My Recipe Box

Make French Bread at Home

Learn a simple technique for baking light, crusty mini baguettes in your own kitchen

by Allison Ehri Kreitler

fromFine Cooking
Issue 91

I’ve always wanted to be really good at baking bread, so last spring I was excited to attend a four-day bread class taught by expert baker Richard Bertinet in Bath, England. In Richard’s class, you learn to love sticky dough, and love it you must, because in mastering his technique, the dough ends up everywhere: on the walls, the ceiling, your hair, your glasses, and your classmates.

In his class, Richard taught us to “work,” not knead, the dough. For him, “knead” is a naughty word, because it means pushing air out of the dough and incorporating more flour. In his method, you use your hands to stretch and aerate the dough without working in any extra flour. This method produces a bakery-quality baguette with a light, airy texture and a crisp crust.

To bring this delicious bread to your kitchen, I’ve incorporated Richard’s teachings into a recipe that works well in a home kitchen, while simplifying a few of the trickier parts. If you’ve been intimidated by the thought of baking bread, take heart: It’s not hard, especially if you follow these steps:

Cheat—use a stand mixer. In class, we worked the dough by hand to get a feel for it. But fortunately for those who can’t take a class in England (and don’t want sticky dough all over the kitchen), there’s another way to work the dough—in a stand mixer. Call it cheating, but using the mixer is easier, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. You can be sure that, with the large amount of dough used every day in a bakery, most professional bakers don’t work their dough by hand.

Make minis. If you make six small baguettes, you get more practice than when you make just one, and a mistake is less tragic if you have five more chances to get it right. Minis also take less time to bake and are easier to form and handle.

A Bread-Baker's Tool Kit

In addition to a stand mixer, you’ll need a few simple pieces of equipment:

  • A plastic bowl scraper. The curved side perfectly scrapes the dough out of the mixing bowl. Use the flat side to divide the dough into pieces and loosen it when it sticks to the work surface.
  • A scale for weighing the flour and water (much more accurate than a volume measure).
  • A flat-weave towel is essential for covering the dough while it rises (a fuzzy towel will give you fuzzy bread).
  • A spray bottle helps make steam in the oven, slowing the formation of the crust and allowing the dough to expand evenly.

How to Fold and Shape the Dough

For a live-action demonstration of this technique, see our video on how to shape baguettes.

Using a plastic bowl scraper, scrape all the dough out of the bowl onto a lightly floured work surface. Working around the dough, fold the edges into the middle, pressing the edge down firmly into the center of the dough with your fingertips after each fold. Press the dough into a rectangle Fold a long edge of the dough into the center, pressing firmly with your fingertips along the seam all the way down to the work surface, folding with one hand and pressing with the other, working from one end to the other. Fold the other long edge into the center in the same way. Continue to fold and press alternate edges to elongate the baguette. Dredge the smooth side of the dough in a line of flour. Set the baguette floured side up on the towel and make a little fold in the towel to separate it from the next baguette.

To bake the bread, use a heavy-duty rimmed baking sheet. It may sound silly, but one of the most difficult parts of my class was getting the bread into the oven using a peel (a wooden board you see pizza makers use) while trying not to let all of the heat out of the oven. You have to be fast, and you need to shake the peel to launch the bread into the oven, which takes a lot of practice and many sacrificial loaves. So at home, I just bake the baguettes on a heavy-duty rimmed baking sheet. I found that if you flip the baguettes over partway through baking and then finish them directly on the oven rack, you can still get a pretty good crust—and your odds of accidentally tossing a loaf against the back wall of the oven are slim to nonexistent.

Fresh bread in time for dinner

You can make this bread for a dinner party because most of the preparation time is completely hands off. Follow this timeline to have bread on the table at 7 p.m.:

  • 1:00–1:15: Make the bread dough.
  • 1:15–3:15: Let the dough rise; go do something else.
  • 3:15–4:00: Shape the baguettes.
  • 4:00–5:30: Hands off; let the baguettes rise.
  • 5:30–6:00: Transfer the baguettes to a baking sheet; slash and bake.
  • 6:00–7:00: Let the baguettes cool (and maybe nibble a bit).

Photos: Scott Phillips

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