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.

French Bread Recipe

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


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


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

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Comments 335

  1. Pingback: The Perfect French Bread | punkypurls

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  4. Stephanie

    This turned out perfectly for me! My husband and I have been searching for a delicious French bread with a crunchy crust and a soft, light middle. This is it!! And the crust browned perfectly for me. A keeper!

  5. Brandi

    Just pulled my bread out of the oven. Has a beautifully brown crust but didn’t rise much during baking. Think next time I’ll let it rise 60 minutes before putting it in the oven. Looks more like a baguette but smells divine.

  6. Tina

    French bread recipe doesn’t specify what temp to bake at, just mentions what internal temp should be.

  7. Taylor

    I was not quite clear on which way to fold in half after the karate chop. Hamburger or hotdog?

  8. Joanna

    This is by far the best bread I have ever made. It’s SUPER EASY! and it tastes great. And you probably have the ingredients at home. It’s not as unhealthy and full of bad things as other breads because it only has such a few ingredients. My mom loved it so much and she BEGGED me to make it again. THANK YOU SO MUCH!

  9. Vanessa

    I just finished making this bread with my boyfriend. This was our first time making bread and we had such a good time. The loaves came out awesome! Thank you so much for this amazing recipe. Also, Taylor, you fold them hotdog style the second time. :]

  10. Sio

    Late to the party, but just wanted to say that my loaves weren’t at all pretty, but goodness gracious were they tasty! This was my very first bread-making experience ever, and this recipe will be my most favoritest! 😛 Thanks a bunch!

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  12. Erin

    This recipe is amazing. It is my go-to bread recipe, and the first bread I was ever able to make successfully. Thank you for posting.

  13. DeAnne

    I am a little confused on one part. After doing the karate chop down the middle and stretching out the ends again, it says to fold in half. Which way are you supposed to fold the dough in half? Sorry, I am a very visual person and I got hung up here. This is an awesome recipe though!

  14. russell

    once you have it stretched out fold long ways. you can also roll it like cinn. roll dough. if you have any more questions feel free to email will be glad to help when I can.

  15. Carol

    I made this today and it turned out great and evertone loved it. The bread was really heavy/dense, but it was not objectionable. I used my bread machine to mix the dough (I do not own a mixer), and used Secret #1, then I removed the dough and did everything else by hand as described. I made the dough into mini French loaves (think sandwich rolls) and got 5 of them, so I wish I’d doubled the recipe, but they were so tasty I will definitely be making this again – soon!

  16. Steve

    This is very close to the recipe I am using from Jacques Pepin’s cooking show Essential Pepin. He uses 4 1/2 cups flour and other ingredients are adjusted from there. He mists the oven with a mister, then again after 5 more minutes. I made his Gros Pain, which came out as expected, used a mixer for the kneading. Next I want to use the same Pepin recipe and make baguettes. I loved this simple bread, with no fancy extra ingredients.

  17. Kelly

    I just made this recipe and added caraway seeds and cardamon that I had ground, heavenly smell, great crust, really easy (I however did not check my loaf size with my vessel size so I have a horseshoe loaf). The five secrets are things I wish I had found before, I have made multiple loaves of bread with limited success, but now I have a loaf that looks and tastes right. But I agree with letting it rise for 45-60 minutes next time for a fluffier inside.

  18. Marcy

    I just made this bread tonight. My loaves got a little too crunchy at 20 minutes, so I would start checking them at 15 minutes or so. but WOW they tasted so good! I am too ashamed to say how much I have eaten already 😉 I love bread!

  19. Ana

    Please show some pictures on how to do the folding after stretching out into a rectangle. My bread tastes great, but I got totally lost and my loaves didn’t look too good.

  20. ed

    I am currently trying this, but one sentence surprised me: “Just don’t knead the dough again – you’ll pop all the beautiful gas that took 1.5 hours to create!”
    This was after i was told to ‘punch it down completely’ and ‘karatechop’it 🙂

  21. ed

    as my house is kinda cold right now (Winter) I used considerably longer rising times, but the bread came out perfect. Well, perfect in taste, a bit wobbly in shape. I guess that needs practice, but really a good recipe.

    I tried baking bread for years and it was all a disappointment. Only the last few months I started to understand what i was doing and what i needed to do. Now it seems so easy

  22. ed

    Out of enthusiasm led me add that i dare say it tastes better than baguettes bought in a shop (albeit that my top might be a bit darker).
    I used the cheapest AP flour that i could find (60 eurocents/kilo) and i figure i get 4 loafs out of 1 kilo (so 15 cts per bread for the flour. Also the cheapest dried yeast I could find. No special flours, no special yeasts. Great. Really I should stop baking bread because i grow too fat

  23. Lori

    I am also not clear on step 5 with the karate chop. Do you chop down across the fold and pull the bread so that its longer, or do you chop into the fold and stretch the sides that you’ve just folded into the middle? I need a picture of this step. 🙂

  24. cherelle

    it confused me too ed. i just carefully take it out of the bowl it was rising in, and when i start working with it to shape it , it automatically slowly starts beating it’s self down.

  25. Melvin Rodriguez

    I was hoping for a crunchy bread with a light and fluffy center, but my loaves came out very dense on the inside. They were not at all tasty and I’m pretty sure we followed all the steps exactly. I was disappointed after spending hours working on the recipe. What a bummer.

  26. Racheal Loughlin

    This is my second time making this bread, and it taste delightful. However – my loafs never look nearly as pretty as yours! I posted about it on my blog. 🙂 Thank you for all of your wonderful recipes.

  27. Stephanie

    I just made this the other night and it was delicious but I wasn’t sure about the resting time right before it goes in the oven – are the loaves covered with the damp towel for this half hour?

  28. Marianne

    I’m totally addicted to making bread! I’m buying yeast by the pound! Thanks for making it so easy to bake bread. My kids love it and they make the no knead bread too!! Thank you!

  29. Molly

    Just had to add that I made two delicious loaves tonight! It was very exciting to have them come out so incredibly tender, chewy and crispy all at once. I used unbleached flour this time, but will try to incorporate fresh milled flour with the next batch. I’m even thinking of sending this to school tomorrow for my son’s birthday with some pasture butter instead of making cake.

  30. jennifer

    My appliance repair man loved your recommendation to throw water on the floor of the oven. After a few times the element broke and had to be replaced. Use a cake pan or something like it on the bottom shelf instead. That water or ice cubes or even misting don’t seem to do much for the crustiness. I don’t think you need a “karate” move on the rising dough. That forces out some of the “burps”. Pretty good flavor but needs some tuning. Thanks.

  31. L Higginson

    Be careful about how you use the word “throw” when recommending water in the oven. Cold, even hot, water on the bottom element = explosion of the bottom element. Better to use the pan method but how about “pour” water in the pan. Throwing gives me the thought of standing outside the oven and chucking the water in. Will let you know how the bread comes out when I try it

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  33. Rev. E.M. Camarena

    Great recipe. One thing that improved my French bread was taking to heart Julia Child’s counter-intuitive advice to leave the bread extra sticky. If it seems just right to an experienced bread baker, we have used too much flour. It is harder to work with in the initial stages but ends up with a wonderfully fluffy crumb. Also, rather than throwing water into the oven, I pop in a few ice cubes. They steam up super-fast and there is no splash risk.

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  35. Ian

    Spot on. I followed your recipe to the letter, even used a covered cast iron pot for the first time. What a fantastic result. Many thanks for your great recipe

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  38. Rene

    Curious if one of the loaves can be frozen? If so, when, at the dough stage or should it be partially baked then frozen and finished baking some other time. Any responses would be appreciated.

    1. SteamyKitchen

      You can freeze the baked loaf after it has completely cooled. When ready to eat, it will go straight from freezer to oven, 375F for 15 minutes or until warm, nice and toasty (depends on how thick your loaf is).

  39. Erica

    Helen, I found instructions on parbaking from the Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes A Day book. Bake the bread to where it’s just barely showing some color (about 90% of the baking time). Allow to cool and place in a plastic bag. If it will be stored more than a day put the bread in the freezer. If you need to transport it still warm use a paper bag instead of plastic. To finish baking, defrost the bread if needed, preheat the oven to the temperature in the recipe, then bake until adequately browned, usually 5-10 minutes and cool on a baking rack.

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