As a cooking teacher, I get a lot of satisfaction out of demystifying those techniques and recipes that are shrouded in a veil of misunderstanding. My French bread rolls are a perfect example of something that even good cooks expect to get only from a restaurant kitchen or from a fine bakery. In reality, these rolls are not only easy to make at home, but they’re also much richer in flavor and texture than many rolls bought from a bakery.
Most people think that making bread at home is too time-consuming or requires special equipment.
The truth is that you need no special equipment (although a few easy-to-find pieces help), and it takes less than thirty minutes to make the dough. Shaping the rolls is quick, too, especially once you get the hang of it. Even though the dough takes several hours to rise, your actual hands-on time is only about an hour, leaving you free to do other things. After the first full rise, the dough can be punched down, covered, and refrigerated for up to two days until you’re ready to shape and bake the rolls. And if you don’t need a dozen rolls all at once, you can still bake the full batch and either reheat the remaining rolls the next night or freeze them for up to two weeks.
Get started by gathering your equipment
You can get good results with the standard baking equipment you probably already have, but for the most authentic look and feel to these rolls, you might consider buying a few new pieces of inexpensive equipment. The crispest crusts come from baking on either a large pizza stone or a set of quarry tiles (unglazed terra cotta clay squares). I prefer quarry tiles since their darker color retains more heat, which helps to produce rolls with a really deep brown color. If you have neither of these, you can still get good results with extra-dark, shallow baking sheets. A wooden or metal baker’s peel is helpful for transferring the risen rolls to the hot tiles or stone, and a short-handled broom makes it easy to sweep any leftover cornmeal off the tiles after baking.
Regardless of your baking surface, you’ll need a selection of small tools; see the list below. You may also use a heavy-duty mixer fitted with a dough hook to do the initial mixing, although I prefer to mix by hand.
Mixing bowls: two large, one medium, one small
Bench knife (hand-held metal pastry scraper) or plastic bowl scraper
Dishtowels, several clean, non-terry types
Two baking sheets or trays for rising the rolls
Kitchen parchment (if baking the rolls on baking sheets)
Sharp utility knife
Go easy on the flour as you knead the dough
The trick to getting the lightest texture in the finished rolls is adding only as much flour to the dough as you need to bring it together and knead it. Depending on the relative humidity of your kitchen, the amount of flour you use might be different each time you make the rolls. That’s why, instead of calling for an exact amount of flour in my recipe, I let the dough tell me when it’s had enough. (It’s also why the recipe doesn’t call for weighing the flour.)
I start the dough by waking up the yeast in a little warm sugar water, and then I combine it with the other dough ingredients except the flour. Next, I gradually stir in the flour. As soon as the dough comes together in a shaggy mass that gathers around the mixing spoon and becomes hard to stir, I stop adding flour and turn the dough out onto my floured work surface. As I knead, I add only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to my hands and the work surface. After a few minutes of brisk kneading, the dough is smooth and elastic. To check its elasticity, I either poke it with two fingers or give it a squeeze. If it quickly springs back to its original shape, it’s ready to rise.
Once the dough has gone through two rises and I’ve shaped it into either round or oval rolls or a few of both, flour becomes my friend again. Dousing the shaped rolls with a heavy coating of medium rye or white flour before they rise one last time results in a wonderfully earthy look. The flour toasts during baking and clings to the outside of the baked rolls, giving them an added dimension in flavor and an enticing appearance. I prefer rye flour because it has a nuttier flavor and is less easily absorbed than white flour, but you can use either.
Add steam during baking for a tender crumb
When steam is introduced to the dry oven environment, it moistens the exterior of the rolls and keeps the crusts soft enough to allow for even, rapid expansion during the initial stages of baking. This is crucial for a tender, well-formed crumb. Eventually the steam evaporates, allowing the exterior to crisp. Professional bakers use special steam-injected ovens to get this effect, but I’ve found that I can approximate it in my home oven by using ice water.
Just after I put the rolls in the oven, I toss some ice water onto the oven floor and quickly shut the door before any steam escapes. If throwing water on your oven floor makes you nervous, you can use a metal baking pan to catch the ice water instead. If you have a gas oven, put the pan on the oven floor; if you have an electric oven with a heating coil on the floor, put the pan on the bottom rack.
One last trick—after the rolls have finished baking, I leave them in the turned-off oven for about five minutes. This step results in extra-crisp crusts because it continues the evaporation of moisture without overbrowning the crusts.
Once you’ve become familiar with making the basic rolls, you can create delicious variations by adding new flavors. For instance, when assembling the liquid mixture, add a handful of minced fresh chives to the dough or replace the plain water with an equal amount of the strained soaking liquid used to reconstitute a generous 1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms. Or try adding 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, some minced sun-dried tomatoes, some very thin ribbons of fresh basil leaves, and a few grinds of black pepper.