French-Style Country Bread

You could make this bread, and no other, for the rest of your baking career, and never feel cheated. It uses the sponge, or poolish, method: sort of a poor man's or woman's sourdough starter — no feedings, little pre-planning, lots of flexibility, and superb bread. If you've always wanted crusty, hole-ridden, French-style bread, this is it.

Prep
15 mins
Bake
25 to 30 mins
Total
4 hrs 37 mins
Yield
2 loaves
French-Style Country Bread

Instructions

  1. To make the starter: Stir all of the starter ingredients together to make a thick, pudding-like mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest for at least 2 hours. For best flavor, let the starter rest longer; overnight (up to 16 hours) is best. If you plan on making the dough in a bread machine, place the sponge ingredients in the bucket, and turn the machine on for just a few seconds to mix the ingredients together. Turn the machine off and close the cover, then let the starter rest as directed above.

  2. To make the dough: Stir down the starter with a spoon and add the water, yeast, sugar, 3 1/4 cups (390g) of the flour, and the salt. The dough will be a loose, messy mass. Let it rest for 12 to 15 minutes, then stir it again; it should become more cohesive and a bit smoother. Dough handles better once it's had time for the flour to absorb the water while resting and relaxing. By using this method, you'll tend to add less flour, and have much bigger holes in your finished bread.

  3. Knead the dough, adding up to an additional 3/4 cup (90g) flour (as necessary to make a soft dough), 10 to 12 minutes.

  4. Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl or plastic container, cover with lightly greased plastic wrap, and let it rise until almost doubled (depending on the weather, this could be 1 to 2 hours). If you're going out, or if you prefer, let the dough rise slowly in the fridge. If your dough has been refrigerated, allow it to come to room temperature before shaping; it'll warm up and rise at the same time.

  5. Deflate the dough gently, but don't knock out all the air; this will create those "holes" so important to French bread. For one large loaf, form the dough into a round ball; for two loaves, divide the dough in half and shape into two balls.

  6. Place a semolina- or cornmeal-dusted piece of parchment paper onto a baking sheet. Gently place the ball(s) of dough on the baking sheet, seam-side down.

  7. Cover the bread gently with lightly greased plastic wrap, and let it rise until it's puffy and about 40% to 50% larger, anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes.

  8. Preheat your oven to 475°F.

  9. Slash or cross-hatch the bread with a sharp knife or lame. Dust it with a little flour. Spritz water into the oven with a clean plant mister, and place the bread in the oven. Reduce the heat to 425°F and spritz with water every few minutes for the first 15 minutes of baking.

  10. Bake the bread for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until it's a rich golden brown, and its interior temperature registers at least 190°F on a digital thermometer. The smaller loaves will bake more quickly, so keep your eye on them.

  11. Remove the bread from the oven, and cool it on a rack. Store bread, loosely wrapped in paper, for a couple of days at room temperature; wrap it in plastic and freeze for longer storage.

Tips from our Bakers

  • Want to bake your bread on an outdoor grill? Preheat your grill to High. Place the bread (on doubled-up baking sheets) on the grill, and close the cover. Immediately reduce the heat to Medium (400°F), and allow the bread to bake for 25 minutes, or until it's well-browned. Reduce the heat to Low, and carefully place the bread directly on the grill. Continue to bake until completely done, about 5 minutes.