For all the current interest in old-fashioned, do-it-yourself-like-your-grandmother-did-it kinds of food projects (like canning, preserving, pickling), there’s surprisingly little interest in making homemade bread. Maybe you remember that no-knead bread trend that hit a couple of years ago? That lasted, oh, maybe 10 minutes—and it was short-lived, I think, because frankly, the recipe was a pain in the tuchus. And also, frankly, because kneading is the least difficult or time-consuming part of bread-making. (For the uninitiated, no-knead bread, as you might assume, does not get kneaded. You mix a sloggy, wet dough and let it sit overnight, then dump it into a preheated Dutch oven or similar lidded pot. For my money, this dough is difficult to handle, and omitting the kneading didn’t save any time.)
Last week, my brother (who owns Baker & Nosh in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and teaches weekly bread-baking classes there) taught me how to make bread. And I’m here to convince you: You can make really good bread at home. For practically pennies. With little time and no fuss. It’s not hard. It’s actually quite fun to make bread. And with his permission, I’m going to share Bill’s easy recipe for homemade French bread.
But first, a couple of notes:
- Get over any ideal of perfection. Don’t try to replicate that perfect loaf of artisan multigrain bread that you bought at the farmers’ market. If you mess up the recipe, you’ll still have good bread.
- For the first couple of times you make bread at home, mix it by hand. This will give you a sense of what the dough should feel like. Plus, it’s messy fun.
- This recipe can easily be halved.
- Fresh yeast is ridiculously difficult to find. But I purchased a few ounces worth from my favorite neighborhood bakery. What’s the difference between fresh and active dry yeast? The former is, well, fresher, and more reliably potent. Can’t find fresh yeast? No problem; active dry yeast is fine. Just buy a new package of it before you start your bread adventure.
- The longer you let homemade bread dough sit after it’s mixed, the better it will taste. This fermentation period develops flavor. The ideal timetable is to mix the dough on Day 1, shape it on Day 2 and bake it Day 3 (keep the dough refrigerated for a slow rise). A two-day timeline is fine: mix on Day 1, then shape, rise and bake on Day 2. In a rush? Do it all on the same day (be sure to allow ample time to rise twice). No biggie.
- Bread flour has a higher gluten content than all-purpose flour, so it’s ideal for bread-baking. I wouldn’t advise using all-purpose flour for bread, but if you have to, knead the dough for a longer time to develop the gluten structure and improve the bread’s texture.
how to make really good homemade French bread
4 cups bread flour
2 1/2 tsp. table salt or 3 Tbsp. kosher salt
2 Tbsp. fresh yeast or 1 package of instant active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
Measure the flour onto a large butcher-block cutting board or directly onto your kitchen counter. Add the salt and mix the two together with your fingers. Use your hand to make a wide well in the flour (all the way down to the countertop), leaving a rim of about 2 inches of flour. Into this well, sprinkle the yeast, then gently pour in the warm water. Use a fork to dissolve the yeast in the water, then gradually whisk in bits of flour a little at a time. Continue mixing, blending in more flour, until you have a sticky mass; at this point, use a spatula or bench scraper and your hands to mix the dough. (Note: Now, before the dough is fully blended, is the time to add a bit of water if you think it feels too dry. If the dough is too sticky, it’s quite easy to incorporate more flour as you knead.) Use your hands to knead the dough into a ball, then continue kneading, turning and pressing the dough, until it becomes smooth and remains soft. It should feel tacky, like a Post-it note, but should not stick to your hands or to the counter. (If it’s too sticky, sprinkle the dough with a light dusting of flour, and knead to incorporate it.) You’ll be kneading for about 6 or 7 minutes.
Turn the dough into a bowl that you’ve spritzed with cooking spray; cover with plastic. Note the size of the dough ball; you’ll want it to double in size during the fermentation process. The time it takes for this to happen can vary according to a whole bunch of factors, notably temperature. To speed fermentation, place the bowl in an unheated oven with the light on and close the oven door. To slow it down (so you can shape the bread the next day), place the bowl in the fridge.
When you’re ready to shape the loaves, divide it into thirds and shape into rounds or baguettes. (See video below.) Let the shape loaves rise again under a blanket of plastic wrap until they’re about double in size. The dough will be ready when you poke it with your fingertip and the indentation remains. (Again, rising time will vary. Refrigerate the loaves if you want to bake them on Day 3.)
When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. If you have a pizza or baking stone, preheat that in the oven. Place the loaves on a baking sheet lined with parchment, dust them with a light sprinkle of flour, and use a serrated knife to slash the dough at regular intervals. Transfer the loaves to the oven; place them directly on the pizza stone (or place the baking sheet on the stone). Bake for 15 to 20 minutes (baguettes), slightly longer for rounds, until the loaves are deeply golden brown. Remove them from the oven and let cool before slicing.
Enjoy your fresh-baked homemade bread with some homemade salted butter!
Want a quick tutorial on how to shape bread dough into boules, bâtards or baguettes? Watch this video demo: