French Bread, or how to make 2 batards of bread in three hours


1. Proof the yeast
(15 minutes)
Heat up 2 cups of water to 110 F or higher and add it to the bowl. Add the teaspoon of sugar to the water. When the water is cool enough to comfortably touch, spread the yeast evenly over the water's surface. Wait 10 minutes for the yeast to work. A froth should form on the surface of the water during this time. Yeast is a living organism. It is dormant when it is dry. To revive it, it requires warm water and food, i.e. sugar. If the water is too hot, the yeast will die, and if it is too cold, the yeast will grow very slowly. In an ideal environment, it will rapidly reproduce.
2. Add stuff
(5 minutes)
After the yeast has been proofed, add 2 cups of the flour and stir it in with a wooden spoon. Add the 2 teaspoons of salt, stir, then add the remaining flour slowly as you mix. All 6 cups of flour might not be needed. Just add flour until the dough starts to look pretty dry. Salt slows yeast down, while flour is a yeast food source. I like to mix in some of the flour first to protect the yeast from the salt. The salt can easily be evenly mixed into the soupy dough.
3. Knead
(10 minutes)
Gather the mass of dough and either clear off a section of table for kneading or knead in the bowl itself if it is large enough. Kneading is a repetitive motion that stretches the dough. I knead by folding the mass of dough in half toward myself, pressing this folded mass downward and outward with the heel of my hand, rotating this a quarter turn, then repeating these steps. You can use one or two hands. If the dough sticks too much to your hands or to the work surface, add some more flour. The protein chains in the flour starts off in little tangles. Kneading stretches out this protein, gluten, into long, strong strands. These long protein strands are needed to trap the carbon dioxide generated by the yeast to leaven the bread. Kneading also mixes the ingredients and traps air into the dough for the yeast.
4. First rise
(40-60 minutes)
Put the dough in the bowl and cover it to protect it from drafts. Wait about 40 to 60 minutes. Check to see if the dough has risen enough by poking it. If the dough springs back, let it rise some more. If it collapses, then it has risen too long, you might as well finish the recipe to see what happens. During this wait, the yeast will feed on the sugar, flour, and oxygen mixed in by the kneading, and will generate carbon dioxide. If you let the dough sit too long, the yeast will generate enough carbon dioxide to stretch the gluten too far, and the dough will collapse with a sigh. It is best to let the yeast generate as much air as possible without letting the dough get weak. If the dough springs back after poking, this means the dough could probably hold more air.
5. Punch down
(1 minute)
Press all of the dough down with the heel of your hand to force out the big air bubbles. The yeast is unable to move in the dough, so it is trapped with its waste products of carbon dioxide and alcohol. Pressing the bubbles out of the dough mixes things up a bit.
6. Form the loaves
(10 minutes)
Lightly dust a clean work surface with flour. Take half of the dough and form a ball out of it that is reasonably smooth on at least one side. Place the dough on the work surface smooth-side- down. Work the dough into a long, flat oblong about a hand's width wide and a foot-and-a-half long through a combination of stretching and pressing. You may need to fold the oblong in half during this process if it gets too wide. Grasp the long-side edge farthest from you and carefully roll it towards you forming a solid cylinder of dough. Try to roll it tightly so no air is trapped between layers. Place the shaped loaf on a cookie sheet well-covered with corn meal to prevent it from sticking. Now form the remaining dough into a second loaf. This is the part of the process that will determine the bread's appearance. The goal is to produce beautiful, smooth batards. The part of the dough that faces the table will form the crust, so it should be a continuous surface. The dough is flattened and rolled to stretch the outer surface taut, which makes an even crust.

I prefer to use cornmeal rather than butter to keep the loaves from sticking. Both should work fine.

7. Second rise
(30-40 minutes)
Cover the loaves to protect them from drafts and wait about 30 minutes. Test the loaves by poking them. If the indentation remains, then they are ready to bake, otherwise wait a bit. We are letting the yeast put air into the dough again.
8. Slashing the loaves
(10 seconds)
Take a sharp knife and make three parallel slashes that go nearly along the bread longways. The slashes should be about 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep and should be at about a 45 angle with respect to the surface of the loaf. Make the slashes quickly. The slashes will give the final baked loaves a wonderful appearance and the edges of the slashes will brown more than the insides of the slashes, giving the bread a more interesting texture. The 45 angle will make the finished loaf look much better than a 90 slash. If the slash went straight into the loaf, the baked loaf would just have a pale seam. The angle creates a thin strip of dough that will bake faster, making a beautiful dark, crunchy ridge next to a paler strip.
9. Bake
(25 minutes)
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Get about half a cup of water and place it near the oven. When the oven reaches 375, open the door, place the cookie sheet with the loaves on the rack closest to the center of the oven, toss the water onto the floor of the oven, and quickly close the door. The water should form a large cloud of steam. After 25 minutes, check the loaves. If they are pale, let them bake at least another 5 minutes If they are a dark, golden brown, they are done. Remove them from the oven, and allow them to cool a bit. Cut the loaves with a sharp knife. The high temperature makes the crust darker, and the steam in the oven will help make the bread's crust thin and crispy.
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