The key to that amazing French bread from the bakery is pre-fermented dough
(TL/DR: Click here to skip straight to the recipe)
If there’s a big difference between home-baked and artisanal bakery bread, it’s in the depth of flavors, textures and aromas that the professionals can pull from the same ingredients you and I buy at the grocery store. It wasn’t until I worked in a bakery that I learned the big difference between the pros and the home bakers isn’t really the ingredients, but the various techniques used to ferment dough to produce complex flavors and textures.
These techniques go by names like “biga” or “old dough” (my recipe is here), “Poolish” or “dough starter” and one of the most common, “pâte fermentée”, or “pre-fermented dough”.
Biga and poolish tend to be used in a lot of European breads with denser, chewier textures and nutty or malty flavors, but not much outside of that. Pâte fermentée, on the other hand, is a staple in every bakery, and used in a wide variety of breads. Generally, the baker will start a dough the day before or early in the morning, allow that dough to rise at room temperature for a while, and then refrigerate it for 6 – 12 hours before making bread with it. That longer fermentation time allows the yeast to convert more sugars in the flour, which produces more complex flavors and textures than fresh yeast alone.
If there’s a bakery that makes a certain style of bread that’s a cut above the same bread from another bakery (or your kitchen), it’s almost certain that bakery’s Pâte fermentée is a big part of it.
One of my favorite breads is a big, golden loaf of French bread. Crusty and dense on the outside, but light and chewy delicious on the inside, I use it for everything from dinner sides to foot-long sub-sandwiches on game day. Nearly every bakery has their own version which were always just a bit more awesome than the ones I made at home even though I tried what must have been 100 different recipes. When I finally learned the secret of pâte fermentée, I also learned that the basic recipe isn’t the key, the pre-fermented dough is. It closes that gap between home “good” and bakery “awesome”, and it’s not hard at all.
Here’s my recipe for French bread, which is actually very similar to all the others except that I use a good amount of pre-fermented dough. Try it. I bet you’ll find it a game-changer in your own bread baking.
Bakery-Style French Bread
Time: Active 20 minutes, Total 2 days | Yield: 2 loaves