This rustic French bread is your winter soup’s favourite sidekick! It also happens to be great toasted and makes a killer (crispy!) grilled cheese sandwich.
When I made this rustic French bread recipe recently to accompany a lovely Provençal Style Vegetable Soup (shown in photos here), my daughter told me it was the best bread I’d ever made. Now bear in mind, I make a lot of bread. And she has eaten a lot of it. So that’s not to be taken lightly. Fact is, I bake far more bread than I would ever be able to share on this blog, but given her enthusiasm, I thought I might share this one.
This bread is no more work than a regular loaf of bread, except that you have to start it the night before you want to bake it. This “starter” dough is part of what gives this bread such great depth of flavour. The starter mixes up quickly and easily in a bowl and then is left to bubble away on the counter top overnight. I just do it before I go to bed. In the morning, it pretty much comes together like any other loaf of bread.
Cook’s Notes for Rustic Crusty French Bread
This bread is best if you use 1) unbleached bread flour 2) whole wheat flour and 3) rye flour per the recipe. That said, unbleached bread flour is sometimes difficult to find. My grocery stores don’t carry it. I have to get it in bulk at the Bulk Barn here in Canada. That’s also where I pick up small amounts of rye flour. If you can’t find unbleached bread flour, use unbleached all-purpose flour. The unbleached part is more important. If you don’t have or want to pick up whole wheat and/or rye flour, simply replace with equal amounts of your unbleached all-purpose or bread flour. The results won’t be exactly the same, but it will still be delicious.
*I always use instant yeast for my bread baking. Instant yeast doesn’t require proofing in liquid, but instead is added with the dry ingredients. If you only have active dry yeast, proof the yeast in some or all of the water for each dough component, before adding with the rest of the ingredients.
**Forming this dough into a ball is much easier said than done, as the dough is moist. Use a bit of flour on your hands and do the best you can. The “tighter” you can get the ball, the better, as this creates the surface tension needed for a good rise.
Adding boiling water to a hot pan and placing it in the oven at the same time as your bread, will create steam, which will help your bread create a great crust. You can skip it if you like, but your crust will not be as … crusty :).
Resist the urge to slice your bread while it is still hot. Doing so will result in a gummy loaf. Wait until it is almost cool before slicing.
Rustic Crusty French Bread
Starter Dough: (make 8-16 hours ahead of when you want to bake your bread - overnight works well!)
- 1 cup room temperature water
- 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
- 1 1/4 cups unbleached bread or all-purpose flour
- 2 Tbsp. whole wheat flour
- 2 Tbsp. rye flour or if unavailable, add 2 more Tbsp. whole wheat or all-purpose flour
- All of the Starter Dough from above, then add ...
- 1 cup water
- 2 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 Tbsp. sugar
- 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
- 3 1/2 to 4 cups unbleached bread or all-purpose flour
- The night before, or up to 16 hours before you want to bake your bread, combine the Starter Dough ingredients in a medium sized bowl, by mixing well until all the flour is moistened. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand on your counter.
- When ready to start your final dough, stir the Starter Dough and add it to a large bowl of the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a kneading hook. Add the water, salt, sugar and instant yeast from the Dough ingredient list and mix to combine. Add 3 cups of the flour and mix until all of the flour is incorporated and moistened. Continue adding flour in 1/4 cup increments, until your dough is smooth and moist, but not sticky. Remove dough to a greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 45 minutes.
- Meanwhile, prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
- Remove the dough to a floured surface and gently deflate with the palm of your hands. Form dough into a ball**. Place dough, seam side down, onto prepared baking sheet.
- Cover with a sheet of plastic wrap that has been sprayed or brushed with cooking oil on the underside and let rise until dough has risen by 1/2 again. This can take anywhere from 1-3 hours, depending on your kitchen temperature.
- When ready to bake, preheat oven to 475°. F. , with one oven rack in the middle of the oven and one rack one position below it. Place an empty cast-iron frying pan or other heavy, oven-safe baking pan in the oven while oven preheats. Boil some water to use in the next step.
- Remove the cast-iron frying pan and immediately pour in 1 1/2 cups of boiling water. Place back in oven on rack one position below where your bread will bake. Place baking sheet with bread in the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Without opening oven door, lower oven temperature to 425° F. and continue baking for an additional 15-20, or until well-browned and hollow sounding when tapped.
- Cool bread well before slicing, to avoid a gummy loaf. To keep the loaf crusty, simply store uncovered on your counter-top, with the cut-side placed down onto a cutting board.