I had tried baking my own bread before. I had tried so many styles. The end result was always a boring-looking loaf that was much too dense and had decent but unremarkable flavor. I had comes to terms with the fact that only professional bakers could achieve that light, chewy center with a perfect crust. And then I remembered that I have the whole internet at my fingertips, I love reading about food science, and age 29 is too early to give up on anything.
So I sat back down and did some searching. I even used some REAL books! Like the kind our grandmas used. A lot of these resources talked about the concept of hydration, which was new to me. I’m going to grossly oversimplify it, so if you’re one of those “professional bakers” I referenced earlier, just stop reading now. Seriously. What are you even doing on this blog? It’s called a couple of amateurs.
I learned that adding less flour (or more water) can help your bread have a wonderful texture and big beautiful holes throughout. Pretty simple trick. So I set out to make a couple of baguettes for a French Picnic themed dinner party we attended. I looked up some recipes online and then just decided to kind of wing it. I know, “winging it” is not something that engineers typically like to do in the kitchen. But I guess I’m not a typical engineer. Or, rather, I respect that baking is a science and I prefer to use my own engineering judgment rather than BLINDLY following rules written by someone else. Instead of following a recipe, I used the concepts I had read about to determine my flour/water ratio. And I was pleasantly surprised with the results.
Take off your blindfolds. Let’s get started.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine 2 cups of bread flour, 2 cups of warm water, 2 heapin’ teaspoons instant yeast (one packet), and 2 teaspoons of salt. Blend just until combined and then allow this mixture to sit for about 20 minutes. Your flour needs a little bit of time to absorb that moisture. If you skip the wait time and start adding more flour right away, then you’ll be adding too much. It’s amazing how much this starter will dry out if you just give it time to absorb.
Now that you’ve patiently let the moisture equalize throughout your starter, you may add more flour. I will tell you that at this point in my own bread making, I added 2 cups of flour. But you may choose to alter that amount based on what’s going on in your mixer. After you’ve added a bit more flour, do some kneading with your dough hook attachment. Not too much kneading though. A lot of kneading will make the gluten really happy, and happy gluten are too orderly. We don’t necessarily want a bunch of orderly, even gluten bonds. We want our gluten bonds to be more random. A few minutes on a high setting is all I do.
The goal here is to make a sticky dough. Not so runny that it still looks like liquid, but still wet enough that your fingers become a huge mess when you touch it. It will not stay in a nicely formed ball, but it should be pulling away from the sides of the mixing bowl. Find that happy medium.
This seems like a good place to note the importance of using a high-protein flour. High-protein flours can absorb more water than their lower-protein counterparts and will give you dough that’s much easier to work with at every stage of this process. I just used what I had on hand, which was Gold Medal “Better for Bread” flour, 12.5% protein. Normal all-purpose flour tends to be between 9-11%, and I’ve seen up to 15% protein flours available in the store. I wouldn’t recommend going any lower than 12.5%, but I’m also not the kind of person who wants to store 4+ different types of flour in her pantry. So I probably won’t go higher than that either. You do you, guys. You do you.
Remember… while this post itself is a recipe, let it also be a public service announcement: Do not let recipes control your life. You are the queen (or king) of your own kitchen. You are The Decider.
Anyway. We’ve added enough flour to make a sticky, cooling-lava-consistency dough. And we’ve done just enough kneading (in the mixer) to wake up the little gluten soldiers, but we’re gonna send them into battle before they have time to get in formation.
Transfer your dough to a large bowl coated with olive oil. I also coated a silicone spatula with olive oil to get the dough out of the mixer bowl. Did I mention it’s sticky?
Cover it with a towel and let it rise until doubled in size. How many hours? I don’t know. A couple. I was doing other things, like making a tomato tarte tatin and hanging out with Chelsea.
Now normally, at this point, past Annie would have punched down the dough and done some additional kneading on a floured work surface. But that’s not what we’re doing today. We’re using oil-coated work surfaces and learning the “stretch and fold” technique.
Flop your dough onto your olive oil-coated counter top or large cutting board. With both hands, grab one edge of it and fold it over on itself. Do that repeatedly. Notice how much firmer the dough gets even just after a few stretches-and-folds. Repeat that motion about 20 times, or until the dough feels more “springy” when poked. Then put it back in your oiled bowl and let it rest and rise for at least another hour.
After that hour is up, remove the dough from the bowl, cut in half, and form into two baguettes by first slapping into long rectangles and then rolling to elongate even further. There might be more official words for this. I don’t know them. I’m definitely not an expert on it, but I don’t care much about what my baguettes look like. If you do care, then you should consult a youtube video of some french dude explaining baguette formation.
Note: It is OK to use a floured work surface for this. We’re not doing any more kneading, so the flour won’t be incorporated into your dough.
Place your loaf twins on a baguette pan. If you don’t have a baguette pan like this one, you can still make baguettes. Because this dough has trouble holding its shape, you will end up with a flatter-bottomed baguette. Almost like a long ciabatta loaf, if you will. If you’re OK with that, then charge on. But if you have the kitchen space to store one of these loaf pans, I recommend making the investment. And remember, the higher the protein content of your flour, the better it will hold its shape at the same hydration percentage.
Place in a preheated 450°F oven. Initially and every few minutes after, spray some water into the oven to keep it moist in there. Bake until the internal temperature of the bread is 200°F.
Let cool slightly, then slice and serve. Or run down the street pretending you’re Aladdin. You do you.
recipe (makes 2 baguettes)
- 4 cups bread flour
- 2 cups warm water
- 2 T instant (fast-acting) yeast
- 2 t kosher salt
- olive oil (for greasing bowl, work surface)
Combine 2 cups of flour, water, salt, and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix to blend with the dough hook attachment, and then let sit for 20 minutes.
Add more flour – about 2 cups – and knead on medium speed until dough pulls away from walls of mixing bowl. Add more flour if necessary, but be patient and make additions small. (If you decide not to trust me and you want to add like 6 total cups of flour, make sure you add more salt.) Dough will still be very sticky at this point, but should be elastic enough to stay in one piece.
Scrape dough out of mixing bowl and into large oil-lined bowl. Cover and let rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
Remove from bowl and place on oil-lined work surface. Using a stretch-and-fold technique to knead the dough, about 20 folds, until the dough ball feels adequately firm. Place back into oil-lined bowl for an additional rise period of about an hour.
Preheat oven to 450°F. Remove dough from bowl and separate in half. Roll each half into a baguette shape on a floured work surface. Place loaves in a preheated 450°F oven, and use a spray bottle to mist water into the oven every few minutes during baking. Bake for until internal temperature is 200°F, or about 25 minutes.