This Pain a l’Ancienne French bread recipe is now our master recipe for French bread, baguettes, ciabatta and pizza. A traditional method that is easy, foolproof and makes a bread that rivals the bread we found in France and the pizza in Italy.
Table of contents
PAIN A L’ANCIENNE FRENCH BREAD IN FRANCE
Paris, France. We came across this traditional way of making bread called Pain a l’Ancienne (l’Ancienne looks like the word Ancient, but actually means traditional). Pain a l’Ancienne bread gets its name by referring to a traditional way of making bread, by allowing it to rise for a long time by using less yeast or by keeping it in a cold place. It is available in a most bakeries in Paris, by asking for a “baguette tradition” or “pain a l’ancienne” rather than a “baguette ordinaire”. The best bakeries will have a sign that says “boulangerie”, because they cannot use this word unless they make their own bread from fresh ingredients. The pain a l’ancienne was truly incredible, with a buttery, almost nutty flavor, a soft interior and a crusty exterior. It was definitely not like the soft American sandwich bread we were accustomed to. We were usually asked if we preferred the baguette or bien cuite or pas trop cuite (well baked or not as much ). It is a matter of taste, but we preferred the “bien cuit” which was darker and baked longer.
There is an actual law in France that defines a baguette and how it is made. French bread law, also known as the Décret Pain or Bread Decree, is a legislation that protects the authenticity and quality of French bread. One of the most iconic breads in France is the traditional baguette, or baguette Pain a l’ancienne. Made with a simple recipe of flour, water, salt, and yeast, the traditional baguette is characterized by its long and slender shape, golden crust, and soft interior. It is crafted using traditional methods, including a long fermentation process and baking directly on the oven floor. This produces a bread with a crispy crust and a chewy crumb. In contrast, an ordinary baguette is often mass-produced and lacks the same attention to detail and traditional techniques. The French bread law supports the production of the traditional baguette, ensuring that consumers can enjoy the authentic taste and texture of this beloved French symbol.
Every year in Paris, the prestigious title of Baguette of the Year is awarded to one lucky baker whose creation is deemed the finest in the city. This tradition dates back to 1994 and has become a highly anticipated event among both locals and tourists. The competition not only celebrates the artistry and skill of the city’s bakers but also highlights the importance of maintaining the highest standards in baguette making.
To be considered for the title, there are strict rules that must be followed in the production of a baguette. Firstly, the baguette must be made entirely within the bakery it represents, ensuring consistent quality and freshness. The essential ingredients are limited to flour, water, salt, and yeast, with no additives or preservatives allowed. Furthermore, the baguette must be between 55 and 65 centimeters long and weigh between 250 and 300 grams. These guidelines ensure that the baguette retains its iconic shape, crispy crust, and airy interior.
The goal of these rules is to preserve the traditional art of baguette making and to maintain the high standards that have made French baguettes world-renowned. The competition emphasizes the importance of skill and craftsmanship, and also encourages bakers to continue perfecting their techniques. The winning baker is not only awarded the prestigious title but also has the privilege of supplying the French president with daily baguettes for an entire year, an honor that further reflects the significance of their achievement. Ultimately, the Baguette of the Year competition is a celebration of French culinary heritage and a testament to the dedication of Parisian bakers in creating the perfect baguette.
THE SCIENCE OF MAKING PAIN A L’ANCIENNE FRENCH BREAD
It took some research, but we discovered the science behind making this bread. The cold fermentation slows down the yeast and allows the flavor to develop. Over time, the starch in the flour converts to sugars and other flavors are released. However, this process requires about twelve hours, and most recipes allow the bread to raise for only a few hours at room temperature. Putting the dough in a cold place to raise will slow down the yeast while the flavors continue to develop. This is easy to do at home just by putting the dough in the refrigerator. It can be much harder for a bakery to do because of the limited space in the refrigerator, so other bakery bread is often made with a portion of refrigerated dough (a poolish or a biga) and a portion of fresh flour and water making the recipes more complicated. This explanation is an over simplification of a much more complicated process, but it does give a clearer picture of why this works.
The method for making this bread is to use more water, less yeast and allow the dough to rise in a cold environment for the first twelve hours. Using more water also allows the gluten to form naturally without kneading the dough.
The second thing we discovered is that the ovens in France inject steam during the baking process which causes the bread crust to become crispy. A home oven does not have a steam injector. Even if steam is created, many ovens have a fan that would remove it. The French have traditionally used a bread cloche to reproduce the effect of a professional oven. A cloche is a ceramic or metal, often bell shaped vessel that is inverted over the bread as it bakes, keeping the steam from escaping. There are three methods we have tried that have worked well to mimic this. The first was baking the bread in a Dutch oven. The bread was shaped into a boule (a round shape) in order to fit into the Dutch oven. The second method was baking it the bread on a pizza sone under an inverted tinfoil pan. This method works well and is the least expensive method. The third, and best method, was baking it in a ceramic cloche designed specifically for the desired shape. We have an Emile Henry baguette baker that makes three perfect little baguettes. We make baguettes frequently, so the cost is worth it. There are a variety of other traditional cloches available that also work well.
The slow rise improves the taste, but also makes it much more convenient to make. The bread dough can be made in the evening and baked the following day at a convenient time. We make up a batch of dough in just a short time with very little work and put it in the refrigerator overnight. The next morning it is ready to shape and bake. We make up a batch of dough almost every week and decide at the last minute what it will be. The ciabatta and pizza are made by adding olive oil – we usually use our homemade garlic olive oil. Variations can be made by using different oil and coating with different nuts or seeds. We have used this recipe for everything from Flammekuchen to seeded baguettes.
INGREDIENTS AND METHOD FOR MAKING PAIN A L’ANCIENNE FRENCH BREAD RECIPE
The Pain a l’Ancienne French bread contains only four ingredients- flour, water, salt and yeast, so the first thing we did was choose the very best ingredients.
- Use the best ingredients – brands matter! We included the brands we used. The flour must be bread flour, which has more protein than all purpose flour, and must be unbleached, since bleaching interferes with the yeast. We use King Arthur because it is a high quality, tastes great and has a consistent amount of protein, which is very important when making bread. We use Diamond Kosher salt. Salt varies between brands and will weigh a different amount for a specific volume, taste different, and will effect the yeast differently. The yeast is saf-instant. I don’t know why, but this brand just works better for us. The Instant yeast is easier to work with and is more reliable because of how it’s processed. We also add barley malt syrup on occasion to give the bread that authentic bakery flavor that we can’t quite get at home.
- Use a stand mixer – it makes life so much easier. The recipe requires some working of the dough, but it’s so wet that this is not difficult.
- Use a scale to measure the ingredients – it is much more accurate and this is especially important when baking. Measuring flour with a measuring cup can be off by as much as a third. Measuring by weight can also be much easier – just put the mixing bowl on the scale and zero the scale before adding each ingredient – so easy. Measuring by weight is so important that all the measurements are given in grams, except the smaller amounts that are more accurate using teaspoons and Tablespoons.
- Refrigerate the dough overnight slow down the rise while the flavor develops.
- After baking, wait until the bread is cool (at least an hour) before slicing.
Photos by Tony Fitzgerald Photography