Monday, November 5, 2012

Rustic French Bread

There is nothing better than good bread (well, maybe good bread, good cheese, and a glass a wine).  But most people leave this sort of bread to the professionals.  However, with a little patience, you can make quality breads at home.  Now when I say patience, I mean it: this is an all day process.  Most of that time is spent waiting on the bread to rise, so it's not like you will be in the kitchen all day.  You'll notice that my photos change color throughout this post.  I started early and ended late.  

This is one of the most satisfying recipes I've ever made.  I never thought I could make bread like this, so when I did, I must admit I was pretty pleased with myself.  This recipe is from Joy of Cooking, but I've made a few very slight adjustments.  

Rustic French Bread 

The first thing you do is create a sponge starter:
Combine 1/2 cup lukewarm water and 1/2 teaspoon dry yeast and let sit for 5 minutes.  

Slowly add 3/4 cup flour (recipe calls for bread flour, but I used all-purpose and it was fine).  While adding the flour, stir quickly with a fork.  Elastic strands should pull away from the side of the bowl.  Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature for 6 hours.  It will be bubbly and tripled in volume like this:

Pour the sponge starter into the bottom of a bowl or in the bowl of your Kitchen Aid mixer.  Stir in:
2 cups room temperature water
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (sifted then remeasured)

As you are stirring, sprinkle in:
1 tablespoon fine sea salt (regular old salt will be fine)

Mix until the dough cleans the side of the bowl.  Your dough should feel sticky to the touch but it shouldn't stick to your fingers.  Add a little water or flour if you need to get it to this consistency.  Knead the dough for 10 minutes.  You can knead with your Kitchen Aid mixer.  Use the dough hook and put the mixer on a low to medium speed.
Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl and turn the dough to coat it in oil.  Cover the bowl in plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in size in a warm place (a turned off oven works great).  This should take about 3 hours and it should look like this:
Divide the dough in half.  Now you need to shape the dough into round loaves.  This is how you do this: cradle the dough in your hands.  Pull the dough down on each side so that the top gets taught, and then shift the dough about an inch to the right and then repeat.  This should take about two minutes.

Place the round loaves on a floured baking sheet.  DO NOT OIL THE BAKING SHEET!  Just flour. I made that mistake the first time I made this recipe.  The oil causes the dough to spread out too much while baking.  The flour adds a bit of friction so that the dough stays in a nice round shape.  Cover the loaves with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until doubled in size.  This may take 2-4 hours.  

 Score the risen loaves with a razor blade or a very sharp knife.  This works better with a razor blade.  I score my loaves in a criss-cross pattern like this:
 Set the racks on the lower and center levels of the oven.  Place a baking pan (a pie pan works great) on the bottom rack.  Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.  Place the loaves on the center rack.  Add 2 cups boiling water to the preheated pan on the bottom level.  Bake the loaves for about 40 minutes.  Then turn off the oven and let the loaves sit in the oven for about 5 to 10 minutes.  Tap the bottom of the loaves.  They should make a hollow sound.  Loaves should look like this:
Let the loaves cool completely (about an hour) before you slice into them.  There you have it!  Delicious French bread!


  1. You're making all of this for us at Thanksgiving, right?

  2. Oh my goodness!!!! That is quite impressive. And I said it before, and I'll say it again: Martha, watch out!