Start to Finish: 2 hours plus fermenting and proofing
Servings: 1 loaf
Difficulty: Moderate

French bread isn’t about cookware (later, loaf pan!) or an exotic ingredient (just water, flour and yeast, thank you very much) — it’s a method. French bread comes in several forms; the endearing baguette, the tender brioche and the flavorful fougasse all have their merits. But hearty, rustic rounds of pain de campagne, or country bread — the type that beckons you to tear off a fistful at first sight — embody all the qualities of French bread. You don’t need advanced baking skills to make French bread, but you need a baking stone and a little water to create a chewy crust.


Ingredients

Sponge Starter

  • 1 cup lukewarm water
  • 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour

Dough

  • 1 cup lukewarm water
  • 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 4 cups unbleached bread flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • Razor blade or grignette

Create a Sponge Starter

Mix 1 cup of lukewarm water with 1/2 teaspoon of instant yeast and 1 tablespoon of sugar in a mixing bowl. Let the water stand for 2 to 3 minutes.

Add 1 1/2 cups of unbleached bread flour to the water. Mix the wet and dry ingredients with a spoon until they barely come together.

Cover the mixing bowl with plastic wrap. Let the starter stand at room temperature for 12 hours or overnight.

Mix the Dough

Mix 1 cup of lukewarm water and 1/2 teaspoon of instant yeast in a bowl. Let the water stand for 2 to 3 minutes.

Mix the water with the starter. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Add 3 1/2 cups of unbleached bread flour and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt to the starter. Mix the dough until it just comes together. Let the dough sit for 10 minutes. Set 1/2 cup of unbleached bread flour aside.

Turn out the dough onto a floured work surface. Knead the dough for 10 to 12 minutes. The dough will be sticky and loose. Add the reserved bread flour as needed while kneading. Alternatively, mix the dough in a mixer with the dough-hook attachment for 5 to 7 minutes, adding the reserved flour throughout the process.

Proof and Shape the Dough

Place the dough in an oiled mixing bowl. Cover the dough with a piece of plastic film and let it double in size, 1 to 2 hours.

Press the dough down gently with your palm. Don’t punch down the dough and expel all the gas — you want a little carbon dioxide inside to create the prized air pockets French bread is known for.

Shape the dough into a round loaf. Slice 3 or 4, 1/4-inch-deep diagonal slashes in the top of the dough using a razor blade or grignette.

Transfer the dough to a floured cutting board. Let the dough sit until it rises by half, about 45 minutes.

Bake the Bread

Heat the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. Place a baking stone on the oven rack (it should be in the middle position) so it can heat up with the oven.

Spray water on the oven walls and bottom using a spray bottle. Slide the dough off the cutting board and onto the stone. Immediately lower the oven temperature to 425 F.

Bake the bread for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the center reaches 200 F. Spray the oven walls twice during baking. Let the bread cool completely on a wire rack before serving.

Tips From the Bakery

  • You can tell that you’ve kneaded the dough enough when you can stretch a piece thin enough to see through it without it tearing.

  • Age the dough for 24 hours after the second proofing for a stronger, more mature flavor.

  • Bake the bread in a regular loaf pan if you prefer the shape.

  • Brush the loaf with egg wash before baking for a crisp crust and golden sheen.

  • Add fresh herbs while mixing the dough to build a flavor profile.