First a disclaimer; I am not a professional baker, and much of the information I give here is not intended to be be-all and end-all advice. I am sure many who post here are better bread makers than I am. I have been making bread for over 40 years so here is some of what I have gleaned.
First off let me recommend three excellent books; “My Bread” by Jim Lahey, “Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast” by Ken Forkish, and “Artisan Breads Everday” by Peter Reinhart. The recipe I use most often is Ken Forkish’s White Bread with Poolish.
There are two very important elements that distinguish French, or Italian, bread from American. First, and most important, is the leavening process. Second is the baking environment.
French bread gets is wonderful flavor and texture from a long slow rise. In almost all cases it is a lean dough with no sugar or fat added. A minimal amount of yeast is added and the dough is fermented at a cool temperature. This forces the yeast to work harder and it produces an enzyme that transforms the flavor and texture of the bread. This is the key to French bread.
After the lengthy proofing the loaves are baked in a very hot oven. Key to the wonderful crust is a moist environment during the initial baking period. Professional bakers have steam injected ovens. We home cooks have to improvise to try and reproduce this.
Okay those two principles are the key. My slightly modified version of Mr. Forkish’s recipe follows:
For the initial pre-ferment (poolish)
500 g all purpose unbleached white flour (3 7/8 cups)
500 g 80 degree water (2 1/4 cups - I approximate the temp)
.4 g yeast (scant 1/8 tsp - I use Saf-Instant brand)
Mix all ingredients together, and leave at room temperature for 12 to 14 hours. When the poolish is ready it will be full of bubbles, and you will see some popping up every few seconds.
The final dough mixture:
500 g flour
250 g 105 degree water ( again I approximate the temp)
21 g salt (its about 4 tsp but you really have to weigh it if you can)
3 g yeast (3/4 tsp)
All the poolish from above
Mix everything together really well. Be sure you don’t have lumps of flour! You will need to stretch and fold the dough three times during the first hour. To do this you grab an edge of the dough, stretch it out and fold it over the center. Repeat around all four corners of your dough.
Then let it all rise until it is 2 1/2 times the initial volume. Mr. Forkish says this takes 2 to 3 hours but I have had it take as much as 5.
Now you form into loaves. They will need to rise for at least an hour, so start your oven preheating. If you are doing boules put an oven proof covered Dutch oven in the oven (if you have a Le Creuset dutch oven with the black plastic handle please note it will melt if you go over 375). If you are doing baguettes or ciabatta you will need to create a moist environment. The easiest way to do it is to put an oven proof pan (not glass!) on your oven floor. A baking stone or steel should placed on an upper shelf of the oven. Preheat your oven to 475 for at least 45 minutes. For a boule you dump the dough into the Dutch oven being careful not to burn yourself. Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake for another 20 to 30.
For baguettes, carefully put hot water in your steam pan, and slide the baguettes onto the steel with your peel and bake for around 30 minutes until they are done to your liking. Cool on a rack for at least 40 minutes. People love the idea of hot bread, but lean breads like this need to cool down to develop the proper crumb.
I use a custom set up with one of these, https://www.fourneauoven.com/ on the lowest shelf of my oven and a baking stone/steel sandwich on the second highest shelf. Because French bread dough has such high hydration it can be difficult to slide it off a peel so I cheat by using a baguette pan that I sawed off to fit in the oven insert. My timing is preheat for an hour at 485. Bake for 15 minutes in the closed insert, pull out the loaves and put them directly on the steel for another 10 to 15 minutes. That way I can keep baking by putting the next loaf in the insert. Here are pictures of my set up:
Okay that’s a start. I’m hoping other bakers such as @Happybaker, @attran99, Mama Wire Monkey, @robert, and @Emglow101 and others will add to this thread so we can learn from each other.
BTW this method utilizes a pre-ferment. I made some bread today that bulk ferments instead. It is an extremely wet dough, but yields great results. I will post about that later.
Here are pictures to compare: