PROOFING, SLASHING AND BAKING FRENCH BREAD
After the kneading of the bread, the proofing and baking of the bread is one of the most important steps in acheiving a nice crusty crust to the french bread with a soft chewy inside texture. A professional baker give his loaves their final rise, or proof, upside down in a cool nonhumid place. Later, when the bread is ready for the oven, it is placed gently on a long-handles wooden paddle, or pizza peel, and at that time each loaf i sturned over to sit on the firm crust that the air has put on its top-now-bottom. The baker slashes the loaf, and then with a deft push-pull it is made to fly off the peel precisely into it's place on the floor of the hot brick oven.
Proofing: This sounds tricky, but it isn't difficult and home bakers can easily adapt the technique for baking their own French Bread on oven tiles or baking or pizza stones. The big advantage is that the top of the loaf (the bottom while it was rising upside down) stays soft, and so continues to rise nicely in the oven. To proof the loaves upside-down, shape them and invert them on a baking sheets or tray lined with a heavy cloth dusted with flour. When the time comes to put them in the hot oven you can find something flat and stiff, like an 8"masonite board (a clipboard), or a piece of plywood sanded down on one end. Your peel should be a little bigger than one loaf and stiff enough to support the loaf if you hold the peel with one hand.
Slashing: Slash the loaves just before putting them into the oven, so that they will have the characteristic open-leafed pattern on their crusty surface. I find the best results have come by using a very sharp, long, thin, wavy-edged knife blade. For tiny rolls you could use a very thin sharp paring knife. Some gourmet bread books suggest a razor blade, and it does work, but be careful as they can be dangerous and easy to forget when used out of context in the kitchen.
Slash as deep as an inch if the dough seems lively, and less if you are not too sure about it. You can diagonally cut the loaf several times about 3 inches, or make longer diagonal cuts on each end and a longer one down the middle. Round loaves and buns can be slashed to suit your fancy--Criss-Crossed, a number sign, diagonal slashes of even a curve. The prettiest slashes are made by holding the knife so that the blade cuts sideways about a 45° angle, down on the top, almost like you were going to peel the crust, rather than cutting straight down at a 90 degree angle. If you do that the slashes open upward as the loaf rises during it's amazing spring in the oven.
Baking: Bake the bread using one of the steaming methods that follow. When the crust begins to colour, remove the source of the steam and immediately lower the oven heat, because the high heat without steam will burn the bread very quickly. When it is golden brown and beautiful and hollow sounding if you thump it on the bottom with your fingertips, the bread is done. Giant round loaves will take about 45 minutes and smallen thin loaves or rolls about 10 minutes less. French bread is baked until the internal temperature is 215° F.
Steaming the Bread: There are many ways of steaming the bread, but I am only going to include some of the easier and lass hazardous methods.
Wetting the Loaf: Preheat the oven to 450° F. Spray or paint the proofed bread with warm water, slash it, and put it in the oven quickly so hardly any heat escapes. Repeat the spraying every 3 to 5 minutes until the crust begins to brown nicely (this should take about 3 to 4 treatments) You can also spray the water on the sides of the oven as well to give extra steam (Do not spray the light) Reduce the oven heat to 350° F and bake until bread is done. Advantages of this method is that it is simple, and requires no unsual equipment and it can be used with any shape or size of loaf or roll.
Steaming the Oven: Place a small heavy skillet or pan in the bottom of the oven when you preheat it. When you put in the bread, pour a cup of boiling water in the pan, shutting the oven quickly. This method is also easy but it works only with a very well-insulated oven. Make sure you use an all metal pan that can withstand high heats.
Oven Tiles: Both the above methods can be used together and can be enhanced as well, if you line your oven with quarry tiles or use a baking or pizza stone to bake the bread. With the addition of steam, the home oven comes very close to the traditional brick oven for baking that the pros use.
Voila! A nice crusty french bread with a soft inside. It was worth the effort (or non effort with the Bosch Universal).
I will talk about making French Bread in a Casserole in my next post.
Whole Wheat French Bread Recipe Sourdough French Bread Recipe