I mean, I was kinda proud of myself for making the attempt. Making good french bread is intimidating to me. I mean, when I'm doing my sourdough, or my sandwich loaves, there are a lot of enriching ingredients there to aid in the leavening and the flavor. In some ways, they're like crutches. You can mess up a little bit, and it'll still be OK, because the sugar will make it sweet and help it rise, and the egg and milk will help make it fluffy, etc...
But with french bread, you got none o' that. It's just flour, yeast, water, and salt. And that's it. And you have to make magnificent delicious, fluffy bread, with a rich brown crust with nothing more than that.
If THAT doesn't scare you, then you have no clue what you're up against!
Or, at least, that's what I kept telling myself.
But, I have two great teachers in my corner. One is Peter Reinhart, and his book, "The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread". The other is the great lady that gave me the book for Christimas, my dear sister!
So, I used Peter's recipe and procedure as best I could last week, and then, after talking to my sister, I applied her techniques as well. The problem with Reinhart is that he's cooking the bread in nice commercial ovens, not in a charcoal burning dutch oven in a backyard. So, I have to adapt his procedures somewhat. My sister helped me with that.
Another thing that I'm learning a lot along the way is that bread is a process, not a recipe. That's really true of almost all dishes, but bread moreso. The more you learn of the process, the better your bread with be in the long run.
Reinhart's french bread is done in three stages. One batch of dough is made and ferments overnight. It's blended with a second one that ferments on the kitchen counter. Finally it's shaped and proofed and baked.
The first stage is called the Pâte Fermentée (Don't ask me how to pronounce it, I'm a hick from a small town in Utah).
No dutch ovens, no coals
- 1/2 tsp Yeast
- 1 Cup water
- 2 1/4 Cups Bread Flour
- 3/4 tsp Salt
I started by mixing the yeast and the water. Reinhart suggests using "instant" yeast, but I didn't have any, so I still activated my regular yeast in the water. It doesn't foam up like it would if there were sugar in the water, so I just dissolved it.
Then I mixed the flour and the salt, and poured in the water/yeast mix. I stirred that up and started to knead it. I shook in a little flour as I went, but not actually much. I found the texture to be very different than the enriched breads I'd done before. It was more like play-dough. It took a little getting used to.
I did knead it a long time, but I didn't really pay much attention to doing a windowpane test. It seemed to me that I'd be adding it to the other dough and rekneading it tomorrow anyway.
After the kneading, I put it back in the oiled bowl and let it sit under plastic wrap for about an hour. It did raise up, but it didn't balloon up like the other breads I've done did. Then I put it in the fridge to continue fermenting overnight.
Last week, I didn't do the overnight thing. I did this step, and just let it raise for about 2 hours total, and then moved on to step two. I think that when I have time, I'm definitely recommending the overnight rise. Like Reinhart says, there's more fermenting time to develop flavor.
- 1/2 tsp Yeast
- 1 Cup water (about 100° F)
- The Pâte Fermentée from the night before
- 2 1/2 Cups Bread Flour
- 3/4 tsp Salt
So, the next day, today, I took the Pâte Fermentée out of the fridge and let it come up in temperature as much as possible. I cut it into 10-12 pieces and put it in with the flour and the salt, while the yeast and the water were activating. I just used a pastry cutter.
Then, I added in the water/yeast mix and started stirring it up. I turned it out onto my floured table top and started kneading. It took quite a while to reach a good windowpane test. When that was all done, I put it back in that oiled bowl and set it aside to rise for about 2 hours.
When it had risen well, I tipped it out and shaped it into a boule (that's french for "ball", I think). Even as I was shaping it, I was trying to not be too rough so as to not degas it as much as possible. I set it aside, under plastic wrap, for its final proof. If I'd had any, I would have set it aside on a sheet of baking parchment, and then on a plate, because, well, you'll see...
Right away, I went out and got some coals burning. I was going to preheat the entire oven this time, rather than just the lid. It took a while for the coals to fire up, but they did, and I put 12 coals underneath, and about 25 above. That should make it somewhere around 475° F. I let it heat up for about 15 minutes or so.
While that was heating and the dough was still proofing, I gathered up a few more tools. I got a spritz bottle of water. I got a paring knife, and my meat thermometer.
Now here's the technique my sister told me about. She said to do these steps quickly, in about as much time as it takes to explain it. So, I did.
I dropped the boule of dough into the now-way-hot dutch oven. I sliced the top of the dough three times. I spritzed it with water a few times. I stuck in the thermometer. I closed the lid.
OK, actually, the thermometer is my idea, not my sister's or Reinhart's. I just can never tell when bread is done, so I use the thermometer and cook it to an internal temperature of 190° F to 200° F. The spritz is what Reinhart and my sister both say helps to form the famous brench bread crust. It also helps with the "spring" to help the bread get really big in the oven. Had I used the parchment, I could have lowered the boule in much more smoothly and lost less gas and body in the process. So, I'll do that next time. I got that idea from a bread making blog.
I probably cooked it for about a half-hour to 45 minutes. I kept adding a few fresh coals and turning the lid and the body of the dutch oven every 15 minutes or so. I don't cook to time, but rather to temperature.
Then, I pulled it off the coals and let it cool. It really tasted great, even better than last week. It was a much larger loaf, and the crumb was much lighter. The crust was crunchier as well. It was enough for me to declare it a true winner.