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. 🙂

Jeffrey Hamelman’s Poolish Baguette (Adapted)

It’s no secret that I love making baguettes. In fact, I made a batch of sourdough baguettes based on Hamelman’s Baguettes de Tradition from his great book “Bread” this morning. Technically, Baguettes de Tradition is a straight dough. But I love the processing technique and it’s difficult to make because the hydration is 76%. And using a levain further exacerbates things because the acid in it makes the dough more extensible – and sticky.

But after I made them, I wondered what the chef’s poolish formula was like, so I looked it up and was a little shocked by his formula. A 66% hydration dough? That couldn’t be right. It’s commonly accepted that baguette dough is around 75% hydration, give or take a percentage point or two. It’s a fairly wet dough. But 66% is getting close to stiff!

But the kicker for this recipe is the long bulk fermentation at 2-2 1/2 hours and the long final fermentation at 1-1/2 hours. This gives the dough plenty of time to form lots of air bubbles, which is what you want with baguettes plus, the long periods of rest in the bulk fermentation give the dough plenty of time to relax. With a moderately stiff dough like this, you want to give it plenty of relaxation time if you can.

As my title indicates, this is an adapted recipe. The reason for this is that in the book, the quantities are all listed in kilos and pounds, which leads me to believe that this recipe really is geared towards a full-fledged bakery. But everything can be scaled if you work out the percentages properly. Also, the chef uses fresh yeast in his final dough, but I adapted the recipe to use regular, instant dry yeast for both the poolish and final dough. There’s no difference in what either does. You just use less granulated yeast. Here’s the formula:

PoolishFinalTotalBaker’s %
Bread Flour3306701000100.00%
Water330330*66066.00%
Salt0.0020202.00%
Yeast0.704**4.700.47%
*Target dough temp is 76-78°F so adjust water temp accordingly.
**If you have fresh yeast and want to use it in place of the granulated yeast, just divide by 0.4.

Poolish

  1. Mix all the ingredients together until smooth. I like mixing the yeast into the flour first to distribute it, then adding the water. Let ferment at room temperature for 12 to 16 hours or until the top is highly pockmarked and bubbling and ever so slightly domed.
  2. When the poolish is ready, dump everything thing into a mixing bowl and mix thoroughly. If using a mixer, incorporate ingredients at low speed for a couple of minutes, then increase speed to second speed and run for 1-2 minutes to break up any large lumps. Once the dough starts to pull cleanly off the sides, stop. If mixing by hand, thoroughly mix until moderately smooth being careful not to knead the dough too much.1
  3. Bulk ferment the dough for 2 hours, gently folding it after the first hour and being careful not to degas it too much.
  4. Divide2 the dough and lightly shape it into rounds, then bench rest (covered) on a lightly floured surface seam side up for 10 to 30 minutes depending on tightly you preshaped them. I recommend having a fairly light touch as you don’t want a skin to form.
  5. Once the dough has relaxed, shape them into long cylinders then set them on a well-floured couche or tea towel seam side up.
  6. Let the shaped loaves do a final fermentation for 1-1 1/2 hour. This is VERY important because shaping the loaves will have degassed them a bit and this long, final fermentation allows the gluten to relax and reform bubbles.
  7. Preheat oven to 460°F. When the loaves are ready, bake them for 24-26 minutes applying steam for the first 15 minutes.

Notes

  1. Whether using a machine or mixing by hand it’s important to NOT knead a baguette dough too much. You want the fermentation process to naturally form the gluten bonds and not force it by kneading. This will really tighten up the dough which you don’t want.
  2. Since I bake on a stone, I divide the dough into five pieces at about 336g apiece and 20″ long. You can do 8 pieces at about 14-15″ long as well to fit on a baking or baguette tray.

I’ve been writing this post while smack dab in the process of making these baguettes. I have to admit that I was really surprised at how supple the dough was when it ready to shape. It wasn’t nearly as pliable as my normal, high-hydration baguettes, but it was still pliant and luxurious.

And because it was rather cool in my kitchen, I let bulk fermentation go for almost three hours. And even at that point, it was easily less than 80% fully proofed. But that’s okay because it gave me plenty of runway for final fermentation, which I’ll probably take to a full 1 1/2 hour to ensure the loaves are close to fully proofed. This is definitely a recipe where I need to let everything that happens before baking get most of the work done on the dough!

Happy Baking!