French Bread is probably only used in the US. The bread that I'm referring to is the French style baguette. The bread is made with bakers yeast, rather than sourdough, so it is sometimes referred to as sweet french bread.
I am fascinated by artisan bread because it is simple and complex at once. The ingredients of bread are:
Bread has been made with these ingredients for thousands of years. There is one other more intangible ingredient: time. Good bread, bread with flavor, artisan bread, takes time to ferment and build the flavor. One of the difficult things about learning to make artisan bread is to learn to plan your baking a day or more in advance.
French bread is the bread of French baguettes. It is made with bakers yeast rather than sour dough. It lacks the slight tart taste of sour dough so I sometimes call it sweet french bread.
For sour dough, where you want a chewy bread I use bread flour, which is higher in gluten. For french bread all purpose flour is fine. If you can use unbleached white all purpose flour. I use King Arthur, but I think that Gold Medal makes unbleached white flour these days too.
Although you don't use a sour dough starter, you do make a sort of starter with bakers yeast.
The yeast has to be activated (despite the fact that its name is "active dry yeast"). To do this you need to warm the water. I usually put the water in a Pyrex measuring cup and microwave it. The water should be hot tub warmth (about 100 F). After the water is warm, pour the teaspoon of yeast in and wait about five minutes.
Stir in the flour until you have a thick but sticky dough. The amount of flour and water does not have to be exact. You can add another half cup of flour for a slightly thicker starter.
Cover the starter with plastic wrap and let it rise for three to five hours. It will double in size. The time depends on the temperature. If it better fits your schedule you can let it rise and then put it in the refrigerator over night. If you refrigerate it you will need to give it a couple of hours to warm up the next day (don't' microwave it since you will kill the yeast).
When I started making bread I used to do it all by hand. This is not only more work but it makes a lot more mess to clean up since flour tends to spread more. I now use a Kitchen Aid mixer with a bread hook (like the dread pirate Capitan Hook's hook, but for bread).
Either the next day or when the starter has risen, you're ready to make the bread dough. If you're using a Kitchen Aid mixer move the starter into the Kitchen Aid steel bowl.
Pour the water into the bowl and stir the water into the starter. The starter will be thick and it takes a bit of stirring for it to start to dissolve. It does not have to be fully dissolved, there can be clumps.
Add the salt and the table spoon of sugar.
When I'm using the Kitchen Aid I add 4 to 5 cups of the flour and stir it in by hand with a sturdy wooden spoon. A good wooden spoon has many uses, as you know.
When the dough starts to get thick and it becomes difficult to mix I put the Kitchen Aid bowl on the mixer and start to mix it. If you're baking bread by hand this is when you start to kneed it. You transfer it out to something like a chopping block (make sure it's clean) that has flour on it. You then kneed the bread and work the flour in by hand.
The exact amount of flour can vary depending on the amount of water in the starter and the humidity (e.g., the water in the flour). The last cup of flour (the sixth cup) is mixed in slowly. If the bread dough seems to be very dry and is starting to pull way in the center from the mixer you don't have to add it all. But you should mix or kneed the dough enough that it is smooth.
The dough I use is only slightly sticky. I add flour and mix it until the dough pulls away from the sides of the kitchen aid. But don't worry too much about consistency. If the bread is sticky you can make the Italian style flat loaf called focaccia.
When the dough is done spray olive oil on a large glass bowl (or just swirl around a bit of olive oil if you don't have spray olive oil) that is at least twice as big as your dough. Make the dough into a ball and put it in the bowl. Let it rise until it doubles in size. This will take about three hours, depending on the temperature.
Deflate the dough by poking it with your fingers (it ends up looking a bit like a brain). Put the dough in the refrigerator over night. You can leave it for another day or two if that fits your schedule better. This time is very important. By cooling the dough down it gives it time to ferment and build its flavor.
After the bread has fermented in the refrigerator, take it out and give it a couple of hours to warm up.
Make the bread into two loaves by dividing the dough in half and making two balls. Flatten the balls and pull them into square sorts of shapes (oblongs, something like that). Then roll up the sheet into a loaf on a floured board. Roll the loaf until the outside is smooth.
Put the bread on a parchment paper covered baking sheet. Lightly spray with olive and cover with plastic wrap. Let the bread rise until the loaves have doubled in size. This will take about three hours.
Preheat the oven to 450. Ideally you should heat the oven an hour or more in advance. Bake the bread about 45 minutes or until it is dark brown, but not burned. Give it at least 20 minutes to cool before slicing.
The ovens that are used by professional bakers of artisan bread have steam injection that is turned on when the bread starts to bake. This helps carmalize the crust and leads to a better tasting bread. Since I don't have a steam injected oven I try to reproduce this by pouring boiling water into a Corell oven proof ceramic bowl in the oven. You can also spray water on the bread with a water sprayer. This is optional, of course. Your bread will still be good without this.
The book that I learned to make french bread from is Crust & Crumb by Peter Reinhart. The recipe here differs from Reinhart's however.
Ian Kaplan, March 2007