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french bread crust problems

post #1 of 11
Thread Starter 
Hello!
I was wondering if anyone could help with baking french bread.. I've been following the recipe from Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice for French Bread and I'm having problems with the crust.

I'm scoring the loafs maybe 3/8" as horizontally to the surface as possible with an xacto knife. The knife drags a little bit, but it's the sharpest, thinnest blade I could find. And the cuts really don't spring open as much as I would like.

Also the rest of the crust is very pale, white and soft. The slits did expand a little and was a bit crunchy.. while the bottom of the loafs sat on a baking stone and had an excellent crust.

Following his book, im using a steam pan at the top rack and the stone at the very bottom and misting the walls of the oven with water 3 times during the first 2 minutes of baking. I start at 500F preheated for 40minutes and lowered to 450 two minutes into baking.

My guess is to score the loaves 3/4" (almost half way in).. and put less water in the steam pan ? I did notice water still in that pan 10 minutes into baking so i removed it. Just thought I'd try to get a 2nd opinion before trying my third time. It is very frustrating as it takes 6 hours out of the day to prepare after prepping a preferment the night before.

thanks for your time !
post #2 of 11
I am very far from being an expert, but I have had wonderful results with Rose Levy Birnbaum's method. She's kind of a nut for detail... on the basis of which, and my memory, I would diagnose...

1. I don't think the cuts have much to do with your more general problem. It sounds to me like the loaf isn't swelling very much in the initial period in the oven. That could be a problem in the rising, forming, and/or raising, but I notice something else that might fix your problem faster if it's not this. And it is...

2. Each time you open the oven to mist, you're losing a huge amount of heat. The misting produces a great deal less moisture than you might think, as well. So you may need to change your initial procedure. Unfortunately I do not have temperatures to hand from Birnbaum's cookbook, which are obviously pretty important here. What I do have is her suggestion for creating the moist environment necessary for a good initial rise: set an old cast-iron or other very heavy pan on the very bottom of the oven during the pre-heating, which ought to take at least 30 minutes. Have the stone pre-heating as well, of course. When you're ready to bake, put a cup or so of ice cubes in a pouring cup. Spritz the top of the loaf if desired. Open the oven, put in the loaf/ves with one hand and pull out the cast-iron a couple inches with the other, then dump the ice cubes in the cast-iron and shut the oven door, which will push the cast-iron back into place. There's no need to make a big deal about it, but you can do this whole operation quite smoothly and rapidly. Now your oven will be full of steam, which will take a while to stop generating because you're using ice cubes and they can only melt so fast in an oven. From there, it's initial temperature for X time, reduce temperature for Y time, pull loaves. I've never had a problem -- works like a dream. But I wish I had those temperatures and times for you. Maybe someone else does?

3. If this doesn't work, then I would definitely say the problem has got to be earlier. Not the slashing -- that's trivial, in the end. But somewhere in the process there is a significant difficulty. I do think that if you can get the details for the Birnbaum method, it's worth a shot: it's largely a mechanical change, not something requiring skill, so you can try a batch and see whether it fixes the problem. If not, it will surely change the result, and then you've got richer data for the hard-core experts to work with.

Good luck!
post #3 of 11
Chris is right. Your problem is loss of so much heat from opening the door. The simplest remedy, one you should bear in mind, is to let the loaf cook a bit longer. Just don't take it out of the oven until it's the right color. At least you'll get crackle if not a chewy crust. If you have to make a compromise between an overcooked bottom and undercooked top -- do that. Mainly, don't let the clock make your decisions. Use your eyes and your sense of what the loaf should look like.

I don't have a copy of BBA here, but if you're going to mist three times, you've got to learn to do it extremely quickly and to open the door as little as possible. Try reducing it to two mists; and for each mist opening the door just a hair, with one spritz aimed at the top of the oven, and a second aimed down at the door itself; get the door shut ASAP.

For what it's worth, you don't have to remove the water pan. Humidity isn't steam; and a humid oven at any time during the bread baking process isn't a problem

Chris is also probably right about the scoring. It's likely you aren't getting enough oven spring initially to open the scores. This probably comes from either taking too much rise before putting the loaves in the oven or less than stellar loaf formation. If you're baking boule or miche, probably the former. Baguette or batard, probably the latter.

Ironically, another possible problem might be a too hot oven. Probably not, though, given everything else.

Your final rise should be about a 75% increase in size rather than a full doubling. The yeast spoors near the scores should still be suffiiently energetic to give you some some quick spring as they first warm up.

You're somewhat over-emphasizing technique when it comes to scoring. Any sharp knife small enough to handle easily is fine. You don't have to duplicate a lame. Try switching to a sharp (not serrated) paring or utility knife and see if that doesn't make your life a little eaiser.

Whatever your loaf type, instead of a final punch down, use the "pull down" method to get as tight a skin as possible -- but be as gentle as possible while doing so. You want to keep as much gas in the dough as possible. Basically, like biscuits, it's, "Stop when the dough starts to feel heavy." French bread is more forgiving than biscuits, you can give it that one extra turn -- just to make sure -- without hurting anything. Fortunately "too heavy," doesn't seem to be a problem. Yet.

Speaking of "touch," making batards is not an easy skill to perform adequately -- much less master. Allow yourself the luxury of not being perfect the first few thousand loaves.

Hope this helps,
BDL
post #4 of 11
Thread Starter 
wow thanks for the tips!!
I am making batards (yea its hard to make) if that helps any. for the final rise, I let it go about 45 minutes room temperature for a 50% size increase. Is it supposed to just get bigger sideways and not upwards?

When placing the dough in a bowl to rise before dividing and shaping, is it supposed to be pulled tight ? I do notice it sticking to the bowl a LOT despite being oiled. I wonder if this is killing the rise during baking .

In the first batch I let it go for 10 minutes longer because the top crust was still .. soft and gummy looking. It ended up being the same pale color as the less-baked one just a thicker, gummy-dry crust. I feel like I could have left it in until the whole loaf became charcoal before it browned and the crust still wouldnt have been cut-your-gums good.

thanks again for your responses! they are a big help as I have really nothing else to go off of.
post #5 of 11
A. The time doesn't help me without knowing the temperature of your kitchen and the energy level of your yeast.

B. 50% volume increase sounds about right. I actually allow more. If the loaf is formed correctly, the yeast still energetic, the oven temperature right, and the rest of your technique just right, you can expect about 100% increase in total. If you don't take enough rise outside the oven, the heat will kill the yeast before the rise completes. If you take too much, the bread will blow up and/or collapse and/or you'll end up with a big hole directly under the top crust (flying crust).

C. It's supposed to maintain the same shape and proportions as the batard you formed. It should not form a cibatta (expanding sideways more than up) as it rises.

If I understand you correctly, you've asked the exact, right question! And the answer is yes.

After the first rise, instead of punching the dough down, pull it as tight as possible (by pulling down) while keeping as much air as possible in the dough -- then folded into thirds, then thirds the other way.

After the second rise, divide the dough into portions, pull each portion down, and form each into a batard.

Do not form the batards by making flat sheets then rolling them into cylinders. Rather keep pulling the dough down, and squeeze into an oblong as you go. The oblong will develop the classic seam. Form the ends by folding triangles, press all seams closed, and voila!

The dough must be damp and sticky enough to press the seams closed -- that's why better a bit too wet than to dry.

After forming the batards, allow them to rise. If it were up to Reinhart, he'd have you take this third rise (or most of it) in the refrigerator, overnight. Reinhart is a big proponent of an extra (that's the third one), retarded rise.

Possibly. More likely your dough is a little too wet (slack). It should come off the board, after kneading, shiny, elastic and fairly dry -- it should not stick to the board -- or at most very slightly. It's all relative though. Better slightly too wet than too dry.

OK. Keep the oven temp up and the door closed.

Speaking for Chris as well, it's our pleasure.

BDL
post #6 of 11
I, too, have had problems sometimes with my loaves flattening out.
I can't figure out what causes it. For instance, the last two times I made the (can't remember the name) loaves from Reinhart's BBA that have the semolina flour in them.
The over-night refrigerated rise never goes up -just out. Kind of disappointing considering it takes 3 days to complete.

I wouldn't consider the loaves to be slack, though; not nearly as wet as stirato or ciabatta.
But then, the stirato and ciabatta I make only have two rises, and they're not retarded rises.
Also, they spring a lot in the oven...
Maybe it's the semolina flour's fault? I don't know.

Hmmmmm.....:confused:
post #7 of 11
The bread with the semolina: Struan? It uses a bunch of grains in a preferment? Great stuff. I'm pretty sure I've got a modified version. If you PM me with your email address, I'll send it to you if I can find it. It's too close to Reinhart's version to claim as my own, and just different eough not to be his. At any rate, I don't want to post it here. If it is struan, it really does best in a pan, rather than free formed..

Your loaves are probably flattening out for two reasons -- a combination of not enough "surface tension" on the loaf's outer skin, and overly flattened during the punch down. Loaf formation is tricky stuff, cut yourself plenty of slack for the learning process. I think I've got a set of instructions for loaf formation which assumes a fairly competent baker -- but is still very first draft. Again with the email address -- send it, and if I can find it, I'll send it as an attachment. If you like I'll also send you a recipe for a pain de campagne which you'll probably like better than plain, sweet French bread.

BDL
post #8 of 11
Thanks, BDL.

The bread whose name was eluding me is called Pane Siciliano, btw.
post #9 of 11
Prewarm your oven for at least an hour to an hour and a half AND bake the bread the whole time at 500F.

Best and I'm a foodie.   I know very little but the little that I know I want to know very well.

 

-T

Brot und Wein
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Best and I'm a foodie.   I know very little but the little that I know I want to know very well.

 

-T

Brot und Wein
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Reply
post #10 of 11
I make pane siciliano often, Left4bread, and maybe can offer some suggestions.

1. Delayed fermentation of the formed loaves is, in my expereince, unnecessary. It does not---despite what Reinhart's testers report---add anything to the flavor or texture. Doesn't hurt, you understand. But isn't necessary. The secret, really, is in the large amount of preferment.

2. During proof, pane siciliano always seems to expand sideways more than upwards. But it also has a (proportionately) greater oven spring than other breads, so works out in the end. Keep in mind that it is not a high bread to begin with.

3. I do not divide the dough in thirds, as Reinhart suggests. Instead, still using the classic double "S" shape, I either make rolls, or one large loaf. Try making just the one large loaf, next time, and cutting back the proof time, and see if it makes a difference for you.

One other thing to consider. To make the classic "S" shape, you start by forming a baguette, which is then stretched and rolled to shape. It is easy, during the stretching process, to reduce the surface tension of the baguette. That might be contributing to your problem. One way to test would be to stop after forming the baguette. True, you won't have the classic shape of the pane siciliano, but you'll quickly learn whether your problem is with surface tension or not. And the bread will taste the same, regardless.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #11 of 11
Go visit a forum called "The Fresh Loaf" and search for the term 'French Fold'.

Best and I'm a foodie.   I know very little but the little that I know I want to know very well.

 

-T

Brot und Wein
(1 photos)
 
Reply

Best and I'm a foodie.   I know very little but the little that I know I want to know very well.

 

-T

Brot und Wein
(1 photos)
 
Reply
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