Baking the Perfect Loaf of French Bread

French Bread

Secrets to Perfect Loaf of French Bread in 3 Hours

Usually, my stand-by recipe is the No Knead Bread (because its so darn easy) but it does require you to mix the dough at least 12 hours prior. When I only have a three hours, this is my recipe which is based on trial-and-error from baking over 40 loaves in the past 8 months. The techniques are a combination of things I learned from Pamela Anderson (no not arm candy, the chef Pam Anderson!), the original No Knead Recipe published in the NY Times and Rose Levy Beranbaum (author of the Bread Bible)

Secret #1: Knead dough with dough hook for 2 minutes. Let it rest for 7 and then knead again for another 3 minutes. If you are doing this by hand, then your formula is 6 min-7 min-7 min. Letting the dough rest at this stage allows the gluten to relax, redistribute, and get all cozy. It results ultimately a smoother, well-mixed dough. After the brief rest, you’ll feel a difference in the dough. Its more supple and soft.

Secret #2: Pinch! When you form the dough into a loaf (see photo below) pinch all ends tightly to create a seal. Basically, you are creating surface tension so that the gas from the yeast (or as Alton Brown describes “When the yeast burps”) the dough expands up and out evenly. If I don’t create this surface tension, the dough in the oven will just go “blah” like Al Bundy on the couch. Something called gravity makes the dough expand down and flat.

Secret #3: Use a pizza stone, cast iron dutch oven or my favorite Pampered Chef Covered Baker. Just make sure that your loaf will fit into the vessel. Stone or cast iron retains heat and radiates the heat of the oven evenly. If you don’t have one, don’t worry, just use a good quality, thick baking sheet, inverted.

Secret #4: Steam = thin, crunchy, beautiful crust. In the No Knead recipe, there is a high proportion of water to flour. Because the No Knead dough rests for multiple hours, lots of water in the recipe works. In this 3 hour french bread recipe, you can’t do that. To make steam (a.k.a. crust) – you have to do one of 2 things, depending on the baking vessel.

-> Pizza stone or baking sheet: Once you put the bread in the oven, throw 1/2 cup of water on the oven floor (electric oven) and immediately close the door. No, it won’t harm the oven. It’s a technique that professional bakers recommend for home ovens (professional ovens have a built in steamers). Once the water hits the hot oven floor, it creates steam, which creates the crust.

Alternatively, place a metal loaf pan or baking sheet on the very bottom rack of the oven, off to one side. Heat the pan while you are preheating the oven. Once you put the bread into the oven, pour 1/2 cup water into the hot pan. Since the pan has been heated, it will produce the steam required. Make sure your heated pan is off to one side of the oven – so that when the steam rises, it can rise up and around the bread (not under it, which makes it harder for the steam to reach the bread)

Basically, cold water in hot pan + hot oven = steam. I have an electric oven (heating element is on the top of oven). Some bakers throw ice cubes in, but I prefer water.

-> Covered baker or dutch oven: You’ll need less water – about 1/4 cup. Once you put the loaf into the very hot pot, throw in the water and over the lid immediately. Put the pot directly in the oven. Because you’ve pre-heated the oven AND the pot for 1 hour, the trapped water in the pot will create steam.

Secret #5: Timing and temperature:

  • Have an instant read thermometer. The internal temperature of the bread should be 190-200F when you pull it out.
  • All ovens are different and I’m sure our loaves will be different shapes.
  • The timing in the recipe below is just a guide for you – this is what works in my oven and how I shape my loaves.
  • Please make sure that you check the internal temp of your bread to gauge doneness.
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French Bread Recipe

Servings: 2 loaves Prep Time: Cook Time: 3-4 hours
french-bread

Ingredients:

4 cups bread flour
2 teaspoon active quick rising dry yeast
2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups warm water

Directions:

1. Put 1/4 cup of bread flour on your clean counter top and reserve. Place remaining 3 3/4 cups bread flour in your mixer bowl. Spoon the yeast on one side of the bowl, and the salt on the other side. Pour in the warm water and with your regular mixer paddle, mix on low speed until the dough comes together in a mass. Switch to the dough hook. Mix on medium speed for 2 minutes. Dough should clear the sides but stick to the bottom. If it is too sticky, add 1 tablespoon of flour at a time. If too dry, add 1 tablespoon of water to dough to adjust.

Let the dough rest for 5 minutes.

The dough should look like this during the rest:

French Bread

2. Turn the mixer on again and mix for 3 minutes. Take the dough out and place on the counter. Remember that 1/4 cup of flour that we reserved? We’ll use it now. As you knead the dough by hand, incorporate more flour as you need.

Knead by hand until the dough is very satiny, smooth, tight and formed into a nice, compact ball:

French Bread Dough Ball

Place this dough in a large lightly oiled bowl (I use Pam spray). Turn dough over so that all sides have a thin coating of oil. Cover with plastic wrap and set in warm place for 1 1/2 hours to let rest and rise. Dough should almost double in size.

4. While the dough is rising, about 1 hour into the rising stage, preheat your oven to 450F and place your pizza stone, inverted baking sheet or covered cast iron pot into the oven to heat up. If you are using a loaf pan for steam, also place that into the oven, on the very bottom rack, off to one side of the oven.

5. After the dough has risen fully, punch dough down and form back into a ball. Poke your finger on the surface – the dough should give into the pressure and slowly creep back up.

6. Ok, here’s the fun part. Cut the dough into half – you’ll shape one half at a time (keep the other piece under wraps) Pick up the dough – stretch it out until it forms a big rectangle. Dust your work surface with flour and fold over the ends of the dough like this:

French Bread

Now do a little “karate chop” lengthwise down the middle of the bread and stretch out the long ends again. Fold over in half. The karate chop helps get the middle tucked inside. Pinch all sides shut. This is important – you want to make sure that all ends including the short ends are pinched tightly to create a seal. This allows the bread to rise & expand up and out evenly. If the bread looks a little lopsided, you can try to fix it by letting it rest 5 minutes and gently stretching it out again. Just don’t knead the dough again – you’ll pop all the beautiful gas that took 1.5 hours to create!

Here’s what it should look like:

French Bread

7. Turn the bread over so that it is seam side down. Cover the loaf with a damp kitchen towel. Repeat with the other dough ball. Leave the loaves to rest on your well-floured pizza peel or cutting board for 30 minutes.

8. After bread is done rising, take a sharp paring knife and make 3-4 shallow, diagonal slashes on the surface of the loaf. This allows the steam in the bread to escape so that it expands evenly during the baking process:

French Bread

9. When you are ready to bake, remove your baking vessel from oven. Carefully slide the gorgeous loaf into or onto your baking vessel.

If you are using pizza stone or inverted baking sheet: You can probably fit both loaves on it at the same time, just leave at least 6-8" of space between the loaves. -> Get a 1/2 cup of water ready next to the stove. Open the stove, put your bread in the oven and throw the water on the oven floor or in the pre-heated loaf pan. Immediately close the oven door. This creates your steam. -> Bake 20-25 minutes. Check temperature of the bread – internal temperature should read 190-200F. Remove and let cool before cutting into it.

If you are using a long cast-iron pot or covered baker: -> Before closing the lid on your pot/baker, put 1/4 cup of water directly in the pot. Cover immediately. Put pot in oven. -> Bake 10 minutes. Remove lid of pot. Bake another 14 minutes. Check temperature of the bread – internal should be 190-200F. Remove and let cool before cutting into it. Repeat with other loaf. (For convection ovens- bake 8 min covered, 10-12 min uncovered. Check temperature of bread) To re-crisp the crust, put in 375F oven for 5 minutes. Eat one loaf, share the other loaf with a friend!

French Bread

How about No Knead Bread?

My 4-Year Old Son, Andrew Bakes No Knead Bread

Comments 331

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  1. Matt

    This recipe is an absolute, hands down, winner!

    It incorporates techniques that I’ve never tried before, such as letting the dough rest during the kneeding process, folding and ‘karate chopping’, pinching, and baking with a dish of water to create a humid environment.

    Needless to say, I’m impressed. I give this one a 10 out of 10!

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  2. Sandra holmes

    After the karate chop lenghtwise,you say stretch ends and fold over in half. Does that mean lengthwise again, or the other way

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  3. Bigtexun

    I can’t serve “French bread” unless it tastes like the French bread I ate in Paris. And after much trial and error, I discovered that the secret to the flavor is the yeast (duh). But you can’t develop a large enough colony in 3 hours if you use a normal amount of yeast.

    I recommend using 3 to 4 times the yeast in your recipe, or even better use double the yeast, and add starter/preferment that you can keep on-hand, and prepare a week or more in advance. A preferment is nothing more than a cup of water and a cup of flour, and some yeast. Every day add a pinch of flour and a pinch of sugar to feed your yeast, and don’t let it dry out… and be careful it doesn’t try to escape the container.

    Increase the yeast, and you increase the flavor without the 12 hours of proofing time.

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  4. Tyler

    Not that it’d make too much of a difference, I wanted to note that your recipe calls for 2 teaspoons of yeast whereas the packets of yeast contain 2 1/4 teaspoons of yeast. But ideally, we’d be using fresh yeast anyway.

  5. Alyssa

    This would be my first time trying something like this. I do not have the required pans for baking though and have a “half oven” so I only have a tiny baking sheet. I’m wondering if I could use a corningware casserole dish instead because it’s the largest thing I have with a lid (glass though)? I’m also worried about throwing the water. I live in an apartment and just would hate for my normal bad luck to turn it into something ugly haha. Is that a step I could skip? I have been reading through your other comments and am excited to try this bread! There are just a few too many for me to read through to get my answers, so my apologies if you’ve already responded to them.

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      Jaden

      Hi Alyssa – skip the water this time. The glass corningware will work, but it won’t be that great for baking bread. Bake the bread on a baking sheet (without a lid) and give it a try. It will turn out better than in a corningware.

  6. Tom

    Is there a chance you could put up a video of how to make it? Some of us rookies would appreciate it.

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  7. Ariel

    I made this yesterday and it turned out so good that I’m making a double recipe today. 🙂

    Thank you for posting!!

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  8. Chuck

    Waaaaay to much text up front. All I want is the recipe. And it is great! Great bread, thanks.

    1. Jeree

      I am new to making bread so I happen to like hints, tips, text, and pictures 🙂 I am making this for the first time tonight (rising as I write) and the whole family is excited! Thank you for your time and attention to detail for those of us still learning 🙂

  9. ghosty

    I made this today! even if you’re kneading by hand (which is what i did) it’s incredibly easy and my family loved everything about it! i’m going to be making this all the time now!

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  10. Rachael

    I have 2 questions. #1- I only have all purpose flour and self-rising flour, how can I make either of those work for this recipe? #2-If I want to add minced garlic to the dough how much should I add?

  11. Mike

    I have one question. Your method states if using a covered baker (which I intend on using), to pour the 1/4 cup of water directly in it. My covered baker is made of stoneware and if I do that I think I can kiss it goodby. I assume you are referring to a cast iron baker correct? And wouldn’t adding that much water directly in with the formed loaf have a negative effect on it as opposed to pouring the water on the oven floor or adding it to a previous heated empty pan?

  12. Linda Saucedo

    This is my second time making french bread with your recipe, and I must say it is pretty easy, I was always so skeptical about making a french bread but you have made it easy for me, now I will make it rather than buy it made… Thank you !

  13. Pete

    This turned out really well. I had tried the “French-bread” style recipe found in the classic Beard on Bread book first and yours turned out much better (and his requires sugar!). A couple questions, though:

    1. “Secret #1” suggests 2-7-3 minutes of mixing-waiting-mixing, but Step 1 says 2-5-3 (using a mixer). I did 2-5-3 and it turned out fine. But I would like to know for sure whether you meant 2-5-3 or 2-7-3.

    2. Your recipe calls for quick rising active yeast & to put the water and dry yeast right into the mixer bowl with the flour. I had regular acting yeast on hand, so I set it in warm water for a few minutes to activate and then combined the mixture into the flour. It turned out fine. But I am wondering whether there’s any other approach when one doesn’t have quick acting yeast on hand.

  14. BreadBakerHomeMaker

    Pamela Anderson is a person, not an adornment. I could do without the sexist remark. She is actually quite compassionate and dedicates a lot if her time helping rescuing abused animals.

  15. Beth

    I made this, and the bread was so heavy. Any way to make it light, and airy? Maybe it needs the overnight proof in the fridge. Any clues would be appreciated.

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      Jaden

      Hi Beth- usually, when the bread is heavy and dense, it could be a couple of things:
      1. Are you using bread flour? All purpose flour doesn’t have high enough protein content.
      2. Did you knead bread enough?
      3. Is the yeast still good? Bad yeast that’s expired or just a bad batch could prevent bread from rising.

  16. Lindsey Beers

    Hey Jaden,

    You just made this first time french-bread baker feel like a seasoned pro. My bread came out fabulous even though I was sure it wouldn’t! Followed recipe/instructions to a tee. Thank you for the helpful hints at the top of the recipe!

    Lindsey

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  17. Ed

    I would like to use this recipe to make some bread for a dinner party I am going to. I am wanting to make the bread in the shape of letter
    DREAM. Would this be difficult to do?

    1. Post
      Author
      Jaden

      You could totally do it, but your baking time will be different. You’ll just have to keep an eye on it and make sure it doesn’t get overcooked.

  18. Leisa

    Would add that a handheld spray bottle with water is also a terrific way to provide humidity for baking. Also placing a small pan with boiling water in the oven makes a great environment for allowing dough to rise. Makes it warm an moist.

  19. Marylou

    I am a first time bread baker, & I have borrowed an Oster bread
    machine. I’m not sure I can stop & start the machine for the required minutes. Also the directions say not to let the yeast get wet. I have an 8″ cast iron skillet. Should I put that in the oven with
    the water in it to the left of where the bread will be put?
    I am 80 & wanting to make bread without Bromates for health
    reasons.

    1. Post
      Author
      Jaden

      Hi Marylou, I’ve never used an Oster bread machine, but you can just follow the recipe included with the bread machine to make a loaf of bread. If you want to make a loaf of French bread, you can just use a mixer (like in the photos) or do it all by hand – start with a wooden spoon to bring the flour and ingredients together, then knead by hand. If kneading by hand, double the amount of minutes kneading.

  20. Drew

    I have had this problem your dough may be to wet or you did not let it proof long enough or you did not cook it long enough the bread should be 195 degrees internally, a little higher is OK you will hear a hollow sound when you tap it. Your dough should be tacky but none should stick to your hand. Proofing time can vary, one and one half to two hours may be nessasary. Good baking!

  21. Drew

    If you only stock all-purpose flour in your pantry buy some gluten, Bob’s red Mill sells this you can store it in your freezer you add 1 tablespoon to 3 cups of flour to make a strong bread flour good luck. In regards to using garlic in your bread recipe I have found that it can kill the yeast use dry granulated garlic and you won’t have that problem

  22. Annette

    I’ve always had luck making a pan bread but french bread is giving me a hard time. Each time the bread expanded and was dense and heavy; I used a cookie sheet for baking. I’m going to try your method but I’m confused about the process of removing the baking vessel from the oven and sliding the bread onto it. Once it rises a second time how can I slide anything without ruining the loaf and if using a stone how would this get removed from the oven considering the weight. Also, my home is normally very cool (even in Florida – go figure!) and the bread does not seem to rise. Using regular yeast not self-rising. Thank you for any advice you can give.

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