeps the surface smooth.
Bread Dough in Oven to Rise

1 hour timer

Risen Bread Dough

You'll know the dough is ready when it has doubled in size and when you gently poke the dough with your finger, the indentation stays.

Shape the Dough

You can actually make a variety of other breads at this point by just shaping and baking them differently.  These breads have the exact same base as this recipe:
  • Pita
  • Naan (Indian bread - not Indn fry bread)
  • Pizza dough
For the French bread here's what you do:

Oops! Forgot to spray the plastic wrap.
Shaping dough for loaf
  • On a clean surface, flatten the dough into a rough rectangle about 12-14" wide by 6" long.
  • Spray non-stick coating on plastic wrap
  • Cover the dough lightly with the plastic wrap
  • Let it sit for 10 minutes
Form the roll
  • Flip the dough over and roll lengthwise to form a loaf.
  • Don't roll back and forth like making playdough worms.

Slit the loaf
They say that you should use a razor sharp knife or a razor, but really, who has such good knives?  So I take a relatively sharp knife and slit the dough before rising.  Most say to do it after rising, but if your knife is not that sharp, you'll deflate the nice rise you just made. So...
Baguette Pan
  • Slit the loaf every 2" or so with a relatively sharp knife
  • Re-cover with plastic wrap
  • Gently put loaf on baking sheet lined with parchment paper
  • Or even better get yourself one of these baking pans just for making baguettes. They have rounded bottoms and are perforated to allow the bread to get crusty evenly.

Risen Bread Dough
  • Put loaf in the oven again to rise for another 45-60 min.
  • Gently take loaf out of the oven and set in a draft free area.
Don't knock around your loaf at this point or it will deflate!
(if it does, that's ok, just let it rise again)

  • Pre-heat oven to 400F
  • Take the plastic wrap off the loaf
  • Gently put the loaf in the oven
  • Mist the loaf and the oven with water for a few seconds
  • Quickly close the oven door to keep in the steam
  • Mist again every 5 minutes
  • Total baking time is about 20 minutes or until the loaf is golden brown
  • Remove from oven and cool until you're able to touch it
  • Eat immediately, since it has no preservatives, the quality of the flavor and texture of the bread diminishes quickly.

Steam creates the crispy crust on the baguette.  If you prefer a softer crust, don't mist.

To check to see if bread is done, thump the loaf.  Hollow sounds mean it's done.

French Bread Baguette

It all took about 3 hours, most of which was rising time.

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