My friend Stephanie Stiavetti (@sstiavetti) writes The Culinary Life blog. Her first book is Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese.
By Stephanie Stiavetti
It wasn’t all that long ago that homemade bread was a regular staple at the table. Two, perhaps three, generations have passed and pushed this skill into the history books. No more warm loaves on the table, or seductive smells piquing your senses. It’s a genuine loss.
Bread was one of the first projects I took on myself as a girl, and though my grandmothers didn’t really make bread, I was able to pick up the process pretty quickly. At 10 years old I baked my first bread with only the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook to guide me, and by age 12 I had managed a pretty decent French bread that earned me a nod from my sweet, elderly neighbor who walked a mile every day to buy a baguette from the one independent baker in the town I grew up in.
Shortly thereafter, I got sucked into the teenage world of boys, cars, and video games. Baking took a backseat, and I ended up lumped in with the rest of the American population, who seem to feel that making bread at home isn’t worth the hassle or just don’t have the time to invest in something that can so easily be bought from the store.
The thing is, bread is an experience. Or at least it should be. There’s a league of difference between what you buy at the supermarket and what actually leaves a lasting impression on your psyche. Renowned bread baker Didier Rosada once said to my class of aspiring boulangers, after directing us to take a bite of the bread we’d just made, “Do you see how the flavor lingers on your tongue? THAT is the sign of good bread. It is the long fermentation that stays with you. If the flavor goes like this"—he gave a dismissive wave of his hand—“then it is not good bread. It’s that simple.”
The reality is that good bread is an exercise in economy, a simple craft that doesn’t require years of practice. Four humble ingredients—flour, water, salt, and yeast—come together to create something incredibly special. But despite the simple nature of its components, bread needs an attentive hand. You can’t just throw these things together and create a memorable loaf; they require patience, a lost art that our recent kitchen culture doesn’t abide. But in the end, bread is not a difficult thing to make by any means.
Why spend the time and energy to make your own bread when you can pick up a baguette from your local grocery store? Because that bread probably sucks, that’s why.
If the stuff from your local chain supermarket is your only bread experience, I challenge you to visit a true artisan bakery and see what you’re missing. Publican Quality Bread (Chicago), Tartine (San Francisco), Orwashers (New York), On the Rise (Cleveland), and their contemporaries put time and energy into every simple baguette, every batard, every boule, and it shows the moment you consider the bite you just took: crust that puts up a fight when you tear through it, flavor that lingers on your tongue for some well-deserved sexy time, and a firmer, chewier crumb that remains tender while still offering a little bit of good-natured resistance.
This is the experience of good bread.
Or, better yet, try making some bread at home. I promise, it’s not that difficult. If a 12-year-old can pull it off, there’s no reason a perfectly capable adult can’t accomplish the same feat. I’ll even show you how.
Stephanie Stiavetti is a food writer and cookbook author living in San Francisco. She keeps a food blog at The Culinary Life and offers personalized cooking support at Fearless Fresh, where she teaches stressed and trepidatious home cooks how to be ninjas in the kitchen.
If you liked this post on French bread, check out these other posts:
- My recent posts on Pimm's Cup, Deviled Eggs, and Halibut Ceviche.
- Stephanie's past guest posts on the pasta primer, chocolate pasta, and gluten-free fried chicken.
- Don't forget to visit my bread app and bread baking basics.
- The Bread Baker's Apprentice is a must-have kitchen book for all bread bakers.
© 2015 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2015 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.
Simple French Bread
- Squirt bottle filled with clean water
- 10 ounces water, at room temperature
- ⅛ teaspoon active dry yeast
- ½ tablespoon salt
- 16 ounces bread flour
- ½ teaspoon active dry yeast
- 12 ounces water, at room temperature
- 16 ounces bread flour
- 1½ teaspoons salt
- Prefermented dough
- The night before you plan to bake your bread, prepare the pre-fermented dough. This will provide both lasting flavor and strength to your dough. Combine the water and yeast in a bowl and stir. Allow to sit for 5 minutes. Add the salt and flour, mixing on the lowest speed of your mixer for 3 minutes. Cover the bowl with plastic and allow the dough to ferment at room temperature, ideally 70°F/21°C, for 12 hours.
- The next day, it’s time to prepare the final dough.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer combine the yeast and three-quarters of the water. Allow to sit for 5 minutes. Add the bread flour, salt, and prefermented dough. Set the mixer to its slowest speed and mix for 3 minutes. If the dough looks too dry, slowly add a little more of the water until it look like a nice, cohesive dough. You may not need the entire amount of water, depending on the flour you’re using and the moisture in the air.
- Set the mixer to its second speed and mix until you’ve got decent gluten development, about 3 minutes. (If your mixer runs on the slow side, it may take an extra minute or two.) Take a piece of dough and gently pull it between your fingers, to see if it creates a windowpane. If it doesn’t stretch thin to the point of being transparent, mix for another 30 seconds.
- Turn the dough out onto the counter and give it a “fold” to help it build strength. (Here is a quick video tutorial.) Set the folded dough into a large bowl that has been lightly greased with oil and cover the bowl with plastic to prevent the dough from drying out.
- From here, the dough needs to ferment for about 2½ hours. During this time, it needs to be folded twice more—once after 50 minutes and again after 1 hour 45 minutes.
- Take this opportunity to prepare your oven. Set two racks in the oven—one in the very center, equal distance from your top and bottom heating elements, and a second rack directly underneath it. If you’re using a baking stone, place it on the top rack. Then fill a large metal baking dish about one-third with water and set it on the bottom rack. Have a squirt bottle ready, full of fresh water (not the water that’s been sitting in the bottle for months as a plant sprayer or for hosing the cat).
- After the dough has been properly folded and fermented, divide it in half. Use a scale if you’ve got one, so that each half is evenly weighted (and therefore of equal baking time). Lightly flour your work surface and gently press some of the gases out of the dough. Preshape each lump of dough into a ball. (Here’s another video tutorial, since seeing it makes it a hell of a lot easier.) Set the rounds on your counter and cover with plastic wrap. Allow them to rest for 20 minutes.
- Lightly dust your work surface again with flour. To shape the dough into round loaves, gently press down on the dough to expel some of its gas. Shape into rounds yet again, using the same method you used to preshape them, but this time tighten them up a little more to give them more strength. Be sure not to tighten so much that the surface of the dough tears, which will look like large rough patches instead of being nice and smooth. Also make sure to dust your hands with flour so that they don’t stick to the dough and tear it. The smooth side of your dough is the top of the ball, where it did not come in contact with the work surface.
- Set the rounds smooth-side down in a gently floured banneton, if you’ve got one, or set them smooth-side up on a floured surface (loaves left to proof on a table will spread out a little more). Cover the dough and allow it to proof about 1 hour 15 minutes, or until it’s roughly doubled in size. The ideal proofing temperature is about 75°F/24°C, and loaves may proof faster or slower depending on how warm your room is.
- IMPORTANT: About halfway through the proofing process, preheat your oven to 450°F/232°C. Don’t forget, as the dough won’t stop proofing just because you forgot to flip the oven on. Overproofed dough is no bueno and can collapse as it bakes. Also, set a pot of water to boil on the stove and keep it hot until the bread goes in the oven.
- Once the loaves are proofed, transfer them to a sheet of parchment paper, making sure they’re smooth-side up. If you like a more rustic look, sift a thin layer of bread flour onto the top of your loaves. Not too much, though, since no one wants a mouthful of browned flour when they take a bite.
- Use a very sharp knife to cut 3 lines across the top of each loaf, about ¼ inch deep. (Or get more creative with your design.) By creating these areas for the dough to expand, you’re allowing the bread to increase in volume without exploding out wherever the crust happens to be weakest.
- Transfer the parchment and loaves to your baking stone, if you’re using one. If you’re not using a baking stone, set the parchment and loaves on heavy-gauge baking sheets and slide them into the oven.
- Immediately pour the boiling water into the baking pan on the bottom rack, then use the squirt bottle to spray 4 or 5 spritzes of water around the back and walls of the oven. This step is super important—it creates steam, which keeps the crust of the bread moist, and that allows the bread to gain more volume as the softer crust allows it to expand more before hardening. After about 3 minutes, crack open your oven and give it 3 more spritzes.
- Bake the loaves for 15 minutes, then turn them around in the oven and carefully remove the baking pan with the water.
- Bake for another 10 to 15 minutes, depending on how dark you like your crust. Keep an eye on them, because bread will go from deep brown to burnt within just a few minutes. You’ll know the bread is done when the crust doesn’t give easily to a squeeze and the bottom sounds hollow when you thump on it with a knuckle. If you’re the temperature-taking type, the inner temp should be about 200°F/93°C.
- Remove the loaves from the oven and set on a cooling rack. Don’t set them on a flat surface or the bottoms will get soggy as condensation collects under the bread. Allow to cool for 2 hours before cutting or wrapping, to preserve the ideal moisture content of the bread.
- Oh, and for the best possible experience, buy some awesome salted butter for spreading on your bread. I use Plugra 82%; Kerrygold is very good as well. But I suppose that’s an entirely different post.
I was just talking about making bread with my best friend back home. I have a lot of books on how to make bread, and couldn't figure which would be best for him. Along you come with this great post, a real time saver!
A question... If we wanted to make baguettes, could we use this dough?
Absolutely. You can make many things with this dough - baguettes, batards, brötform boules, and others.
second what steph says, this is an excellent all purpose dough.
Thanks for this very detailed description of how to make good bread. The video about folding is particularly helpful; I've seen general instructions for that elsewhere but no good description of how to do it. A couple of the books I've used recently state the preferment should work its magic overnight in the refrigerator versus at room temperature. The is that the slow fermentation process builds additional flavor. Any thoughts on "to fridge or not to fridge?"
I’m far from a master baker and will always defer to someone who’s been doing this for decades (such as Chef Didier, who has a dizzying amount of knowledge on the topic) but I’ll throw in what I do know.
Slower fermentation does indeed develop longer lasting and more complex flavor. What it comes down to is the amount of yeast involved, as well as how much salt you’re using. If you add a small enough amount of yeast to your preferment, you can allow it to ferment overnight at room temp and develop a lot more flavor without over fermenting (the yeast burns through the sugars in the dough). If you’re using a preferment recipe with a lot of yeast, you would need to either ferment for a shorter amount of time at room temp or chill it to slow down the yeast.
There’s also the salt content of your dough. Salt retards yeast, so the more salt you add, the slower the dough will ferment. Bakers can add more of the overall recipe’s salt ratio to their preferment to slow down the fermentation, or vice versa. The amount of water is also a factor, as are the types of flour you use (which may or may not change the enzymatic action within the preferment).
What’s considered small or large amount of yeast? It depends on the recipe, the preferment method you’re using, and what your goal is. I’ve worked with various yeast ratios in many different preferment and starters, but the basic preferment for French bread was 0.50% yeast with 2% salt and an overnight stint in the fridge. You could just as easily leave the same recipe out on the counter for just a few hours and it would ferment much fast and yield different flavor results.
Actually, this might be a fun experiment for you to do for your own information; make two batches of bread with the same preferment ratio, and leave one PF in the fridge overnight and the other on the counter for two to four hours, then see how the flavor varies from batch to batch.
This doesn’t even touch on the myriad ways to create a preferment (levain, biga, poolish, leftover prefermented dough, etc), which build various degrees of flavor using different amounts of wild and/or commercial yeast, and can be flexible with the temperature if you know what you’re doing. Bakers who have been doing this forever and understand the science behind it can manage a fair degree of flexibility with their doughs by adjust yeast, salt, temperature, enzyme content, etc.
All this said, it’s not so simple in the commercial world, where there are other factors involved when deciding how to go about it. For example, a baker may need to purposely speed up or slow down the fermentation so that it fits into his or her staffing schedule. (You don’t want the dough to finish fermenting when there’s no one in the kitchen to tend it, or when everyone’s going to be busy with something else.)
Sorry for the novella, but it’s a big topic.
here's my reply: the longer the ferment the better the flavor. But: if you _can_ over ferment, and there's nothing you can do to undo it.
What I find striking is that, on one level, making bread is so easy that a 12 year old can do it. But soon the craft turns to intricate details of hydration ratios, fermentation times, etc.
It seems like things go from simple to complicated pretty fast.
True, David - but as is often the case with cooking and baking, the science behind it is somewhat complicated while the practical application can be simple. So while one could explain all the factors involved for having a specific hydration ratio, the recipe itself could just as easily say, "Mix X amount of flour with Y amount of water."
Thankfully you don't need to understand the science to successfully follow a well-written recipe, a fact for which my 12-year old self is grateful. 🙂
This is seriously wonderful.
One of the things I was talking about with the kids who work for me at Scout Camp this summer was that, no matter how good the food we "cooked" was, it would never touch the food we could do if we made it ourselves. To prove that, I picked a fairly easy night and told them to make rolls for dinner. We had ~300 people to make food for, so I told them they needed to make 600 1.5oz basic rolls. I brought one of my starters from home, had all the other stuff delivered and told them I would answer any question they had, but they had to do all the work.
They did a generous "rounding up" of materials to make sure they had enough dough. (They even lit up when I showed them baker's percentages would let them know what the yield would be. Math in action.) Only one of the kids had ever seen bread being made before, so they were floored with the fact a dough can double in 45 minutes when the kitchen is over 90. They learned windowpane, how to scale and shape rolls, how to make steam in a convection oven and even that a simple slash on a roll makes it taste better.
Most of the kids were floored by the thought we made the food. It makes me happy it was appreciated, and even happier that they know they can do it.
inspiring story, as these always are! teach our kids to cook and we change the world. (seriously. this is not an overstatement. )
Outstanding! This article articulated exactly what it took me 30 years to figure out. People ask me all the time how I make my bread and now I'll just reference this essay. Thanks!
Thanks so much, Jerry!
Stephanie, for me your the timing of this post is impeccable. I just returned from a trip to France, where it is easier to find a fresh baguette than it is to locate a replacement toothbrush. As usual, I returned to the states craving a good burger and bottomless glass of ice water, but definitely mourning the loss of my daily walk to one of the 6 bakeries within smelling distance of my apartment.
Thanks for this inspirational reminder that I have the ingredients, two hands and an oven (and, thankfully, the luxury of a stand mixer). I'm very excited to try your recipe!
Rachele, I'm in a similar situation. I recently spent two months in a small town in France, where I practically lived on bread, cheese, and wine, all of which were locally produced and available within two blocks of the house. It was tough to come back to the states, where I have to travel more than a few steps for everything. And food is so much more expensive here that it was in the town I was staying in.
what do you do with the prefermented dough?
" Add the bread flour, salt, and prefermented dough. "
you need to bold those last two words for the likes of me