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
Pâte Fermentée Ingredients
- 1-¼ cups all purpose flour
- 1-¼ cups bread flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¾ tablespoon instant yeast
- 1 cup (give or take) room temperature water
French Bread Ingredients
- 3-4 cups bread or all-purpose flour
- 2-½ cups pâte fermentée
- 1-½ tablespoons instant yeast
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
Pâte Fermentée Instructions
- Stir together the flour, salt and yeast in a large mixing bowl. Add ¾ cup of water gradually while mixing so everything comes together in a rough ball (1 – 2 minutes usually). Adjust your water and flour so the dough isn’t tooo sticky or too stiff (it’s better to err on the side of sticky as is’s easier to adjust by adding flour while kneeding than it is to add water).
- Sprinkle flour on your board / counter, and turn the dough onto it. Kneed the dough until it’s soft, pliable and a little tacky, but not sticky. About 4 – 6 minutes if you’re doing it by hand; 4 minutes on medium setting if you’re using a mixer.
- Lightly oil a bowl and place your dough in it. Cover it with a towel and let it sit at room temperature for an hour or so until it’s risen to 1-1/2 to 2 times the size.
- Remove the dough from the bowl and kneed it lightly to degas. Then return it to the bowl, cover it with plastic and place it in the refrigerator overnight (you can keep it in the fridge for up to 3 days).
French Bread Instructions
- Remove your pâte fermentée from the refrigerator, cut it into several smaller pieces and let it warm up to room temperature.
- Mix together the flour, salt, yeast, water and pâte fermentée pieces until it forms a soft ball that’s a little tacky but not sticky (adjust flour and water accordingly). This usually takes 3-4 minutes.
- Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover. Let it rise until its doubled in size.
- Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and divide it into two equal pieces. Use your hands to flatten each piece of dough into a large rectangle (precision isn’t important), then roll the dough rectangle from the long edge to make your loaves. Place the loaves on a greased or parchment paper-covered baking sheet and let rise until the loaves have doubled (usually an hour or so).
- Turn your oven on to 375° F and move the rack to the center of the oven. Once the oven has reached the right heat, let it stay there for 5-10 minutes to even the heat distribution in the oven. While that’s happening, use a sharp knife to cut several slits in the top of your loaves.
- Place your loaves in the heated oven and cook for 25-30 minutes, rotating the sheet once halfway through to ensure even baking. If you like crusty bread, toss 3 or 4 ice cubes into the bottom of the oven when you’re halfway through (this is an old baker’s trick to give the bread the delicious golden crust).
- Once it’s cooked, remove the bread and allow it to cool (if you can wait that long).
Voilà! You have real bakery-style French bread.
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