To make good French bread you need a really hot oven plus a bit of steam for a glossy, crisp crust. You also have to plan ahead as the dough needs to be started overnight to give it plenty of flavour and texture. A warm kitchen, and a dough that’s just slightly soft rather than slightly firm, will help give the distinctive open texture.
Combine the flours then tip half the mixture into a large mixing bowl or a plastic bowl with a lid. Mix in half the salt and a quarter of a teaspoon of the dried yeast. Work in the lukewarm water with your hand to make a very smooth, thick batter. Cover tightly with a lid or cling film and leave at normal room temperature, or slightly cooler, for 8 hours or overnight. The mixture will be very bubbly.
The next day, uncover the bowl, add a tablespoon of tepid water and stir the mixture well. Mix the rest of the salt and the remaining yeast into the other half of the flour mixture. Gradually work in to the batter to make a dough that’s just slightly soft but not sticky. If the dough feels very sticky or doesn’t hold its shape, work in a little more flour; if the dough feels tough and dry or if there are dry crumbs in the base of the bowl, work in a little more water.
Turn out the dough onto a very lightly floured work surface and knead thoroughly for 10 minutes until the dough feels very smooth and elastic. The dough can also be kneaded in a large electric mixer, fitted with a dough hook, for 5 minutes on the lowest speed. Put the dough back into the mixing bowl, cover and leave to rise at room temperature until doubled in size – this will take about 1 hour.
Carefully turn out the risen dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Without punching it down or handling the dough too much, cut it into two equal portions. Shape each one into a rough ball then cover with a dry tea towel and leave for 15 minutes. With a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out each ball to a rectangle about 25x30cm. Roll up the dough fairly tightly, like a Swiss roll. Tuck in the ends and pinch the seam together securely. Put the rolls on an unfloured work surface and roll with your hands to make two sausages about 40cm long with gently tapering ends. Lightly flour a large dry tea towel and put it on a large tray or board. Carefully set each loaf on the cloth, pleating the cloth in between the loaves, and the sides, to make a barrier and a support. Cover the whole lot with a large piece of cling film and leave to rise until doubled in size – about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to its hottest setting and put a roasting tin of water and two baking sheets in it to heat.
Gently slide and roll the loaves onto the heated baking sheets. Make several slashes along the loaves with a small, very sharp knife. Set the baking sheets in the oven and spray the loaves and the baking sheets with water using a mister bottle. Spray again after 5 minutes. Bake for about 20 minutes until golden and crisp then slide the loaves off the sheets and onto the oven racks and bake for another couple of minutes for a really crisp crust.
Cool on a wire rack and eat the same day or use for garlic bread or bread pudding.
Tips for good crusty baguettes: Make sure the oven and the baking sheets are really hot. If you have a pizza baking stone now is the time to use it (put it into the oven when you switch it on). A tray of water in the base of the oven adds steam, which helps the crust. You can also brush the loaves very lightly with salty cold water just before you put them into the oven. Spray with water at least once during baking. Make sure the loaves are thoroughly cooked before you take them out of the oven.
Makes 2 medium baguettes
Preparation: 30 minutes (plus about 10 hours rising time – see recipe)
Baking: 22 minutes
300g Marriage’s Organic Strong White Flour
200g Marriage’s Organic Plain White Flour
1 teaspoon sea salt, crushed
7g sachet easy-blend dried yeast
300ml lukewarm water