Gimme your bread tips!
October 5, 2011 9:09 AM   Subscribe

Is there such a thing as the perfect recipe for French Bread? Also, how do you schedule your breadmaking in real life?

I would like to start making bread regularly. Other kinds are fine, but I love, love, love French bread.

I have

an old bread machine (Welbilt model ABM4900)
A kitchenaid
a reasonable amount of time off
a reasonable budget for ingredients


-->Are there any classic, minimalistic recipes out there that you have tried? The one in my machine's manual calls for shortening (something I thought French bread didn't have) this one looks promising, but I'm not sure if the oven temperature is F or C...

-->Should I use the bread machine, o should I just make it by hand?

-->For those who bake bread regularly, how often do you bake it? Is there a way of preparing something in advance, freezing the dough, or refrigerating it so I can just pop it in the oven?

*I have tried the no-knead bread, and it was fun, but I dream of baguettes.
posted by Tarumba to Food & Drink (35 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a big fan of Rose Levy Beranbaum's bread bible. Most of them are multi-step processes, but I space it out over a couple of days, and bake around once a week (just2 of us, no kids, not big carb consumers.) I use the Magic Mill, but the Kitchenaid works okay, as do my large brawny arms. I've never used a bread machine.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:12 AM on October 5, 2011

That oven temperature has to be in C as 225C would be around 425F, which seems about right.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:14 AM on October 5, 2011

- start checking out the fresh loaf forums, the Peter Reinhardt books and the Jeffery Hamelman books.

-by hand. I don't even use my kitchenaid to knead.

- Most bread is actually better if you let the dough sit in the fridge for a day or two. The best baguette recipe I've seen actually starts with a quantity of old dough. I've not had great experiences baking from frozen dough.
posted by JPD at 9:15 AM on October 5, 2011

Oh one issue I have with Baguettes is length - I have to make short little stubby things in my oven because of the size of my stone. Also they are really best with a lot of steam - which is sort of a hassle.
posted by JPD at 9:17 AM on October 5, 2011




Thanks for the tips!
posted by Tarumba at 9:20 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

The perfect baguette is going to have flour, water, yeast, and salt in it. That's it (maybe a little sugar for the yeast to eat while they're proofing).

What may be difficult are finding flour with a high enough gluten content, and creating the oven conditions necessary for the formation of a holey crumb and crisp crust.

Kneading by hand will teach you how the dough reacts to various conditions (temperature and humidity). I worked as a bread baker in high school and college, and although we used giant mixers with dough hooks, there was always, always a certain amount of....fondling the dough with your hands, because that's the best way to learn how your dough is doing.
posted by rtha at 9:20 AM on October 5, 2011

The Fresh Loaf is your friend. Flour, salt, water, yeast: then time, temperature and technique.
posted by holgate at 9:22 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've made baguettes using just water, yeast, salt and flour, and sometimes a few herbs when I was board. Let it rise slowly in the fridge, use a baguette pan. Do not use a bread machine. I'm lazy and use a stand mixer. I generally make bread on the weekends. It isn't as good at the end, but I just don't eat enough bread otherwise.
posted by jeather at 9:22 AM on October 5, 2011

Peter Reinhardt has a good recipe for Pan au Levain (sp?) in his Breadbaker's Apprentice book. It rises over night which gives a really complex professional flavor to the dough.

The main problem you will find with trying to replicate any type of artisan bread (crispy/chewy crust with a very lean dough) is the oven temperature. Reihnardt's technique is to blast the oven as high as it will go (500 degrees +) and have a cast iron pan in the bottom. When you put the loaves in the oven, you poor hot water in the pan and mist the oven to create a moist environment. The steam keeps the crust from forming too quickly and gives the insides some time to bake.
posted by Think_Long at 9:22 AM on October 5, 2011

In your link, that's definitely C (250F would be far too low, bread needs a hot oven, and in any case the French don't use F). My bread is always like rocks, and French bread is a scary prospect, so I can't comment on the rest of it.
posted by altolinguistic at 9:23 AM on October 5, 2011

For some breads the recipe calls for a pan of water to be in the over under the bread. This makes steam in the oven. And probably does some other things too but I'm not sure what exactly, just that it does make a difference at least in my very small scale experiments.

Also, stone is probably a baking stone. If you buy one it will probably be labeled as a pizza stone. It's amazing, you should get one.
posted by theichibun at 9:24 AM on October 5, 2011

When you put the loaves in the oven, you poor hot water in the pan and mist the oven to create a moist environment. The steam keeps the crust from forming too quickly and gives the insides some time to bake.

Mark Bittman suggests putting rocks in a pan with water in it when you first start up the oven, and then pouring more water over the rocks (greater surface area for steam production) when you put the bread in. There may be some other finer points to it.
posted by LionIndex at 9:26 AM on October 5, 2011

In my experience, if you ask most French people about perfect where to find the perfect loaf, they will direct you to a baker rather than a recipe. Traditionally the French did not bake their own bread in the house since the neighbourhood baker would be the only one with a sufficiently powerful oven. This tradition continues. Therefore you would be sent on the trail of an artisanal baker who has a large (possibly wood fired) oven, somebody who uses butter and who has many years of experience in kneeding dough in the right way. They would have a large line of people outside their door. Any bread you make at home, and especially in a bread making machine - would not be considered right.
posted by rongorongo at 9:27 AM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

rongorongo is spot on (except no butter in a baguette - french bread ex-brioche is lean). Bake because you enjoy it and its a fun hobby. If you live in a large metro area you can always get better versions from a commercial baker.
posted by JPD at 9:36 AM on October 5, 2011

oh also I see you've made the no-knead bittman-lahey recipe - that too uses a "stone" and steam. The Stone is the hot cast iron, the Steam is the very high hydration dough baked in a covered dutch oven.

The Steam serves to keep to glutens in the crust from hardening too quickly, allowing greater oven spring, and better crust formation.
posted by JPD at 9:41 AM on October 5, 2011

2nd-ing the Bread Bible. Also Bread Baker's Apprentice. Do it by hand/kitchenaid.

A pizza stone is necessary (helps maintain a constant temp below the bread). A baguette shaping pan is also helpful.

My recipe takes 36hrs, and is based on the basic elements from the two books mentioned above. I start Friday night, so that bread is baked just before Saturday dinner. You make pate fermente and poolish on Fri night. Then on Saturday morning, you make the dough, let it rest, then knead it (this is where the kitchenaid is helpful). Let it rise for 2.5 hrs, pre-shape, rest, shape, rest; move to fridge for about 5 hrs. Preheat oven to 450F w/ pizza stone on middle shelf and a cast iron skillet on the bottom; remove dough from fridge and let come to room temp (about 1 hr). When you put the dough in the oven, throw a handful of ice cubes in the skillet; bake for about 30 mins, rotating 15 mins in.

You need to let the bread cool completely before slicing. The ice cubes mist the oven during the first stages of baking, which keeps the crust from hardening right away, allowing for a greater rise. Also, weighing your ingredients is preferable to volume measure.
posted by melissasaurus at 9:42 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

The perfect recipe for a baguette would probably involve water drawn from the Paris reservoirs. I've found that in places like Chicago, where the water has very different qualities, baguettes and similar breads (even when made using traditional ingredients and techniques) tend to be a lot more biscuity. As rongorongo pointed out, baking in Paris is primarily a commercial enterprise, and people's preferences will likely revolve around specific bakeries. However, there are a number of other types of artisanal bread in France, both sourdough and non, specific to various regions and municipalities. Investigating some of these might lead you to something you would be better able to reproduce in your own kitchen.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:47 AM on October 5, 2011

its probably more the flour actually. Paris and Chicago both have very hard water compared to say, New York. But French flours are totally different from US flours. Partially because they are from different wheat varieties, partially because of how they are milled.
posted by JPD at 9:50 AM on October 5, 2011

Both cities may have hard water, but I think with different mineral content. Paris' water comes from sources that pass through limestone, while Chicago has treated Great Lakes water. Regardless, I have eaten bread that was baked in Chicago using imported flour, and it was distinctly different. I've found a similar effect with pizza crust.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:03 AM on October 5, 2011


I bake all my own bread using two of Reinhardt's recipes - light wheat and french bread.

Here are some tips for french bread (memail me if you want to discuss further):
1. When you're starting, do all hand-kneading. It makes it possible to get a feeling for what properly kneaded dough feels like. At first, you'll be tempted to stop when it starts to get a little manageable. Don't. Keep going until you can windowpane it. I can send you pictures of that stage for french/wheat dough. It always takes longer than you think - and you really can't overknead by hand, so just keep going until windowpane.

2. I don't have great counterspace, so I use a giant oxo plastic bowl and knead the dough inside - it's nonstick, and it doesn't require adding more flour/water, which screws up the formula.

3. Make the preferment the night before. I keep a plastic ziplock for just this purpose. After it's done the rise/knock back cycle at least once (I usually do it 2-3x), spray the inside of the bag with oil and put the dough in. Leave it in the fridge until an hour or so before you want to start the rest of the dough.

4. Shaping in the hardest freaking thing in the whole process. I have been baking french bread for years, and I still am not great at it. Don't stress the shape - it all tastes good.

5. I over-proofed my dough for years. Now, I put it in the oven before I think it's ready. The dough should easily spring back to the touch. If it looks overinflated, it probably is. I like to spray it with a little oil before the rise starts - it keeps the surface moist and able to expand freely.

6. I don't use a stone, and I like the result fine (though if I could afford a decent one, I would get one). I use Silpat on a professional quality baking sheet (Chicago Metallic is good). I do use steam (a cast iron filled with water that I put in when the oven's preheating).

7. Always cool the bread before cutting it.

8. Practice and frequent troubleshooting with people who know what they're doing (like the freshloaf forum, or like me/some other people on this thread...seriously, memail me whenever and I'm happy to help!) is the only thing that brings good technique. Also, it's helpful to log what you did each time, and what the result is.

I'm making and eating the best bread of my life. It's TOTALLY worth it. Good luck!
posted by guster4lovers at 10:11 AM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

One thing I've done for the "steam" factor is to just get a plant mister at the ready, and then when I first put the bread in the oven, to spray a few quick hits into the oven before shutting the door. Then about ten minutes later, I open the oven quick and give it another couple sprays.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:20 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding the plant mister. I've actually been able to do a nice, crispy(it should be crispy!not chewy.) baguette with a kamut and spealt flour mix on my first time with Peter mayle's "confessions d'un boulanger"(I'm pretty sure there's an English version), that was written following the tips of one of the best artisanal bakers of south of France. Now if you know anything about wheat free flour, you know it usually results in a compact tasteless thing. I credit this tiny book for my success. It's really all about the proper techniques, and also isn't overwhelming like a lot of big baking encyclopedias. Good luck!
posted by kitsuloukos at 10:39 AM on October 5, 2011

An alternative to pizza stones is unglazed quarry tiles from home depot. A) They're cheaper (pizza stones are sold in fancy kitchen shops to people who are convinced they need pizza stones), and B) you can get the right number of tiles for your particular oven.

If you're in a lazy mood, you can use the bread machine for mixing/kneading, but remove the dough before it bakes and do it right, in the oven.

All that said, guster4lovers sounds like the person you want to be listening to here.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:41 AM on October 5, 2011

I've never made French bread.

But I do bake frequently, perhaps not weekly in the heat of the summer, but that much in the winter. The No-Knead is a favorite, as is Joan Nathan's Pain Petri, which is my go-to Challah these days. I also make some simple Tuscan white loaves.

I also do bagels and english muffins, mostly depending on how busy I am on a particular week.

I don't have a bread machine, but I do use my stand mixer, although I usually finish kneading by hand.

My $30 baking stone has been very useful. Since I've got a gas oven, I didn't want to cover the bottom with tiles and didn't want to have to deal with moving 6 or 8 tiles each time i needed to clean them or didn't want them in the oven. I also use Silpat, but sometimes (bagels or pizza, for example) I want the hot stone in direct contact with the crust.
posted by jindc at 11:42 AM on October 5, 2011

I just want to put in a good word for a baguette pan. It's the best way I've found to get an even crust all around (along with tons of steam).

I use the Artisan Bread In Five Minutes basic bread recipe and the baguette pan is especially useful with the wetter dough, for keeping the loaves shaped. But even with a traditional dough, the pan's worth the money.

In the winter I bake bread a couple times a week. Since I also make my own yogurt, I really like using the whey I strain off of that instead of water in my bread--it gives a tinge of sourdough flavor without the hassle of dealing with starter.
posted by padraigin at 12:16 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like my bread machine because I can set the timer to have a loaf ready at dinner time. This is just regular (white/wheat + some minor variations) bread, though.

I've used my machine pretty much weekly for 7 or 8 years.

KitchenAids are great and everything, but they won't put the dough in the pan and turn the oven on for you if you aren't home (but you said that wouldn't be a problem). Like mudpuppie said, you can just do the dough cycle if you want a different loaf shape.

One thing I have found using the bread machine is that you really need to use hot water, otherwise it won't rise right.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 12:29 PM on October 5, 2011

I found this article with a recipe in the end. Looks interesting.
posted by Tarumba at 2:52 PM on October 5, 2011

Since the recipe seems to be pretty well in hand (I like both the Bread Bakers Apprentice and The Bread Bible), I'd thought I'd address the parts about making things ahead of time:

You can proof dough in the fridge overnight if you need to, just make sure to give it enough time to warm up afterwards. In fact, if you're making French Bread, it'll probably help quite a bit flavor wise (I'm pretty sure that the recipe in BBA calls for something like this), yeast produce different compounds at different parts of their growth cycle, and anything you can do to extend the cycle adds new flavors. You just have to time it so that you can warm it up about 1.5-2 hours before continuing with the recipe. Yeast can survive being frozen, so I guess you could probably freeze it, but I haven't done that and I imagine it would throw things out of whack metabolism wise for the little fellows.

Personally though, I've found Vienna Bread (which is basically French Bread, but with some fat, the BBA has the recipe I use) easier, and people seem to respond to it better. Perfect french bread almost requires a bakery, it was created in bakeries for bakeries. That said, unless you really screw up, anything you make at home will be much better than something from your supermarket or even crappy chain bakery.
posted by Gygesringtone at 2:56 PM on October 5, 2011

This is in no way a proper baguette, but if you want a minimalist advance-prep pop in the oven crusty bread, then this is your recipe.

The dough keeps in the fridge for two weeks & makes four loaves. Win.
posted by Space Kitty at 4:43 PM on October 5, 2011

Space kitty, have you tried it? If it works, it's just what I was looking for!
posted by Tarumba at 7:16 PM on October 5, 2011

I looked at the article you posted, Tarumba, and at the recipe Space Kitty posted.

First, the article. That's a hell of a lot of detail for a beginner to french bread, and a lot of it isn't relevant. If it's not about BASIC technique to start with, it's not going to be that helpful.

Now, the recipe. As Space Kitty said, the recipe is minimalist - in fact, it's really a pared down version of BBA's french bread. But that being said, any recipe that gives flour amounts in cups rather than in oz/g screams RED FLAG AVOID to me. You need to weigh - I use grams (500 g bread flour, 500 g all purpose, per Reinhardt), but any measurement of weight is better than any measurement of volume. A scale is the only piece of specialty equipment you MUST own to make bread properly.

It also misses the crucial step-by-step walk-through that Reinhardt does in his book. Now, could you make decent bread from that recipe? Sure. But will it be as good as what you can produce from a properly kneaded (they just autolyse - also necessary, but as a precursor to kneading rather than a substitute) recipe that is also precise and detailed? No. I can say this with certainty - I tried LOTS of recipes (this being one of them) before settling on BBA for all my bread-baking needs. A good recipe anticipates the problems a user might have, and helps you work around them before you are even aware. BBA does that.

There are certain things in life for which there are no cheat codes. Good bread is one of them. The only thing instant about bread should be the yeast. If you want the perfect baguette, you have to make 999 imperfect ones.

I really don't mean to sound elitist about bread. In the end, the best advice I really have is this: Buy Bread Baker's Apprentice. I've made at least half of the recipes in the book, and I've never had a failure...even when it wasn't perfect, it still tasted good. And if you have to eat 999 imperfect loaves, they may as well start from a good recipe. :-)

Good luck. Seriously, memail me whenever - I look geeking out about bread baking!
posted by guster4lovers at 7:51 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've made it and it's delicious. It didn't specify bread flour, but that's what I used. Granted, I'd damn sure rather eat bread at guster4lovers house, but sometimes you just want something quick & tasty with your soup and this works for me.
posted by Space Kitty at 10:10 PM on October 5, 2011

I was never a baker, and if you'd asked this question a year ago, I'd have had zero clue where to even start.

On a whim last winter, I got this book, a pizza stone and peel, a danish wire dough whisk and some good quality flour and yeast from the King Arthur Flour site.

Look, I know a lot of bread purists are going to tell you that "no knead" bread is evil slacker territory. I could give a damn, because the above techniques mean I can make whole wheat loaves (at high altitude, no less) that come out consistently crustily-awesome-Whole-Foods quality, and aren't bricks. Not to mention the part where I work 10 hour days and I just do. not. have. the. time. for kneading, rising, waiting, punching down, bla bla bla ad nauseam.

really, that book changed the entire way I think about baking.

oh and side note: one other thing I have found out. "proofing" yeast is an old wives' tale. It's a holdover from the bad old days when you got yeast from the place up the road, refrigeration and vacuum sealing didn't exist, and you couldn't trust that the yeast cultures you were getting were viable, or that they were "sterile", meaning not infected with some weird strain or full of bacteria. For probably the last fifty years or so, owing to the commercial production quality of store bought yeast, it's a bullshit extra step you are only doing because everyone's done it since the dawn of time. You don't need to bother with it unless your yeast is super old or got left out.
posted by lonefrontranger at 8:53 PM on October 6, 2011

guster4lovers, I use that exact method, measure in cups, and work the dough/water ratio to where the dough is just dry enough to manage. It works, and I've used it hundreds of times. I never ever weigh and my loaves come out spectacular.

The book I mentioned above says that it doesn't matter if you weigh or measure - flour will hold amazingly variable amounts of water depending on relative humidity, so both weights and measures can be way off - here in Colorado I'm often cutting the flour down by a cup and a half. They tell you this, and tell you what to look for. Baking is about ratios, not about weights or measures, both of which can lie. So you get close by measuring, then fine tune until it feels right.
posted by lonefrontranger at 9:01 PM on October 6, 2011

I don't weigh either. People were making fantastic bread for hundreds or even thousands of years before they had digital scales that could weigh fractions of a gram. If it's so important to be just so with weights, then why does bread made using using 30g ounces instead of 28.5g oz for metric conversions turn out fine? There's a 5% error already. Very few people who freak about weight seem to be similarly concerned with other variables, like resting temps, kneading times etc, or even using particular flour brands with specific humidities. It all works out in the end. Relax, don't worry, make some bread.

You probably need to specify what you mean by 'French bread'. If you mean 'bread I ate in Paris', then you probably need French flour, which is very different to American flour. Go check out the baguette threads over on The Fresh Loaf for details of flour swaps between Paris and the US. Short story - American flour seems to make French bread that looks OK, but tastes of nothing at all, and behaves very, very differently during the dough-making process.

If you mean 'bread most people would happily call French bread - long, golden brown loaves with a crackly crust, a toothsome, chewy crumb and a pronounced wheat flavour', then I've had great success with the Pain a l'Ancienne recipe from TBBA (a write up here - there are many, many others, just Google it). It's the easiest recipe in the book - no preferment, next to no kneading (less than ten minutes, but with a very, very wet dough so no achy arms) - but the use of ice water and time does indeed seem to pull out the flavour from the wheat, and results in a phenomenal colour and crackle. It also makes awesome pizza.

Otherwise, another big thumbs up for Space Kitty's recipe, and for the Artisan Bread in Five book generally; we've always been very, very happy with the results. It just works.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 10:27 PM on October 9, 2011

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