I've been working on making and baking bread lately. I want to be able to confidently and consistently bake a nice loaf of bread with a crunchy crust and chewy center. It should have a nice flavor and uneven holes inside.
I took a class at a wonderful bakery a few years ago and learned all about the art and craft of French bread. We talked about different kinds of flour, and the temperature of the dough, and steam injection ovens. The effects of chlorine on fermentation and percentages of protein in different types of flour were discussed. The most interesting and pertinent tidbit I took away from the class was the use of bromate in flours. Potassium bromate is added to some flours to improve the texture of bread and make it easier and quicker to work with. However, it has been linked to cancer and has been banned in Europe and other countries. For more information on bromate in flours, click here. I was shocked and horrified to learn that a known carcinogen is still used in baking in the United States. I use King Arthur Flour, and sometimes Gold Medal products which are also unbromated. In the class, we learned how to knead and slash and baked tons of bread all in one evening and went home with a recipe. I hadn't tried to use the recipe at home until recently because I didn't have a sturdy mixer and wasn't anxious to do all that kneading by hand. (I previously used a no knead recipe when I wanted to make bread.) My first attempts at this bread were disappointing. The bread was perfectly edible, but a little too dense and totally lacking in flavor. I consulted Julia Child in From Julia Child's Kitchen before trying yet again. Her recipe is not a simple one page affair, but an entire chapter full of information. She also gives directions for a bread with 3 long slow rises, as compared to two rises in the other recipe. The results in my final baked bread proved that the slow way is better.
I used a combination of her recipe and the one I had been using, and things turned out much better. The key is to give it time. It takes all day to let the dough develop its flavor and texture. For the recipe as I made it, you will need a heavy duty mixer such as a KitchenAid, parchment paper, and a pizza stone.
Country French Bread
3 cups all purpose white flour - unbleached and unbromated
1 1/2 teaspoon dry active yeast
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups room temperature water
Before you begin, measure out 10 cups of water into your mixing bowl and mark the volume on the outside of the bowl. This will be your guide as you wait for the dough to rise. Dump the water out and dry the bowl.
Place the flour, yeast and salt into the bowl of the mixer with the dough hook attachment. Turn the mixer on low speed. Using very slightly warm water, add it slowly while the mixer is running. You may not need more than 1 1/4 cups water, or you may need to add it all. The dough should be very sticky, but not too sloppy like a cake batter, so add it in a slow stream and allow it to mix well. Let the mixer run for about 5 minutes at this low speed ( #2 on a KitchenAid). Then turn the mixer off and scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl and allow the dough to rest for 2 minutes. Start the mixer again and increase the speed to medium (#4 on KitchenAid) for 3 minutes. Stop the mixer and let the dough rest for 2 minutes again, then turn it back on to medium speed for another 2 or 3 minutes. At this point, the dough should be soft and a little sticky and moist, but not wet. Take the dough out of the bowl and wash it, then place the dough back in the clean and dry bowl and cover with plastic wrap. You will now walk away from the dough and allow it to rise slowly until it reaches that 10 cup mark on the side of the bowl. This should take a minimum of 3 1/2 hours. My kitchen was cool when I made this bread, and it took 5 hours for the dough to rise. If your kitchen is warmer than 75 degrees, you'll want to find a cooler place for rising do that it doesn't go too fast. If your kitchen is very cool, like maybe below 65 degrees, you'll want to find a warmer place or be willing to wait for a very very slow rise.
So once the dough has completed this first rise, lightly flour a counter top and dump the dough out onto it. My dough was a sloppy sticky mass at this point, but I pressed on and followed Julia's step by step directions. Flatten by patting with lightly floured palms of your hands into a 10 to 12 inch circle. In the words of the book, 'flip near side over onto far side, then left side onto right, and finally flip near side complelety over and just under far side.' I followed these directions to the best of my ability and carried on. Clean out the bowl again, and place the dough back into it for another rise. This time it should take 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours at 70 to 75 degrees. Again, if you kitchen is hot or cool on baking day keep that in mind and look for the dough to rise almost to the previous level.
Now you are ready to shape the dough. Dump it out onto a floured surface and pat it down to a 12 inch circle. 'Flip left side two thirds of the way over to the right; flip far side almost down over near side; flatten. Pick up dough and slap it down, same side up, but giving it a turn so that the side that was nearest you is now the left side. Flip far side down almost to cover near side; flatten; pick up and slap down, same side up, this time giving a quarter turn so the side that was nearest you is again to your left. Flip left side almost over to right side, and turn dough over.' Shape the dough into a ball and pinch the seams together. Place on a cookie sheet or pizza peel lined with parchment paper, smooth side up. Cover with plastic wrap that has been rubbed with flour so it will not stick and let rise 1 1/2 hours. When ready, the dough will be nearly triple in size and appear puffy and swollen.
About 30 minutes before you are ready to bake the bread, lower the rack in the oven to the lowest setting and set the pizza stone on it. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Place a small heat proof pan of water in the hot oven to create steam. Using a sharp knife, make 3 or 4 slashes in the dough or a cross in the center. Wet your hands and flick the dough with water droplets, then slide off the pan and onto the hot baking stone. Close the oven door and bake for 2 minutes. Wet your hands again, open the oven and flick more water onto the bread. Close and allow to bake for 20 to 25 minutes. The bread should be a dark golden brown. Turn the oven off and leave it in for another 5 to 10 minutes to allow it to dry out. Take out and cool on a wire rack. Do not slice until the bread has cooled for about 30 minutes or more.