Fresh, homemade bread. It’s one of the oldest traditions in society and was the basis of sustaining life throughout human history. French bread is one of the most beautiful and most basic. There are endless recipes and variations to create bread, but at its core that process is surprisingly simple. Have you ever experienced making fresh bread before? It is extremely satisfying to know that, with only a few minutes of mixing and a few hours of waiting, you have created something delicious and nourishing for your family. A staple of life.
Baking bread used to be a daily task, like washing dishes. Now there are many people who have never made a loaf of bread before and don’t know how it’s done. If you’ve never done it before, bread baking can seem like a daunting task. There are many misconceptions about bread baking that make it seem like a great culinary feat to achieve. In truth, it is incredibly simple.
At its core, bread is made from just three simple ingredients. Flour, Water, and Yeast. Flour is the structure. Water is added to turn it into dough, and yeast is what makes it rise. From here you can add sugar to make it rise faster, salt to balance the sugar and prevent over rising milk or butter makes it creamy. Honey can make it sweet. Eggs will make it rich. The combinations go on. But at its heart, only three ingredients are truly needed.
Measure 1 cup Flour to begin. Mix in 2-1/4 teaspoons Yeast. If you have individual packets of yeast, this is the equivalent of one packet. Next add 1 cup Warm Water. This water must be warm enough to activate the yeast, but not too hot, or it will kill the yeast. The standard temperature is between 95 and 115 degrees. I find an easy way to do this without a thermometer is by turning my faucet all the way to hot and letting it run a few seconds until it heats up. As long as it is very warm (I usually wait to see a little steam), but not scalding, you should be fine.
Starting the Dough
Mixing in the warm water should create a soft dough that is thicker than batter, but not firm enough to be kneaded with your hands. Cover the bowl with a towel and set it in a warm place for one hour. My favorite time to make bread is on days I am also making soup. Not only are they perfect together, but I let my bread rise on the counter next to where the stock is slowly simmering. This creates the perfect rising temperature for the dough with no extra effort. An easy alternative to this is to set your oven to warm and place the dough on top of it. This way you can make bread even in winter by creating a small warm place for it to rise.
After about an hour, you should see a difference in your dough. It should have bubbles or be ‘poofy’ at this point. If it isn’t, turn up the heat, make the rising area a little warmer and give it about 20 to 30 more minutes. When it is bubbly the yeast has activated and we are ready to finish the dough. Take the remaining 2 cups Flour and add in a little at a time. You probably won’t use all of the flour, especially if you are mixing by hand like I do. When your dough is thick, sticks together, and isn’t easily mixing in more flour, you are ready to knead.
Sprinkle the remaining flour on a clean surface and turn the dough onto it. To knead the dough, sprinkle some flour on top and over your hands. Press down to flatten the dough, then fold it over on itself and flatten again. Repeat this process, turning the dough occasionally. If it sticks a little to the surface, or your hands, sprinkle more flour over it and work that flour into the dough. You are basically making the dough into a ball and then flattening that ball repeatedly. Most recipes say to knead for about 5 minutes, but I usually don’t see the need to time it. When you can’t work anymore flour into it, the dough starts to feel slightly firm and it is not sticking anymore, it’s ready.
Use a clean bowl that is greased on the sides with oil or shortening. Set your dough into this and turn it a few times to grease the outside. Cover the bowl with a towel and place it back in the warm place to rise 1 hour more, until it is roughly double in size. Push the dough down with your fist and turn it onto a lightly floured surface. This is the time to shape your dough depending on how you would like to bake it.
Most French breads are rolled out into a log and placed on a baking sheet. For this recipe I like to place mine in a loaf pan because it holds the dough well and takes up less space in my fridge. Cover or wrap your dough in plastic and place it in the fridge. This lets the natural flavors of the bread develop. If you are in a hurry, you can skip this step and set your bread to rise for the last time before baking it. I usually let my bread rest in the fridge for 6 to 8 hours before baking. The longer you let it rest the more developed and ‘yeasty’ of a flavor you will get. Usually I will start a loaf of bread in the morning and take it out to rise about and hour and a half before dinner, or I will start one in the evening and take it out to rise and bake the next morning.
When you are ready, take the bread out and place it back in a warm place, covered only with a towel, to rise 1 last hour. Place a bowl or baking pan half filled with water into your oven and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. The water will create steam in the oven, making the bread moist on the inside with a crisp crust. Bake the bread for 20 to 25 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Congratulation! With a little effort and some patience, you have created a beautiful homemade loaf of bread. Enjoy!
3 cups Flour
2-1/4 teaspoons Yeast
1 cup Warm Water
Combine 1 cup Flour, 2-1/4 teaspoons Yeast, and 1 cup Warm Water. Let rise, covered, in a warm place for 1 hour. Mix in the remaining flour a little at a time, until no more can be easily mixed in. Spread the rest of the flour onto a clean surface and turn out dough to knead, about 5 minutes, working more of the remaining flour in as you go. Set in a greased bowl, covered, and let rise 1 hour more. Turn dough out on a lightly floured surface to shape. Place on baking tray or in loaf pan. Cover and let rest in the fridge 4-12 hours. Return to a warm place and let rise 1 hour more. Bake at 425 degrees for 20-25 minutes with a pan of water in the oven for steam.
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