I think the only thing better than eating freshly-baked, crusty, chewy bread is how divine it smells while it’s baking. Even just the dough rising in a bowl on the counter is enough to fill the air with a delicious, yeasty aroma.
I enjoy making my own bread while playing around with different flours and methods of making it. Years ago, I shared with you my Quick French Bread recipe, which really is an easy, quick yeast bread as far as yeast breads are concerned. It occurred to me over the weekend as I was making this loaf of French country bread that I’ve not shared any other bread recipes with you since then, so I’m here to rectify that. (Well, I’ve also shared my Zucchini Bread recipe, but that’s not quite the same)
This recipe starts with a preferment (also called a starter, sponge or poolish) which needs to sit for 10 hours, so it’s easiest to make the starter a day ahead of time. This takes a little pre-planning but the starter is very quick and easy to make.
French Country Bread Recipe
To make the starter, combine in a small bowl:
- 1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup warm water
Stir together and let sit for 5 minutes until mixture is cloudy and small bubbles can be seen. Add:
- 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
Stir with a fork until everything is combined and then whisk with a fork for about 100 strokes. The mixture should be a creamy, pudding consistency, with long strands following your fork as you stir it.
Using a spatula, gently scrape the mixture into a pile in the middle of the dish. Cover with plastic wrap and a towel. Let sit at room temperature for 10 hours.
10 hour later….
- 3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 2 1/2 cups warm water
- 6 cups unbleached white bread flour + about 1 cup extra for kneading
- 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
- Oil for resting the dough
- Cornmeal for baking
- Spray bottle of water for misting
In a large bowl, combine 3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast and 2 1/2 cups warm water. Stir well with a fork and let rest for 5 minutes, until cloudy and small bubbles can be seen.
Add the sponge to the new yeast mixture and stir gently with a spatula until all of the large chunks of sponge have been incorporated into the new mixture.
You should see the mixture start to bubble from all the yeast.
- 6 cups of unbleached white bread flour 1 CUP AT A TIME, whisking with a fork with each addition until well blended. Do not worry about chunks of sponge/dough being visible – it will all come together in the end.
- Tip: Pick 6 of some item that you can move across the counter to help you count the cups. This assures you won’t lose track of the cups you’re adding, should you forget or get interrupted. I use small glass beads but honestly, you can use toothpicks, pens, magnets…whatever works!
- Tip 2: Make sure when you’re measuring your flour that you use a spoon to fill the measuring cup and a spatula or butter knife to level it off. Never use the measuring cup to scoop flour right out of the bag or shake the cup to level the flour – this packs it down and throws off the measurement
- The mixture will not really begin to form a mass until about the 3rd cup
- After adding the sixth cup, mix well and scrape the dough out onto a floured work surface
- Sprinkle the dough with 1/2 tablespoon of kosher salt
- Knead mixture for at least 10 minutes, adding additional bread flour to keep it from being overly sticky
- At the end, the dough will form a beautiful ball that holds together, isn’t overly sticky and shows no obvious small bumps on the surface. It will be long strands as you knead it that hold together and roll into each other.
- Form into a ball and let rest for 5 minutes
- Turn into a well-oiled bowl (I use olive oil) and then flip the ball of dough so that it’s coated with oil on both sides
- Cover with a towel and let sit until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours
- Gently scrape out the dough onto a work surface and divide into 2
- Shape each half into a ball – I do this by just gently tucking the edges underneath it and form a ball that way. The less you play with and less you deflate it, the better.
- Lay a piece of parchment paper on a sheet pan and sprinkle liberally with cornmeal
- For even baking and browning, bake one loaf at a time
- Place ball of dough on prepared sheet pan
- Using a very sharp knife, gently score 4-5 shallow slices across the top of the bread
- Let rest for 30 minutes
Preheat oven to 425º
Spritz the top of the dough with water
Bake for 35-40 minutes, spritzing the top of the bread with water every 10 minutes or so.
Remove from oven and let rest at least 30 minutes before serving.
Freshly-baked bread is a beautiful thing.
There are a number of notes on this that I’d like to add:
- I realize that activating the yeast in water is no longer considered necessary by many. I’ve made bread like this for so long it’s a habit for me and I always want to share with you the exact way I make things.
- If you don’t have a spray bottle or don’t want to hassle with spraying the bread, fill a short pan or baking-safe dish with hot water and place it on the oven rack under your bread while it’s baking
- If you only bake occasionally, keep a jar of yeast in your freezer. This keeps it fresh and active long past its expiration date.
- If you don’t have bread flour, you can use all-purpose flour instead. Bread flour does have more protein in it, which helps make a loftier, chewier bread, but all-purpose flour will work just fine.
- Be aware that a number of factors can affect bread making, including room temperature and humidity.
This also bakes beautifully on a cornmeal -dusted baking stone. I’ve done it both ways and the stone does give it a bit more of a crusty-crust. (Is that a term?)
This is a lovely, rustic bread that, as you can see above, slices beautifully for sandwiches. It was also perfect with my big weekend meal of homemade meatballs and sauce. Personally, all it really needs though is a fruity olive oil or swipe of Kerrygold and you’re good to go.