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Actually, three things in combination for sure.

You're kneading wrong -- either too little or too much. If you're using a machine you're probably over-kneading. If by hand, probably under-kneading. The two keys to getting this right are finishing the knead by hand so you get a feel for the dough, and using the window pane test.

You're degassing improperly -- when you punch down and when you form your loaves you're destroying the little cells which hold the air in the dough.

You're cooking too hot and/or too long -- probably a function of your oven, but that's what "tough crust" means.

You're probably also allowing too much rise time. By the time the bread goes into the oven, the yeast is exhausted, the dough is flabby, and the bread doesn't spring. Rise time is tricky to diagnose by long distance, but for one thing, given the usual ratio of yeast to flour, 90 minutes is a long rise unless the kitchen is chilly; and 3 hours is probably way too long outside of a fridge.

At any rate, you must judge the proofing time by the amount of rise the dough takes, and not by the clock. "90 minutes," and "3 hours" tells me a lot about you, but very little about the dough. "75%," and "doubled," is the form of information we need. Not your fault, though. How were you to know? You almost always see baking instructions expressed as a strict formula and you expect the process to behave accordingly. Alas. The clock is your friend for rise and cooking time, but only a friend. You've got to use your senses for everything else.

Better flour and yeast make for better bread, yes. But your level of distress is usually more about technique than the quality of ingredients. You can make very passable white bread with AP flour and grocery store yeast. In fact, most European breads are made with flour that's even softer than the AP we get in the US. You can get a good texture with a dough you made too dry (hard to knead, crumby texture, and lousy taste, though). And a tight, cake-like crumb more often results from too wet a dough, than too dry. So, I doubt those are at the heart of your problems.

Finally, the really spongy "balloon bread" you get at the grocery store uses yeast as a flavor component but not as a leavening. Instead, air is whipped into the dough at the time of mixing by special machines. You can't do it. You don't want your bread to be like that. Don't worry about it. And for God's sake, don't apply their level of fluffiness as your standard. Apples and oranges. That said, misguided expectation isn't the problem either is it?

Why don't you tell us more about your bread making? Some detail with the four areas I mentioned (kneading, degassing and loaf formation technique, baking time and temperature, and amount of rise not expressed in units of time) would be very helpful, as would the ingredient list (including quantities) for your the loaves which are giving you so much trouble. I know you don't have any jargon to describe what you do -- just do your best; and fwiw "I don't know" can be a very good answer.

Ultimately your answers will come from learning to handle the dough, and learning to understand the visual and tactile information it gives you. Fortunately white bread is both a good teacher and an easy grader. You'll be successful very quickly.

BDL
 

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KY and I bake a little differently, so our advice and formulae part company here and there -- but he's pretty much right as far as he goes. We both agree that a book called "The Bread Bakers Apprentice" by Peter Reinhart is one of the best possible ways to learn about baking.

KY jumped all over the flour/yeast ratio, while I hesitate to diagnose without knowing the exact kind of yeast you're using. That said, his diagnosis sounds right to me.

Also, KY's diagnosis regarding the probability of over kneading seem right as well.

KY told you to LOOK at the dough in the bowl to see if it was coming together correctly in the bowl. I can't overstress how important looking is. Measuring, by itslef, is no substitute for paying attention.

KY didn't mention "the window pane test" for determining when the yeast is fully kneaded. It's something almost all bakers do reflexively. That is, tearing off a little piece from the ball of dough and stretching it as thin as possible. If it stretches so you can easily see light through it, the dough has been kneaded enough, and it's time to stop. If it doesn't, the bread kneads more kneading. This is absolutely fundamental. You didn't do it, so none of us -- not KY, not Dillbert, not you and not me -- know for sure what the heck was going on with your kneading.

BTW, You never mentioned how long (or how much) you allowed the loaves to proof before putting them in the oven.

Which leads us to ...

The biggest problem is that a free form baguette is way too advanced for you. When I read your first post, I assumed you were using a loaf pan.

Free form french breads hold their shape, which is also a way of getting a nice open texture in the crumb, as a result of a taut outer surface created during formation. Lacking it, they spread out instead of up while baking and bake very dense. It takes a fair amount of experience to create that tension without losing all the gas when forming either of the the traditional long loaf shapes, batard and baguette, so that they'll work consistently. This is true even if you use a banneton (a basket which shapes the bread as it proofs). A banneton makes it easier, as does forming miche or boule (roand loaves). Part of the process is "pulling down" the dough to either form the round loaves or as a way of developing the necessary tension for the long loaves. If this all sounds like Greek to you -- that's because you're not ready. From an IT perspective: Let's learn how to save a document before hacking the Chinese military's missle codes.

The recipe you used is more or less basic for bland white bread. French bakers use a poolish, and Italians a biga which are sort of mild sour-dough starters to give ordinary white bread some taste. Still it's a good idea to bake white bread, at least a few times, with flour, water, yeast and salt only so you know what you're working with. But as a great bread to impress friends and family ... no.

The mix, rest and knead method is fairly modern and fairly advanced. I'm really unhappy with the short rest following the mix given by your recipe.

The technique of forming, three-fold and cut to shape, comes with a "never work" guarantee. Where the heck did you get the recipe?

We can work all the way through the process of making a proper, white French loaf if you like. But I think it's best if you learn to bake using a loaf pan first. There's a Peter Reinhart recipe for Struan bread floating around on the net. Not only does it make the world's best toast, it's fun and farily foolproof. Or, if you want to learn to make a regular ol' American white bread -- I can write you a recipe with my eyes closed.

BDL

PS. (for KY and Dillbert) Almost all European style breads including and maybe especially French white are made with flours having protein levels in the AP region, i.e., below 12% which is well below a typical "hard" or "bread flour" level. The choice is extremely brand dependent as well. For instance, King Arthur AP has about the same protein content as Gold Medal Better for Bread.
 

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Liberally sprinkling isn't really the best way to do it. What you really want to do is mist the oven and the bread with a spritz bottle, to generate steam, which in turn develops "crackle." In an ordinary home oven, it's usually a good idea to do it when you put the bread in, after 90 seconds, and again after another 90 seconds. It works best if you spray everything -- oven door, walls, floor, bread, and get the door closed as quickly as possible.

Worth repeating, open the door as little as possible and get it shut as quickly as possible -- you want to keep the temp high and steady when you start a bake.

Heavy thick crust sounds more like temperature issues, than water. It usually means the crust developed too slowly. But if you used way too much water, that might have kept the temp down on the surface. More likely you lost too much heat just getting the bread in. It's hard to diagnose bread problems without a lot of information, as there are loads of possibilities.

A baking stone, or any sort of temperature ballast (including a few fireplace bricks on your oven floor, might help. So might a really long pre-heat.

If it's a choice between misting and losing a lot of heat, forget the misting for now. Try doing everything possible to keep your oven temperatures high and steady, and see if that doesn't resolve the problem.

Another possibility, one more likely than not to at least be a contributor, is not getting enough "surface tension" on the loaf during formation. Another indication besides tough crust, is if your loaves lost some shape and flattened as they baked. It's very common.

BDL
 
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