Do You Really Want to Make French Bread?

I have been asked by someone who stumbled on my most recent blog, To Knead Or Not To Knead, if I would give more specific details about the French bread I make—in other words, a real recipe. That’s not easy with this kind of bread because there are a number of variables, from the climate to the water content of the flour. I am always experimenting, trying to make my loaves just a little better each time. My friend Jason Epstein, whose book Eating we just published this fall, would understand. He claims that he never makes something the same way twice, that he is always improving on it, so why write it down in a rigid formula? He prefers to treat a recipe as a conversation over the stove with a friend.

So I am going to follow Jason’s lead here and ask you just to join me as I describe how I made my baguettes this past weekend. It was a gray, cold day that I baked them, spreading the warmth of the kitchen and the heavenly smell of bread baking throughout the apartment.

First, you’ll need to check your EQUIPMENT. Unless you happen to have a wood-burning oven, you’ll need a baking stone measuring at least 14 x 15 inches that you set on the middle rack of your oven. You’ll also need something to create steam. The simplest method is to squirt some water over the loaves before they go into the hot oven and to toss of few ice cubes onto the oven floor just before you shut the door. I heat up an old flat iron, as described in my last blog entry, picking it up with sturdy tongs and plunging it into a pan of water.

For INGREDIENTS you’ll need 3 3/4 cups or more of white flour. (You can use bread flour, if you have it, but I find Hecker’s or King Arthur’s unbleached, all-purpose flour is excellent); 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast (I use rapid-rise these days); 2 teaspoons kosher salt; and 3/4 cup tap water.

The night before I planned to bake I mixed 2 1/2 cups of the flour, the 1/4 teaspoon yeast, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and all of the water together in the bowl of my standing electric mixer, using the dough hook. You can do the mixing with a big wooden spoon but not your hands—at this stage it’s just too wet and sticky. When the dough is mixed it will still be loose and gloppy but that’s okay; cover the bowl in plastic wrap and drape a towel over it. I’ll give it about 18 hours to do its work, sitting in my kitchen where the temperature is around 60 to 65 degrees at night and 70 during the day;

Two hours before I’m ready to bake I add 1/2 cup more flour and the remaining teaspoon of salt and let the dough hook mix it again. If the dough still looks too soupy, I sprinkle in another 1/2 cup with the dough hook turning slowly. Now I flour my work surface generously (mine is a marble-topped worktable) and scrape the dough out of the bowl onto it, sprinkling more flour on top. Very gently at first I start to knead, using a dough scraper to prevent sticking and folding the dough over onto itself. This is such a delicate, moist dough that I have learned not to push down too hard but to coax the dough gently with the palms of my hands, adding more flour as necessary.

Gradually the dough becomes cohesive, then smooth, and it bounces back at me when I stick a finger into it. The kneading seems to take me about 6 or 7 minutes.

NOTE: I often want to make myself a small pizza*—cook’s treat—so at this stage I will tear off a piece of dough between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball and set it aside, loosely covered with plastic wrap, or I refrigerate it if I’m not using it right away.

To return to the bread dough, I now wash out the bowl and put the dough back in it, letting it rise, covered again, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until doubled in volume. Because this bread has less leavening, rising times are slower, which adds flavor to the bread.

Now comes the famous forming of the loaves à la Madame Child. I scrape the dough out of the bowl again onto the floured marble, punch it down gently, and divide it into thirds. I take one third of the dough (leaving the other 2 covered with a towel) and pat it into an oval shape 6 or 7 inches long.

Then I fold the long sides toward the middle, overlapping, and with the side of my hand I press the dough to form a lengthwise trough down the middle. I bring the two long sides up and over the trough and firmly pinch the sides together. Flouring the work surface again, I roll out the dough with the palms of my hands, starting at the center and rolling toward the ends, stretching the dough as I roll it to about 12 inches (or slightly less if I’ve stolen a piece for my pizza).

Now I quickly pick up that first rope of dough, which droops a bit as I transfer it to a kitchen towel that I have laid out, well dusted with flour. After arranging the loaf on the long end of the towel, I make a generous pleat in the towel to keep the first baguette separated from the next one. And now I prepare the remaining pieces of dough in the same way and lay another towel on top.

While the baguettes get their final 30-minute rise , I preheat the oven to 475 degrees with the baking stone on the middle rack. I also heat up my trusty old iron over a gas flame.

The last moment of excitement is at hand. The baguettes have doubled. I take my improvised baking paddle, well dusted at one long end with corn meal, and slip it just a little way under the first baguette; then using the far side of the towel I flip it onto the paddle, seam side down now, and make 3 lengthwise slashes on top with a razor blade held at an angle. I pull out the oven rack and I position the paddle at the far end of the stone, then jerk it so the baguette slips off the paddle and onto the hot surface. I very quickly repeat this maneuver with the two remaining loaves, shutting the oven door in between to keep the heat in. Now I put a pan of water on the oven floor and with my tongs grab the hot iron and plop it into the pan.

The baguettes are done in about 25 minutes, although I always peek 5 minutes sooner to see if they have turned golden brown. When ready I remove the baguettes with tongs and prop them up so the air can circulate as they cool.

Voilà. Try not to eat them until they’ve had at least half an hour to settle.

*To make yourself a small pizza for lunch: Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Flatten your reserved hunk of dough on a well-floured work surface and roll it out to a circle about 6 inches in diameter. Paint the top lightly with olive oil and fill the round with whatever appeals to you. I love eggplant so I grill some fairly thin, lengthwise slices of a small eggplant, brushed with oil, over a gas burner, until lightly roasted. Then I arrang 3 of those slices on top of the circle of dough, interspersed with 6 or 7 cherry tomatoes and topped with a heaping tablespoon of grated parmesan. Using the same jerking motion that I described for sliding the baguette onto the hot baking stone and with the help of a spatula, I slip the pizza into the oven, but if that unnerves you and you feel all the topping will tumble off, bake the pizza for the first 5 minutes on a regular baking sheet and then slide it onto the baking stone when the bottom has firmed up. Bake a total of 12 to 15 minutes, checking to see if the dough is crispy and the filling bubbly.

The possibilities for pizza fillings are endless. See what scraps you may have in your fridge—cooked vegetables, a little sausage or ham, different cheeses, olives, peppers.

40 Responses to “Do You Really Want to Make French Bread?”

  1. Thanks. I most certainly do want to make French Bread. My husband is Frenh, we’ll retire to France, and in the meantime, we would like some decent bread. Very kind of you to follow up – my commendation to your publicist. First rate.

  2. Judith, I bought your book ‘The Tenth Muse’ on Friday. I was thoroughly wrapped up and engaged in it this weekend. Except I finished reading it last night. The sadest part of a good book is when you reach the end. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences!

    Can you do a post on what to do if you want to develop a cookbook? Or are you aware of resources that already exist?

    You are a truly gifted individual. I hope you keep writing and cooking.

    Thank you,

  3. Griffith says:

    Judith, I just want to thank you for your wisdom of food and dedication. For me it’s a passion I do for a living. I own a small bakery in Savannah, GA and make by hand french and italian breads. My production is small but I have a dedicated customer base that really enjoy what “real” bread taste like. I find it a little troubling how bread has become some sort of fast food quick thing to make when in reality bread is a process and a love of patience and perfection.
    The only modern equipment I use is a 40qt mixer and a retarder fridge to ferment my breads at night. I feed my starters, mix my doughs and gently form my breads. It’s always a challenge with all the variables there is with bread but that is what I love most about it. In the end the loaf brings accomplishment.
    Thank you again

  4. Jean says:

    I just finished The Tenth Muse. What a fascinating story. How I wish my mother were here to enjoy it with me. It was she who inspired my love of good food and good books as we cooked and read together, often simultaneously, since I was four. It was years after her death that I met Julia Child on several occasions, and that is something she would have been thrilled to know about! I love making French bread, baguettes and boules. Very satisfying.

  5. I am not a cook whatsoever but I am almost through reading Julia Child’s My Life in France (been reading all weekend) and it is truly an inspiration. Now I have to get a hold of your book and read it too, because Julia talks about you and I had no idea you write as well. I write too and in my latest effort, The Recession Made Me Eat It, there is a chapter called,BREAD. I’m embarrassed to admit that I pretty much bake a bread I call a baguette in the book. It is obviously not a real baguette but I call it a “Caribbean style baguette” and it was surprisingly edible and it was as you said, really a conversation with a friend whom I had over for dinner rather than the success of the bread – and the thing was edible, believe it or not! In any event, Judith, your book sounds fun since most of the time, I too, eat for one and The Recession Made Me Eat It (which by the way is available as an ebook at lulu) is really about my own experiences cooking and eating for one in a really bad economy that finds me with only $20.00 per week for groceries. Do you think Julia could have pulled off her Galatine de Volaille or stuff like her crepes Suzettes Flambees on twenty bucks per week?!

  6. Illene says:

    Thank you, thank you. I am so happy after making 3 baguettes, following your very thorough
    instructions. After reading The Tenth Muse and then The Pleasures of Cooking for One, I have discovered many other cookbooks I own and have enjoyed throughout the years, have links to you. American Food is a special favorite. Thank you for your most recent books but especially thanks for allowing me at age 70 to finally make the best bread I’ve ever made. Can’t wait to teach my grandchildren your secrets. Thank you again!!!

  7. GirlCook says:

    I’ve researched so many traditional French bread recipes and this is the one I will try, thank you for the great tips and detail.

  8. Lynda Fisher says:

    Thank you Judith! Jan Bhurman’s Kitchen Porch newsletter tipped me off to your wonderful website. Reading your musings about baking a baguette made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Like another reader said I too didn’t realize so many of my favorite cookbooks led back to you. I guess if you are one of the editing angels that shepherded my early cooking influences it makes sense that your writing sounds familiar, like a long lost friend popping back in. Which is all to say I thoroughly enjoyed the time I have just spent looking over your shoulder as you made bread! Best description I’ve ever read!

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