The problem is this: I don't follow any recipes, I don't closely measure how much of anything I put in, I almost never make the same thing twice, and I have a sourdough culture that I add for flavor and supplement with more reliable instant yeast. It took me a while to get the hang of it, but once you know how to bake a decent loaf, you can really wing it... and I do, at least once a week, with whatever I have on hand. End of a bottle of olives=olive bread; leftover polenta=mutli-grain, sale on sunflower seeds= seeded loaf, and so on. I can't tell how much of anything went into it because throwing things in at random necessitates a certain amount of tweaking as you go to get the texture right, sometimes I add an extra 1/4 cup water or so, sometimes I'm way off on the liquids and have to add a couple cups more flour -- and use the big loaf pan.
There is, however, one exception to my freewheeling bread style, and that is French bread. If I want a deep golden crust with that special chewy-soft center, I measure everything and proceed in the same way [almost] every single time. It's a little fussy. It requires adding the flour by weight. This is what restaurants and bakeries do to make every loaf look the same.It's what you must do if you want specific results... even I've embraced that. I've also embraced that this recipe really works best with a little high-protein bread flour. I tried very hard to banish it, but I simply can't from this particular recipe and I'm not ashamed.
The last thing about this recipe is that it really does benefit from a sturdy standing mixer. Of course you can do it by hand [like everyone did until the last century] but it requires a thing called "crashing," which can be fun but the people downstairs don't appreciate it. The mixer is much, much easier.
The bottom line? This bread recipe works every time.
Recipe: Whole-Grain French Bread
** Bear with me, I'm working on making the recipes more printer-friendly**
I use starter for flavor and instant yeast for rise. You can use a medium lager like Budweiser in lieu of water in the overnight "sponge" for more flavor. The yogurt also adds flavor and protein, you can use water or skim milk [no fat, fat inhibits gluten]. This takes 11-ish hours start to finish, but you can leave the "sponge" for longer if it suits your needs. Start at night for morning baking or in the morning for evening baking. [or start in the afternoon, stick the sponge in the fridge, and finish the next afternoon. Did I say I did this the same way every time?I think I have a problem with rules.]
Makes one large loaf or two slender baguettes. [See? More options!]
Special tools: standing mixer, kitchen scale, baking stone [or sturdy rimless cookie sheet, baking peel [or 2nd rimless cookie sheet] spray bottle filled with water.
For the sponge:
6 oz water (3/4 cup)
>6 oz bread flour [a.k.a. high protein]
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast [a.k.a. rapid rise]
3 oz sourdough culture (~1/4 cup, optional)
Stir together in the bowl of your standing mixer, cover with plastic wrap, and leave out on the counter ~8 hours or overnight. [Or refrigerate up to 24 hours.]
For the loaf:
4 oz nonfat plain yogurt (or skim milk)
4 oz whole wheat flour
6 oz white whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
1 tablespoon water
1 egg for glaze
Once the batter doubles in size and had be come light and airy looking with lots of holes -- sponge-like -- add yogurt, remaining flour and yeast. Stir until all flour is incorporated into a shaggy ball. Cover and let rest 17 minutes while gluten forms.
Add salt. Attach dough hook and mix on low for ~1 minute or until dough clings to the hook. Increase speed to maximum [10 on my KitchenAid] and "knead" for 6 minutes, keeping a hand on the base of the machine most of the time so it doesn't walk itself off you counter. [This is what mimics "crashing," where you slam the dough against the counter repeatedly.] Add the tablespoon of water after 3 minutes. It'll get sloppy for a bit, but then come back together.By the time it's done, you should be able to stretch the dough thin enough to see light through it without any tearing [a.k.a. the "windowpane test"... Some people say you can't do this well with whole grains. I beg to differ.]
Eyeball your dough ball. Find a bowl double the size, spray with cooking spray or rub with a little oil, transfer the ball, and cover with plastic wrap, OR find a larger bowl (or stock pot), spray or rub with oil, transfer the ball, and draw a line in the oil with your finger that shows where double should be, then cover with plastic wrap. Let sit until dough fills bowl or reaches fill line, ~1.5 to 2 hours.
Turn on your oven to 500F. Position your baking stone [or heavy duty cookie sheet] on the upper rack, positioned in the second highest slot. Lightly dust a sheet of parchment paper [or smooth metal countertop] with flour. Pull the dough from the bowl (divide in half for baguettes) and stretch (don't pat) into a ~7"x14" rectangle (or 2- 7"x7" squares). From the short end, loosely fold in thirds [like folding a letter for an envelope]. Using both hands, grab the dough from the far side and roll it under, tucking in the edge with your fingers. Repeat ~4 times or until you reach the other side. [You should now have a log ~12" long.] Pinch seam and lay seam-side down on the parchment. Dust with flour, drape with plastic wrap, and let rise until nearly doubled again, ~30 to 45 minutes.
Whisk egg and brush over loaf. [You can use your fingers if you don't have a pastry brush.] Use a sharp knife to slash three evenly-spaced 1/2"deep slits along the loaf. Spray with water and gently pull onto the peel [or cookie sheet]. Working quickly, open the oven, slide the parchment onto the stone [or 2nd cookie sheet] with a quick backward jerk [and maybe a push with your fingers, but be careful, it's hot!], and close the door. Set your timer for 18 minutes.
After 5 minutes of baking, open the door and spray water onto the bread as evenly as possible. Repeat after another 5 minutes. When the timer goes off, pull the bread from the oven and check the bread. You want an internal temp of 200F+ [or a hollow sound when tapped, but that's subjective] and the bottom should be quite dark but not black at all. Return to the oven for a few more minutes if necessary. [Mine usually takes 22 minutes, but ovens vary and you don't want to go too far.]