French Bread and a New Oven Test

Finally, we’ve replaced the old, tired, and basically broken gas oven with a new model. The oven has been on its last legs for a while now, with a maximum heat far below what I would prefer for bread baking, and we were long overdue for an upgrade. Obviously, the best thing to test out the new oven is a few loaves of bread.

I decided on a French bread based on Peter Reinhart’s recipe, with a shorter proof because of the hot weather. The dough itself still overproofed – my fault for not paying enough attention and trying to paint the kitchen at the same time – but the end result was still far better than anything out of the old oven.

The finished baguette -the “ears” are not as open as I would like due to over proofing the dough, but the colour and texture is still great

The oven reached its maximum temperature in 10 minutes, held in the steam whilst the loaves began baking, and gave a consistent and delicious dark golden-brown crust. Even over-proofed, there was a significant amount of “oven spring”, especially in the smaller loaves.

One of the smaller rolls, which rose slightly better than the baguettes (but were still slightly over proofed)

French bread – makes 3 small baguettes, or a combination of shapes

Pâte fermentée

  • 140g plain flour
  • 140g strong white bread flour
  • 5g salt
  • 1.5g (1/2 tsp) instant yeast
  • 185g cold water


  • All of the pâte fermentée
  • 140g plain flour
  • 140g strong white bread flour
  • 5g salt
  • 1.5g (1/2 tsp) instant yeast
  • 185g lukewarm water
  1. Combine the ingredients for the pâte fermentée, knead for 4-6 minutes, and place into an oiled bowl. This is basically a complete bread dough, but will be used in the final recipe as an “old dough” to improve the flavour of the final loaves. Bulk ferment for 2-3 hours, until risen, and then either use immediately, or de-gas slightly and refrigerate for up to three days.
  2. If using refrigerated pâte fermentée, remove from the fridge 1 hour prior to using and cut into a dozen small pieces.
  3. Combine the pâte fermentée with all of the remaining ingredients, and knead on a lightly floured work surface for 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Place into an oiled bowl, cover with cling film or a tea towel, and bulk ferment for 2 hours.
  4. Divide and shape the dough. For baguettes, first make a bâtard shape, rest for 5 minutes, then stretch gently by rolling the dough back and forth. To make the small loaves pictured here, shape the dough first into small boules, rest for 5 minutes, then roll out gently, applying more pressure at the ends.
  5. Place loaves seam side up onto a floured linen couche or tea towel, as shown below, and proof for 1 hour.
  6. Preheat the oven to max with a baking dish on the bottom. Just before baking, tip one cup of boiling water into the baking dish to create steam. Turn the loaves onto a baking tray dusted with flour or semolina, and place onto the middle shelf of the oven. Reduce oven temperature to 230°C, and bake for 10 minutes. Turn the baking tray if necessary for an even bake, and bake for a further 10-15 minutes, until golden brown.
  7. Transfer to a wire rack and cool before eating. These loaves are best eaten on the day of baking.
French bread dough in the “bulk ferment” stage after 2 hours.
Dividing and shaping for baguettes (above) and small rolls (below)
French bread proofing on a linen couche
Hours of excitement provided by watching the dough bake through the crystal clear glass of the new oven door…

Baking skills pt. 4: Divide and Shape

This is the fourth in a series of posts intended to make some of the more complex parts of bread making simpler for the home baker. The previous posts were on the autolyse stage, kneading, and bulk fermentation.

After the bulk ferment the dough must be divided into the necessary portions. Of you have made enough for one loaf then obviously this step can be skipped. Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a lightly floured surface and using a dough cutter or large kitchen knife cut the dough into the required amounts. If you were planning on selling the bread then you would have to scale (weigh) the dough to ensure even portions, but at home I usually just judge this by eye.

A dough cutter is more versatile than a knife for dividing dough.

After dividing, shape each portion into a round and rest for 5 minutes. This allows the gluten to relax and makes the next stage of shaping easier, with less chance of the dough springing back out of shape.

Shaping is crucial to the final loaf, having an enormous impact on the texture, size, uniformity, and look of the finished bread.

An exploded loaf, due partly to poor shaping: the bread will rise most at its weakest point, in this case the seam.

It can be simple, such as adding the final couple of folds to a ciabatta, or much more complex like the round couronne,  or a plaited or braided loaf. For this lesson, I have stuck to the shapes I use most often: the round, the bâtard, the loaf, the baton and the stick or baguette. All of these shapes begin with the round formed after division.

Instructions on shaping at the back of my recipe book.


  1. Using the blades of both hands, lightly cup the dough on an unfloured work surface.
  2. Stretching the dough downwards evenly, gently begin rotating the dough.
  3. Perform this motion several times until the surface tension of the dough is even and the dough is round.
  4. Place seam side up into an oiled bowl or floured banneton, or seam side down on a floured baking tray for free form baking.


  1. Start as for round. Whilst stretching the dough, gently ease it into an oval shape like a rugby ball.
  2. Rock the dough back, exposing the seam. Using the side of one hand pinch the seam closed.
  3. Place seam side up into a bâtard shaped banneton or seam side down on a floured baking tray for free form baking.


  1. Gently stretch the round into a rectangle, being careful not to squash all of the air out of the dough.
  2. Roll the rectangle like a swiss roll, maintaining an even pressure.
  3. Pinch the seams together and place seam side down into a floured out oiled loaf tin.

Baton (Dan Lepard’s method)

  1. Gently press the dough into a flattened oval, seam side up.
  2. Take the top two “corners” of the oval and fold in towards the centre.
  3. Take the new point of the top of the dough and fold that in towards the centre.
  4. Rotate the dough 180 degrees and repeat.
  5. Fold the dough in half towards you, and seal the seam with the side of your hand.
  6. Place the dough, seam side down, onto a floured baking tray.


  1. Begin with as shaping for a bâtard, up to step 2.
  2. Rest the dough for 5 minutes. This helps to further relax the dough which is necessary for stretching.
  3. Gently stretch the dough from each end, pulling it into a stick or baguette shape.
  4. Roll the dough back and forth to create an even surface tension