February 21, 2007

Pain à l'Ancienne, What Went Right

pain á l'ancienne

pain á l’ancienne baguettes

On Monday I baked French bread. French bread consists of merely water, flour, yeast and salt. The style I baked is supposed to be crusty and flavorful. Because it lacks fats or other preservatives, it stales quickly, but is delicious when fresh.

This was the first success I’ve had with a French style of bread, so I wanted to quickly post what I can remember from he experience for my own reference but also for anyone interested in the details of breamaking. I’m going to keep to this particular bread and not wander off into generalities so as to keep this post short(er). I may post more general bread info in the future for those interested.

Details below the fold.

I began with the recipe in Peter Reinhart’s book “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice” — the one for pain à l’ancienne.

The instructions say to prepare the dough a day in advance using instant yeast and ice water, and give it an overnight rest in the fridge. This overnight rest produces flavors. I didn’t have the time, so I prepared the dough in the morning and baked it that night, about 8 hours later.

It spent about 3 hours out of the fridge coming back up to room temperature in its bowl.

When I removed it from the bowl I was very careful not to press out many of the bubbles that fermentation had produced as I shaped it into a roughly 8 × 6 rectangle.

I heated the oven to 550° F with a heavy pan on the floor inside and my largest pizza stone on the second-to-lowest rack. I prepared my spray bottle with hot water, and prepared a couple of cups of hot water in a Pyrex measuring cup.

I cut the baguettes from the dough after a 5 minute rest and transferred them one at a time to a corn meal-covered piece of parchment paper that was on my pizza peel. I stretched them slightly as I moved them; they were very easy to shape because I had not disturbed the dough much after its rise. I handled them as little as possible.

Then I slashed them long and fairly deep with a razor I keep for that purpose. I didn’t give them a second rise.

I transferred the breads (paper and all) to the stone.

I had some trouble pouring the water into the pan in the bottom of the oven because of the position of the stone. I had to pull the pan out a little with a spatula so I could hit the corner with the water. I burned myself slightly while doing this.

I poured the hot water in, causing a burst of steam, then I closed the oven. (The first set of 3 loaves got less steam than the second one. The second 3 had a better crust. More water in that pan is clearly better. 1+ cups is better than just under a cup of water.)

After 30 seconds, I opened the oven and sprayed the walls with warm water. Repeat about a minute later. Then one more time 30 seconds later. Then I turned the oven down to 475° F.

They baked for about 8 minutes, and they began to brown. I had to remove the baguettes to rotate them 180° F because turning the parchment paper didn’t work. They had a tendency to roll which was vexing, so I had the oven open longer than I would have liked.

They took about another 9 minutes to brown to my satisfaction. I checked the internal temps with an instant read thermometer and they were above (but close to) the target temperature for crusty bread (205° F).

I actually heard the second batch crackle as they cooled.

What I Think I Learned:

  • Confirmation that fermentation in the fridge does develop flavor, even if it’s only for a few hours. The loaves were more flavorful than usual.
  • If you’re not going to give the dough a second rise, it helps to handle the baguettes gently so as not to deflate them.
  • A second rise is not necessary.
  • Two methods of generating steam (the pan and the sprayer) together do generate sufficient steam for a crispy crust.

What I Would Change:

  • Have the stone on a higher shelf so it’s easier to pour water in the steam pan.
  • Be careful not to spray the oven light bulb. Oops.
  • Angle the baguettes on the stone so that I can approach them more lengthwise with the peel — to avoid them rolling away from me in the oven.
Posted by James at February 21, 2007 2:19 PM
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Dude those look awesome. I wish I could try them sometime. Sadly GF dough is more like batter so I'm SOL.

"Be careful not to spray the oven light bulb. Oops."


"Angle the baguettes on the stone so that I can approach them more lengthwise with the peel — to avoid them rolling away from me in the oven"

Do you have a pair of long (or any size) kitchen tongs? those might be extremely useful in moving baguettes around the hot oven. I have 3 pairs from OXO in different sizes in stainless and silicone tipped. They are far and away my favorite kitchen tool. they come in handy for everything.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at February 21, 2007 4:02 PM

The oven light bulb exploded (luckily, not into the oven).

That tong idea is excellent! Thanks for the suggestion. Having a blog and smart friends pays big dividends.

Posted by: James at February 21, 2007 4:28 PM

I'll definitely second the use of tongs. I even use tongs or some other implement to pull out oven racks sometimes, to avoid having to stick my arm in the oven.

I also have a "6 in 1 utensil," as seen here:
(it's the one on the right). I'd say 6-in-1 is a will exaggeration, but it is very handy for flipping certain things.

I've never been clear on the benefits of a second rise for bread.

Posted by: Julie at February 21, 2007 4:45 PM

Sorry, that should say "WILD exaggeration."

Posted by: Julie at February 21, 2007 4:46 PM

The long-handled OXO tongs look nice. I need something long, so I can reach the back of the oven.

In any case, the second rise (IIRC) is also called a proof when it happens to bread that has been shaped into loaves. The purpose is to make the bread lighter by giving the yeast time to expand the loaves while they are in their final shape.

Supposedly, bread machine yeast (aka instant yeast) is formulated in such a way as to only necessitate a rest and not a full second rise. I guess it's also supposed to rise a lot in the oven as it is baking.

I haven't tested this, so I have no direct empirical knowledge of it. I'm repeating what Iv'e read. However, I do have experience that tells me that you can get away without a second rise with the instant yeast.

And I do have experience that you can end up with really dense bread if you use regular yeast and you have an insufficient second rise.

Another possible reason for a second rise: to develop flavor if you're not going to refrigerate. Longer time sitting around seems to translate to more flavor. However, using the fridge (if you can) seems to work even better.

Posted by: James at February 21, 2007 5:30 PM

Tongs are a must. I read some time ago an interview of Chris Schlesinger wherein he extolled the virtues of tongs. He was absolutely right--I use my tongs all the time. Here's a snippet from an interview in "Boston Magazine" where he talks about tongs--an essential tool in barbequeue if ever there was one:

Tongs “I couldn’t do what I do without a pair of long-handled tongs. Skip the fancy ones and go for the simple, strong—and maybe a little ugly—kind we use in [The East Cost Grill].” [$7.50. Available at Eastern Bakers Supply, 145 Washington St., Boston, 617-742-0228.]
His name may be familiar to you, and here's why:


"In 1986 Chris opened the East Coast Grill, in 1989, Jake and Earl's Dixie BBQ and in 1990, The Blue Room. All of these restaurants received national attention. In 1996 Chris consolidated his restaurant efforts and revamped the East Coast Grill, tripling its size and shifting its focus to seafood. In 1999 Chris opened the Back Eddy in Westport, MA, overlooking the Westport River. Close relationships with local farmers, fishermen, brewers, vintners and cheese makers define the menu at the Back Eddy."

Most recently, he opened the All-Star Sandwich Bar in Inman Sq., Cambridge.

The man knows his kitchen tools.

Posted by: Patti M. at February 22, 2007 8:41 AM

I would like to rip off a hunk of the bread you made and dip it in olive oil with herbs. It sounds dee-lish!

Posted by: Patti M. at February 22, 2007 8:43 AM

This bread was excellent. I can't wait until you tackle sourdough!!

Posted by: Cousin Bob at February 27, 2007 12:40 PM

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