Being a household that eats a lot of soup and a lot of pasta, bread is a staple side that I make time and time again. One of my biggest goals of my time spent in quarantine was how to make the perfect loaf of French Bread. As I broadened my knowledge of baking, in my head, this idea didn’t seem too difficult. Before my time at home, I had always used my bread maker, but the concept of actual bread baking didn’t seem that challenging. I learned about the process of activating dry yeast, the standard time for kneading dough, how long to proof the dough to make it double in size, and researched different ways to coat the bread for the desired brownness/crunchiness of the crust. Armed with this knowledge, I set to work.
With dough that I assumed was perfect, I separated it into two logs, let it be for its second round of rising, coated it with an egg wash and let it bake. I was so proud of myself. They came out of the oven looking PERFECT. Then we ate… and yikes…that turned into a giant NOPE. Those were some DENSE loaves of bread.
I turned back to the internet trying to discover what I did wrong. Did I need a different combination of ingredients? I really didn’t think so, but figured it was back to the drawing board. After an hour or so of reading, I discovered the problem. Turns out you cannot just form two logs of dough and expect it to turn into fluffy loaves of bread. There is a TECHNIQUE to forming French Bread. There was a correct way of rolling and shaping the dough.
I returned back to my kitchen, and sure enough, all of my problems were solved. If you have ever had a desire to make your own loaves of French Bread, check out this recipe. Make sure to pay careful attention to my notes about technique, because it REALLY does matter.
1 cup and 6 tbsp Warm Water
1 tbsp Sugar
2 tsp Active Dry Yeast
1 ½ tbsp Olive Oil
1 ½ tsp Salt
4 cups Bread Flour
Baking Prep Ingredients
1 Egg White
3 tbsp Water
1. The first step to making most bread is activating the yeast. This can be very easily done by warming up the water, dissolving the sugar into it, and finally, whisking in the yeast until it is also dissolved. Let this rest for 5-6 minutes. Once the time is up, the mixture should be bubbled up in the middle to indicate that the yeast is, indeed, activated. If it is not bubbled up, then throw it out and start again.
Kitchen Tip 1: One of the easiest ways to mess up yeast activation is by having the water too cold or too hot. If you are nervous about the temperature of the water, stick a thermometer in it. Ideally, this should be between 85 to 100 degrees. If it’s too hot, then wait for it to cool down a little bit before adding in the yeast.
2. Once the yeast has been activated, pour the mixture into your standing mixer bowl. While you can knead dough by hand, I personally make all of my bread recipes in my standing mixer using my bread hook. Add in all the other ingredients into the bowl. Mix together and knead with the bread hook on low for 7 minutes. Don’t be surprised when the dough is a little firmer than other breads. That is completely normal.
3. Once the dough has been kneaded, put it into a large greased bowl, cover with a flour sack towel, and let it rise for 90 minutes. It should double in size.
Kitchen Tip 2: Many newer ovens have a Bread Proof option. If you are fortunate enough to have this function, use it. This setting heats up your oven to the ideal temperature for bread to rise, around 80-90 degrees. If you do not have this function, then find the warmest area in your home and let the bowl of dough rise in that room. Before I got my oven I would always set the bowl of dough on the fireplace mantel, and that worked pretty well.
4. After the dough has risen, punch it down and split the ball in two 9 inch to 12 inch logs. Roll out the logs into a thin rectangular shape. This should be about ⅛ to a ¼ inch thick.
5. Using your handing roll the long sides of the rectangle inward until a long log reforms. Then tuck the edges of the loaf under it and smooth out the creases, and put the long seam on the bottom of the pan.
Kitchen Tip 3: If the loaves are turning out longer than your pan when forming them, rip off the ends, smooth out the areas you ripped off, then create a third mini loaf with the leftover dough.
6. Coat a pizza stone, or parchment lined pan with a layer of cornmeal. This will prevent the loaves of bread from sticking as much to the pan or stone during the baking process. Lay the loaves on the pan or stone, cover with a flour sack towel and let rise for another hour.
7. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. While it is preheating, mix one egg white with 3 tablespoons of water. Lightly brush the egg wash onto the top of each loaf. Make sure to get both the sides and the top, as this is what will give the crust its toasty brown appearance and crunchy crispy texture.
Kitchen Tip 4: The amount of egg wash used makes a big difference in appearance and texture. I vary this up depending on how brown and crunchy I want the outsides. A light brush stroke with small amounts of wash creates a lighter softer crust, and using more of the wash, and getting it into the oven while it’s still freshly wet will create a harder crust. The picture at the top of this post shows a softer crust, and the second-to-last picture represents a harder crust. It’s really all about personal preference.
8. Use a sharp knife and score (cut a slit) the bread about every two inches apart. These slits should go about an ⅛ of the way through the loaf.
9. Bake the bread for 25 minutes and let cool a little before cutting and eating.
Kitchen Tip 5: This bread does have a tendency to stick to the pan even with the corn meal layer. If you are using a pan make sure you put parchment paper down first. If you are using a stone, you MUST let them cool for at least a full hour before trying to separate them from the pan. If you don’t the bottom of the bread will stick to the stone.
French bread is a great side to serve with so many meals, and there is such a sense of accomplishment to creating beautiful bread loaves. While I love eating it fresh out of the oven. I also love that this recipe makes up two loaves, leaving me one to save or give away to family and friends. Since a loaf this long won’t fit in a bag, I like to store it by wrapping it in two layers to keep fresh. The first layer is parchment paper, and the second layer is freezer paper. This technique can help keep the bread fresh for about three days, if it even lasts that long! It is always eaten up before hitting the three day marker in my house!