Almost nothing beats the smell of freshly baked French Bread. If you’re like me, you cut a slab off of the still warm loaf, cover it with a pat of butter, and watch the butter melt into the bread. Oh my – just like Paris! Well, that’s what I did recently with my Mom when she came up to Seattle on a visit from Florida. In this blog post, I’d like to share with you my experience making French bread.
As wonderful as bread is to eat, I’d probably bake more bread at home if it took less time and effort to make it from scratch. We decided to make French bread because it’s one of the easiest breads to make: it only requires four ingredients, no starter is required, and the preparation time is short. My Mom and I were able to make two loaves in one afternoon.
The recipe we used is based on the recipe found in the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook (Amazon Link), one of our favorite cookbooks. The recipe produced enough dough for two loaves of bread, so we tried an experiment. My Mom would bake one loaf of bread in the oven (indoors), while I would bake a loaf in my Lodge 12 inch, 6 quart camp dutch oven (Amazon link).
French Bread Ingredients
French bread only requires four ingredients:
- 6 cups of flour (all purpose unbleached)
- 2 packages of active dry yeast (recommendation: store yeast in the refrigerator because yeast should be kept in a cool dry place)
- 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
- 2 cups warm water
The picture below shows all of our ingredients. You’ll notice two bowls of flour — one bowl contained four cups while a second bowl has two cups — more on this below. You’ll also notice in the picture that we had an extra large, yellow bowl. The yellow bowl is empty; but, we used this bowl later in the rising process.
You’ll want to have two more optional ingredients on hand before you bake the bread:
- Cornmeal – place the cornmeal underneath the dough before baking.
- 1 beaten egg white – used to coat the dough to give your bread a glossy crust.
French Bread Step 1 – Make your dough
It all starts with the dough — if you have good dough you’re half way to great French bread.
Take two cups of flour, the yeast, and the salt and place them into one bowl. Make a little divot where you can place the salt and the yeast. See the picture below showing this step. Then, add the warm water to the dry ingredients and mix everything with a wooden spoon. Some recipes call for using a mixer; I’m old-school. I do all the mixing by hand.
Once the first two cups of flour have been combined with the yeast and salt, gradually add the remaining flour until you have a smooth dough that’s not too stiff and able to rolled into a ball. You may find that you don’t need to use all of the remaining four cups of flour. Don’t worry if that’s the case.
Once you’ve formed your dough into a ball, then place the dough into a lightly greased, large bowl. I used a clay bowl that was produced at Marshall Pottery in Marshall, TX. Marshall Pottery was part of my wife’s family for many years so the bowl has sentimental value to me.
French Bread Step 2 – Dough Rising
Once you have your dough, the next step is to let your dough rise. The first step in rising process is to “grease” a large bowl, i.e. coat the inside of the bowl with butter. Then, put the dough ball into the bowl and roll the ball around in the bowl—covering the dough with butter.
Next, pre-heat your oven (indoors) to about 150 degrees Fahrenheit, cover the bowl with a clean dishtowel, and then place the dough into the oven to let the dough rise. Check back after about an hour and if the dough has doubled in size, then you’re ready to punch the dough down. Yes, you heard right, “punch” the dough. This is not the time to take out your frustrations — you might hurt your hand — but you definitely want to use a punching motion to punch down your dough after it has risen.
After you’ve punched down the dough, cover the bowl with a towel and set it aside to let the dough rest while you prepare for baking.
French Bread Step 3 – Baking
Congratulations! You are now 2/3rds of the way to fresh bread. Start getting ready to place the bread into your dutch oven. While the dough is resting, head outside, start some coals, and pre-heat your dutch oven. Pre-heating the oven will reduce your cooking time later and gives your dough time to rest. Here’s a list of the items you’ll need for cooking:
- 12 inch – 6 quart camp dutch oven
- Parchment paper liners
- Serrated knife (to cut the bread)
Pre-heat your camp dutch oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Translating that into coals, you’ll want to have 18 coals on the top of the oven and nine coals on bottom. After about 20 minutes, your oven should be ready. Once pre-heated, take your oven off the coals. You’ll want to make sure you’re wearing safety gloves like the Lodge, Leather Outdoor cooking gloves (Amazon Link) because the dutch oven will be too hot to handle without gloves.
Next, place parchment paper at the bottom of the oven and then sprinkle cornmeal on top of the parchment paper. Because my Mom and I were doing an experiment, here’s where you might decide to do something different. We cut the dough in two pieces, and we parted ways. I formed my dough into a ball and placed it in the dutch oven (on top of the parchment paper and cornmeal). Then, I basted the the dough with the egg white for a shiny crust. My Mom took her half of the bread and baked it in the oven — inside the house.
After baking for about 20 minutes at 375 degrees, we both had loaves of bread. Check out our “big reveal video” to see how the dutch oven version turned out.
I’ve included a picture showing both my Mom’s bread cooked inside and the French Bread cooked in the camp dutch oven. Both loaves smelled and tasted wonderful. However, the loaf cooked outdoors had a more crispy crust.
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