A better French bread

I made some French bread last week and made some modifications to Reinhart’s recipe, both out of necessity (I didn’t have any AP flour and didn’t feel like going to the store) and in the spirit of experimentation, to see if I could improve on what I’d made before (while it was a decent enough bread to make at home, it fell short of my expecations of what a baguette should be).

Of course the process now takes 3 days, but by spreading out the work there’s really not much to do on any given day.  Here’s what I came up with:

Day 1

Make the pâte fermentée by combining 2 1/4 cups bread flour, 3/4 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp instant yeast and 3/4 cup (plus possibly a tbsp or two) of room temperature water.

Mix with the dough hook for about four minutes.  As Reinhart says, the dough should be “soft and pliable, tacky but not sticky”.  Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic film and ferment until it rises to 1 1/2 times its original size.

Remove the dough and knead slightly to degas it.  Return to the bowl and refrigerate.

Day 2

Remove the dough from the fridge and cut into 10 pieces, cover with plastic wrap and let sit for an hour at room temp.

To make the dough, combine the pâte fermentée, 2 1/2 cups bread flour, 3/4 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp instant yeast, 3/4 cup (and maybe a tbsp or two more) of room temperature water.  Mix together and then use the dough hook to mix for 6 minutes.  I always end up kneading by hand afterwards for a few minutes to adjust the flour and to also raise the temperature of the dough.

Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover and let ferment for 2 hours (it should double in size during this time, if it doubles in size prior to the 2 hour mark, degas a little and let ferment for the full 2 hours).

Remove the dough and cut into thirds, shape into baguettes and place on sheet tray lined with parchment.  Place in the fridge.

Day 3

Remove the dough from the fridge and let sit at room temp for an hour or so.  Heat the oven to 500.  Place a pan with 1 cup of hot water on the bottom rack.  Slice the baguette with a razor blade or serrated knife five times diagonally.  Place in the oven.  After 30 seconds, mist the sides and bottom of the oven with water.  Repeat two more times.  Reduce the temperature to 450 and continue baking.  I ended up baking mine for about 15 minutes before reducing the temperature further to 350 and baking for additional 5-10 minutes (the internal temperature of the bread should be at least 205 degrees F).

Let cool before slicing.

By adding the third day to the process I got a considerably better crust on my bread than when I baked it on the second day after shaping it and letting it ferment at room temp.  I honestly don’t know why, but here’s what McGee has to say on the effects of retarding: 

“In addition to giving the baker greater flexibility, retarding has useful effects on the dough.  Long, slow fermentation allows both yeasts and bacteria more time to generate flavor compounds.  Cold dough is stiffer than warm dough, so it’s easier to handle without causing a loss of leavening gas.  And the cycle of cooling and rewarming redistributes the dough gases (from small bubbles into the water phase, then back out into larger bubbles), and encourages the development of a more open, irregular crumb structure.”

There’s nothing about what retardation (or cold fermentation) does to the crust, but the effects are evident based on 4 of my 5 senses.

I’ve got another recipe I plan on messing with that’s more straightforward (no pâte fermentée), and I’ll probably go back and tinker with this one by adding  the AP flour back in and reducing the amount of bread flour to see if that makes any noticeable difference.

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