My Poolish French Bread

This is yet another versatile dough that can be used for different kinds of bread. I’ve made baguettes from this dough, mini cheese-filled boules, dinner rolls – and it’s also one of my favorite formulas for making hand-shaped batards! But it really shines for making French bread, producing a thin, crispy crust and a light, airy, pillowy crumb riddled with holes that is the perfect platform for sandwiches, or eaten warm, to hold little pools of butter. Gluten development with this dough is relatively light as compared other loaves; a little more than baguettes and a whole lot less than boules and batards. So somewhere in the middle.

As the title says, this bread uses a poolish which, truth be told, is my favorite ferment with which to work. Done right, a poolish imparts a distinct nuttiness and just a bit of tang upon the flavor profile of the bread. But it also adds extensibility to the dough. When I work with a poolish-based dough, it feels so luxurious. I jokingly call it a “sexy dough.”

But sexy as this dough may be, to be fair, I should offer up a bit of a caveat. This is NOT a dough you want to work with if you haven’t worked with high-hydration dough yet. At 76% hydration and using predominantly bread flour, it’s slack and sticky. Any manipulation of the dough needs be done precisely and with quick movements, lest you find your hands covered in muck. This is further exacerbated by the moderate – and perhaps by others’ standards minimal – gluten development. But though I issued that warning, don’t let that intimidate you. As with anything, practice makes perfect. Let’s get to the formula:

Overall Formula

Bread Flour (unbleached)100%907g
Water76%689g
Salt1.8%16g
Yeast (Instant)0.4%3.6g
Total Yield1616g
Optimal Dough Temp76°F

Poolish

Bread Flour* (unbleached)100%302g
Water100%302g
Yeast (instant and relative to the poolish flour)0.2%0.6g
*The amount of flour you use for the poolish should be 33% of the total flour of the recipe.

Final Dough

Bread Flour* (unbleached)605g
Water387g
Salt16g
Yeast3.4g
Poolish604g
*I use my standard 75-25% Bread / High-Extraction flour blend

Make the Poolish

You’ll make the poolish 12 to 16 hours before you mix the final dough. Since I’m an early riser, I usually make it between 4pm and 6pm, so I can start mixing the dough at aroun 6am the next morning. I will make it later as the weather warms up. You’ll know the poolish is ripe and ready when its surface is riddled with bubbles – and you can actually see bubbles actively forming plus, when you uncover it, you get a nice whiff of alcohol.

To make the poolish, simply combine the flour, water, and yeast into an appropriate size bowl and mix until smooth. It’s better to use a larger container rather than a small one as the poolish will expand. I’ve woken up to a container whose lid literally exploded and spewed dough all over my counter. In any case, let the poolish sit at room temperature on your counter.

Dough Development

Mixing. You can mix by hand or with a mixer. First, pour your water into the poolish container, then with a spatula loosen the poolish from the sides of the container. Then dump the water and poolish in your mixing bowl. It will slide right out! Add the flour, salt and yeast then mix until all dry ingredients have been incorporated and you form a shaggy mass with no large lumps. If you use a mixer, mix for no more than 3 minutes on low speed. You want little to no gluten development.

Bulk Fermentation: 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

Folding. Let the dough rest for the first hour, then fold it until you start feeling tension building in the dough. Rest for another hour and then fold again. You should start feeling plenty of tension by this time. Let the dough rest another half hour, then you’ll be ready to scale. However, if, after several folds, the dough still feels a little too slack, rest it for 45 minutes, do another set of folds, then take the fermentation out to the full 3 hours.

Technically, you could do the folding in half-hour intervals right after mixing and reduce the bulk fermentation to 1 1/2 hours. But there’s a lot to be said about the flavor development that takes place in the full 2 1/2 hours.

Divide and Shape. Pour the dough out onto a well-floured surface. With this wet dough, you want to be generous with the flour. I normally don’t recommend this, but this is a slack dough! Divide the dough into 400g pieces, then preshape into blunt, compact logs, rolling them up like jelly rolls. Rest the rolls for 20 minutes on a well-floured couche, seam-side-up. Once the rolls have sufficiently relaxed, shape them as you would baguettes, but be as gentle as possilbe when rolling them out – you want to shape and not degas. Place each shaped loaf seam-side-up onto a couche, providing a generous fold between each loaf to allow plenty of room for proofing.

Final Fermentation. 1 – 1 1/2 hour. Note: On warmer days, check the loaves after 30 minutes. This is a bread that I will take out to about 90% full-fermentation. It’s cutting it close, but the flavor development and bubble development in this last phase makes it worth the risk. Admittedly, the first few times I made this bread, I over-fermented the loaves and they came out pretty flat, but once I found the sweet spot – yowza! They were incredible!

Bake. Transfer the loaves to a loading peel and score as you would a baguette though perhaps not quite as deep. I personally don’t like pronounced ears on these fatties. 🙂 Bake at 500°F with steam for 12 minutes. Remove steaming container, then reduce oven temp to 425°F and bake for another 12-15 minutes or until the crust is a deep golden brown. You don’t want to take this bread out to chocolate as it will create too thick of a crust.

Notes:

  1. When shaping, even though you’re rolling the dough out with your hands to form a cylinder, do your best to not press too hard. Be firm, yet gentle in your motions and coax the dough into shape. Because it’s so wet and also due to the moderate gluten development, the dough will tear if you try to muscle it into shape.
  2. When scoring, be absolutely quick and assertive with your blade. It’s not necessary to create an ear and besides, even with a super sharp blade, with this slack of a dough, you won’t be able to dig in. After you score, don’t worry if the loaves appear to deflate. As long as you didn’t beat the shit out of them during shaping, they’ll pop right back up in the oven. 🙂

Recipe: Pane di Como Antico

This bread’s name translates to “bread of Como of the past.” This is now known as pane francese in Italy or French bread, though this “French bread” is quite different in taste and texture from the actual French loaf which has a thinner crust and lighter crumb. But irrespective of all that, this is an ancient bread that is magnificent in both texture and taste and very easy to make.

I adapted this recipe from what I consider to be the definitive book on Italian Bread called “The Italian Baker” by the late Carol Fields. This is a GREAT book. Ms. Fields traveled throughout Italy to learn these recipes directly from local bakers in the regions she visited, so these are authentic.

As with most Italian loaves, this bread is started with a biga the day before, which is much like a poolish, using flour, water and a tiny amount of yeast, only stiffer. A poolish is 100% hydration where a biga can be anywhere from 60%-80% hydration. This recipe’s biga is 80% hydration. Let’s get started!

Day 1 – Make the Biga

Unbleached AP Flour*100 grams
Water (75° – 80° F)80 grams
Yeast0.4 grams
*I highly recommend using either Bob’s Red Mill or King Arthur, or any unbleached AP flour that has a protein content greater than 11%. Most generic brands are 10%. Gluten development is very difficult with those flours. Also, organic is better.

I’m going to come clean and admit that I actually used my sourdough starter to make an 80% hydration levain. The Italians call this type of biga “Biga Naturale.” My levain was 100% whole wheat, so I didn’t use the whole wheat flour that’s listed in the final dough below.

Mix all the ingredients and let ferment for 12-16 hours at room temperature. As with any preferment, you want to make sure it’s nice and bubbly.

Day 2 – Final Dough

Biga180 grams
Unbleached AP Flour435 grams
Whole Wheat Flour65 grams
Water (80°-85° F)360 grams
Salt10 grams*
Yeast (optional)2 grams**
*You may see a recipe online that lists the salt as 16 grams. For this small amount of dough, 16 grams is WAY too much.

**If the weather is cold, adding a little yeast will help the process along.

The Process

According to Carol Fields, Italians predominantly use a mixer to mix up their dough. But you can mix by hand if you choose or if you don’t have a mixer. The process is pretty much the same.

  1. Set aside about 50 grams of the water and dissolve the salt in it.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, break up and dissolve the biga with the water, then add the flour in batches. If you use the yeast, add it to the water before the flour.
  3. Once you form a shaggy mass, let it rest for 20 minutes to help hydrate the flour. This is kind of a hybrid autolyse.
  4. Add the saltwater to the mass, then thoroughly mix until you start forming a smooth dough that feels elastic. This is where a mixer really comes in handy.
  5. Dump the dough onto a board and knead for 8 minutes or until you feel the dough has built some strength.
  6. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled container, then cover with plastic wrap and let it rise until almost doubled. The dough should have plenty of bubbles and should be blistering on top with a nice dome. 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
  7. Pour the dough onto a lightly floured board and divide it in half.
  8. Shape each half into a nice, taut ball (like you would a boule), sealing the seams, then set it aside seam side down.
  9. Sprinkle a little flour over each ball, then cover with a cloth for 20 minutes to bench rest.
  10. Preheat your oven to 485° F.
  11. After the balls have rested, shape into cylinders about a forearm’s length. I use a baguette shaping method to create some internal structure and to ensure the cylinder is even, though I don’t make pointy ends. The cylinders will be much thicker than baguettes, but they’ll have a structure you can feel.
  12. Lay each cylinder seam side down (or up if you prefer) onto a transfer board lined with parchment paper, or if you don’t have a baking stone, a parchment-lined baking sheet. The cylinders will spread and flatten a bit and that’s okay!
  13. With floured hands, dimple the cylinders all over to prevent over-springing. Don’t worry, they’ll puff up.
  14. Cover with a well-floured cloth or couche and let rise for 1 to 2 hours. You should see bubbling and blistering. Carol Fields says to wait until they’re doubled in size, but I’ve never seen my loaves double, but just the sea, they come out just fine with nice, big holes.
  15. Bake with steam for 15 minutes (I use a broiler pan on the bottom rack and pour a cup of scalding water in it).
  16. After 15 minutes, remove your steaming tray/container and the parchment paper, turn the oven down to 425° F, then bake for another 12-15 minutes until the loaves are golden brown.
  17. Cool on racks for 30 minutes. They taste GREAT while they’re still a little warm!

I originally got “The Italian Baker” because I wanted to get a recipe for Pane Pugliese from a credible source. I made the Pane Pugliese from the book, and it turned out okay, but as I pored over the book, I saw this simple, straight-forward recipe and knew I had to make it.

I think the romance of this recipe being ancient really got to me. In fact, my whole bread-making obsession has stemmed from the romanticism of making bread from recipes that are hundreds, maybe even thousands of years old. Granted, the flour of today is so much more refined than the flour of yesteryear, but to replicate bread from ages-old recipes and traditions… That’s just so FREAKIN’ cool to me!

This is what keeps me exploring. I don’t know if this will turn into anything other than a hobby, but I do know one thing: I love continuing tradition!