“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”~ James Beard
First of all, I know what you’re thinking- amazing French bread in an hour?! Crazy! I know. It was pretty crazy- crazy delicious! It literally made me a happier person, which is why I included this unbelievably true quote above.
What is French Bread?
French bread is generally characterized as a long and thin loaf that is very, very crusty with a rough outer shell but doughy and soft interior. The Baguette may be the most popular type of bread in France, however it is not the only type of bread made.
Is It Really From France?
I mean really, I need to thank Le Petit Francais for providing the inter web with such detailed information regarding the history of artisan French bread. Yes- indeed- the bread is from France!!
In 1788 and 1789 there was a lot of storage of grains and bad weather- causing a pretty severe bread shortage in France. Of course prices rose and soon enough bread became a luxury that very few could afford. Mass starvation began to set in and a revolution was provoked (there were actual bread uprisings- not joking). After people had started to calm down and the hysteria stopped, bakers were only allowed to make a certain type of bread- one that rationed high quality ingredients. The constituent assembly called this “bread of equality” or “pain d’egalite” and it was made from flour that was 3/4 wheat and 1/4 rye. Napoleon created various decrees regarding the sale and baking of bread, and later governments added specific ways to knead and aerate the dough to create an authentic French baguette (I know, the French do not play with their bread).
Beginning in the 1800s, bread became more readily accessible and bakers didn’t have to use communal ovens (sucks, right?). In the 1900s, bread baking began to get modernized. The process was continually improved to cook faster and fluffier. In 1920, the baguette was officially added to the long list of breads in the world (what a wonderful addition).
Where’s the Science?
I swear, there’s a science to the magic behind French bread! Check out the awesome graphic created by Emily Buehler in her book, “Bread Science: the Chemistry and Craft of Making Bread.” I decided to mix the science in with the actual procedure this time around (so go check that out for proof) but I just wanted to include this to prove that it is actually a very scientific process.
- 2 1/2 cups of warm water
- 2 tablespoons of yeast
- 2 tablespoons of sugar
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 3 tablespoons of oil
- 5 1/2 to 6 cups of flour
- First, put the warm water in a big bowl, add yeast, and then sprinkle the sugar on top. Let it sit for about five minutes until you see the yeast get all bubbly on top. When we leaned over the bowl in shock that the mixture was actually bubbling, we incidentally smelled it. It had a slightly alcoholic scent, very earthy, and little sour. This was from the alcohol that was being produced by the year, but it was complemented by the sugars in the mixture.
2. Stir in the salt, oil, and flour and knead the dough for a few minutes until it is smooth and pulls away from the bowl. When I was kneading the dough, I made sure to turn and press. This added energy to the dough (which warmed it) and aided in the formation of gluten (the stretchy part of the dough). The long protein molecules link up in the dough and become glutinous. The Guardian’s informative article calls this dough both “plastic and elastic” because it will change shape under pressure, but will move back to its original shape afterwards.
3. Then cover the bowl with a warm wet towel and let the dough sit for about 15 minutes. 80% of the volume of bread becomes empty space as the network of gluten and starch granules are dividing. The carbon dioxide from the yeast diffuses enter tiny bubbles that it encounters and enlarges them.
4. Roll the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a log (like a jelly roll), tucking the ends under. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet (or in my case, I just put foil down and VERY lightly sprayed it with oil). Take a serrated knife and slash the tops diagonally. Allow the loaves to sit for a few minutes while you preheat your oven to 375. Bake for 30-35 minutes until golden brown.
As the dough heats up, gas cells expand and the dough rises. When the loaf reaches 70-80 degrees, gluten proteins form cross-links and the starch granules swell and set. Once the walls can no longer stretch, the gas pressure in the holes builds and pop in the walls (which creates the hole-filled interior of a loaf of bread). This was so much fun to watch!! Check out the rest of our action shots below!
So…How Do You Feel About It?
I feel pretty damn confident that I lived in France in a previous life. This bread came out wonderfully! It was doughy without being undercooked, crispy without burning, and flavorful without being too much. In the future, I would probably like to play around with different butters and toppings for the bread, as well as give the bread a longer time to rise. However, I guess that’s the point with one-hour bread recipes, they only take an hour!
Also, go on and check out this awesome recipe for yourself!