Julia Child's Key To Great Bread Is All In Smacking The Dough

Beloved chef Julia Child was the first to show American audiences that French cuisine doesn't have to be difficult or unapproachable. Her French bread recipe from "Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol. 2" uses only flour, salt, water, and yeast. While the recipe is simple and straightforward, yet delicious — a philosophy that Child often emphasized — you'll need to put in some elbow grease to pull it off.

Child learned all that she could about French cooking through her rigorous studies at famed culinary school Le Cordon Bleu. For her French bread recipe, though, she sought out guidance from the renowned Professor Raymond Calvel of L'Ecole Francaise de Meunerie in Paris. Child and her husband Paul also practiced plenty (going through 284 pounds of flour!) to craft the final recipe. So when we tell you that Child advises bakers to vigorously smack their bread dough, you know that she didn't call for it without reason.

To make Child's bakery-style French bread, with a perfectly browned, crusty exterior and airy interior, you need to slam the dough down onto a hard work surface repeatedly. This action takes place during the kneading process, before leaving the dough to rise for the first time. It's a simple process, but not a short one. You'll need to forcefully slap the dough for several minutes in order to get the best texture in the finished loaf.

How and why to smack your bread dough

Throwing bread dough down onto your counter over and over sounds messy, but it's well worth the effort. Julia Child recommends the step because it helps the gluten in the dough come together. You need proper gluten formation to make the dough nice and elastic, which results in a nice level of chewiness in the finished bread. This vigorous form of kneading also traps air in the dough, result that light and airy texture you'll find in beautifully baked French bread.

To pull off Child's dough-smacking technique, start by picking up your disc of dough and folding it over. Then, grasp it well in your hand, raise it to about shoulder level, and smack it down onto your work surface. Repeat this for three minutes, and the dough should become more elastic. Then, move on to kneading the dough by pressing the heel of your hand into it and flipping it over, which should be done quickly and forcefully, as well.

Going by the recipe in Child's cookbook, the whole process can take up to ten minutes (though it may be about half that, if you become adept at the technique). This may seem like a long time to be smacking the dough, but the results will be well worth it.

More bread-making tips from Julia Child

Given the time and effort she put into her bread recipe, it's no surprise that Julia Child has shared countless bread-making tips. Firstly, on her show "The French Chef," she recommended using all-purpose flour instead of bread flour to make French bread her way. Most recipes for chewier breads use bread flour, but Child said it contains too much gluten for her recipe, as French flours tend to have less gluten. If you can get unbleached flour, all the better.

Secondly, when leaving the dough to rise, the chef preferred an ambient temperature of no warmer than 75 degrees Fahrenheit. If your kitchen is colder than that, it may just take longer for the dough to rise, but Child cautions that if it's warmer, your dough may rise too quickly, which can negatively affect both the flavor and the texture. And to ensure the perfect crust on the bread, Child was a fan of spritzing it with water, not only before it goes in the oven, but also at two-minute intervals for the first 6 minutes of the baking process.

Baking Child's French bread recipe may take about seven hours, but by using her smacking technique, you just might wind up with the best loaf of bread you've baked — and you'll work out any pent-up frustration in the process. Once you taste the bread, you'll start dreaming of which of Child's other favorite recipes you'll make next.