The dark blistered crust pockmarked with fissures gives pain à l’ancienne a look some might call rustic, a polite way of describing misshapen food. Crudely shaped through stretching, these baguettes have thicker ends and seem unrefined at first glance.
What pain à l’ancienne lacks in looks, it more than makes up for in taste. If you consider only “lean” doughs, those made with the bare essentials of flour, water, salt and yeast, then this is as good as homemade bread gets.
The dough is developed using a long autolyse (pronounced auto-lees, as in, “You ought to lease an apartment instead because the economy sucks.”). Flour and water are mixed a day in advance without salt and yeast. This technique does a few things to the dough:
- The flour thoroughly absorbs the water, strengthening the gluten and improving gas retention. More water will be added with the salt and yeast on baking day. If all of the water is added at once, the dough will be weaker and more difficult to handle.
- During the long resting time, the water breaks the flour down into simple sugars, giving the bread a sweeter taste. My go-to Neapolitan-style pizza dough recipe uses a very similar method.
The result is a sweet and nutty bread with a deeply caramelized reddish-brown crust courtesy of the natural sugars unlocked from the flour. This recipe makes the most complex-tasting baguettes I’ve ever baked.
Pain à l’ancienne Baguettes
makes four 12- to 16-inch baguettes
Ingredients Volume Ounces Grams unbleached all-purpose flour 4 cups 17.6 500 water, ice cold 1 cup + 6 tbsp 11.5 325 water 3 tbsp + 1 tsp 1.8 50 salt 1 1/2 tsp .3 9 instant yeast 1 1/2 tsp .2 5
- I used King Arthur all-purpose flour.
- Peter Reinhart’s pain à l’ancienne in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice is based on a method very similar to this recipe. In Reinhart’s version, the salt and yeast are added before refrigeration.
Mix Mix together the flour and the ice-cold water until a shaggy ball of dough is formed. Knead 4 to 6 minutes, until the flour is thoroughly hydrated and a smooth ball of dough is formed. Autolyse Cover with plastic wrap or store in an airtight container. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours and up to 2 days. The bread will be sweeter the longer the dough rests. Knead Add the additional water, salt, and instant yeast to the cold dough. Knead until the water is completely absorbed, about 6 to 10 minutes. The dough will be very sticky. The dough will initially have the consistency of chewing gum and will not readily absorb the additional water. Ferment #1 90 minutes at room temperature Stretch and Fold Ferment #2 90 minutes at room temperature Stretch and Fold Ferment #3 2 to 3 hours at room temperature, or until almost doubled in size Preheat Oven 460ºF / 240ºC Divide 4 equal pieces using a lightly moistened bench scraper Preshape On a lightly floured surface, gently shape each piece into loose ovals by tucking the sides underneath the pieces of dough. Handle as gently as possible to avoid degassing.
Rest 10 minutes Shape Stretch gently into strips, about 12 to 16 inches long. Steam 1 cup of boiling water poured in a heavy steam pan (preferably cast iron) Bake Bake for 8 to 9 minutes at 460ºF / 240ºC. Rotate the loaves and bake for another 10 to 15 minutes, until the crust is deeply browned. The thickest part of the baguette will register 205ºF / 91ºC when done. Cool At least 30 minutes
Pain à l’ancienne baguette crust.
Pain à l’ancienne baguette crumb.