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 it’s name by referring to a traditional way of making bread, by allowing it to raise for a long time in a cold place. It is available in a few bakeries in Paris. The bread 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.
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 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.
METHOD FOR MAKING PAIN A L’ANCIENNE FRENCH BREAD
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 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 two methods we have tried that have worked well to mimic this. The first was baking the bread in a Dutch oven, and the second was baking it under an inverted tinfoil pan. There are also a variety of traditional cloches available that work well.
The slow rise improves the taste, but also makes it much easier 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 FOR MAKING PAIN A L’ANCIENNE FRENCH BREAD RECIPE
- 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. The malt syrup adds extra flavor.
- 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.
- The dough is made one day, and then refrigerated overnight, making baking flexible.
- It’s important to wait until the bread is cool (at least an hour) before slicing.
Photos byTony Fitzgerald Photography
This recipe sounds wonderful. My husband recently bought me a Cuisinart Steam Oven and I’ve been searching for a crusty bread recipe. Do you know how the French would bake this recipe in a steam oven?
Wow! This should be the perfect recipe for this oven. And, of course, you would not use the Dutch oven. I would love to know how it turns out. Maybe you could send me a picture. : )