To Make French Bread

This fine white bread would be rolled up in your napkin when you sat at the table and used to push food on the plate and gather up sauces.

18th Century

Take three quarts of water, and one of milk; in winter scalding hot, in summer a little more than milk warm; season it well with salt, then take a pint and a half of good ale yeast not bitter, lay it in a gallon of water the night before, pour it off the water, stir in your yeast into the milk and water, then with your hand break in a little more than a quarter of pound of butter, work it well till it is dissolved, then beat up two eggs in a bason, and stir them in; have about a peck and a half of flour, mix it with your liquor; in winter, make your dough pretty stiff, in summer, more slack: so that you may use a little more or less flour, according to the stiffness of your dough: mix it well, but the less you work the better: make it into rolls, and have a very quick oven. When they have lain about a quarter of an hour, turn them on the other side, let them lie about a quarter longer, and then take them out and chip all your French bread with a knife, which is better than rasping it, and make it look spungy and of a fine yellow, whereas the rasping takes off all the fine colour, and makes it look too smooth. You must stir your liquor into the flour as you do for the pie crust. After your dough is made, cover it with a cloth, and let it lie to rise while the oven is heating.

Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.

21st Century

  • 2 lb. all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • ¼ lb. butter, softened to room temperature
  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Heat the water to 90-110 degrees. Stir in the yeast and about half the flour. The mixture should resemble pancake batter. Set aside for 12 to 16 hours.
  3. The next day, your sponge should have an aroma resembling beer. Add a beaten egg to the milk and mix well. Add the milk to the sponge.
  4. In another bowl, mix the remaining flour, the softened butter and salt together. Add the sponge to the remaining flour and knead for twenty minutes until the dough springs back. Add more flour a tablespoon at a time and continue kneading until the dough is no longer sticky.
  5. Using vegetable oil or butter, coat the entire surface of the dough to prevent a crust from forming during the rise period. Place the dough in a bowl and cover it over with plastic wrap. Set the dough to rise in a warm room for one and a half to two hours or until the dough has doubled in bulk.
  6. One hour before you are ready to bake, punch down the dough, divide it in half and form two tight balls. Using a knife, divide each half into eight equal pieces. Slice the ball from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock, from 3 o’clock to 9 o’clock positions. Bisect each cut piece again, making 8 equal pieces. You should have 16 equal pieces of dough.
  7. Form your rolls by shaping each piece of dough into a tight compact ball. Let the finished rolls set on a baking sheet at least 3 inches apart. Cover and allow them to rise again for another 30 minutes.
  8. Bake the rolls for 30-35 minutes or until they sound hollow when tapped.

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22 Responses to “To Make French Bread”

  1. March 25th, 2011

    Lisa Hrinko says:

    I have a question. Would the middle or upper middle class shape the bread in a round loaf or oval or the French bread shape we know today?

    • March 29th, 2011

      Historic Foodways says:

      To Lisa,

      This is actually a difficult question. I will start by saying that I think often modern historians expect a level of standardization in regards to both packaging and products that is unrealistic for the 18th century. There just isn’t the communication and standardization in place that we have today. I think there are far more regional, local and personal variations in how food products are made then. So it is dangerous to say they always made loaves this way or that way or always packaged this food in this container, etc.

      Now, having said all of that, I will add that according to a fellow food historian Jim Chevallier, the long baguette shape that we think of as French bread is probably still in the later stages of development in France at this time. It doesn’t seem to become the standard until sometime in the 19th century. So my guess would be that loaves in England and her colonies were often round boules rather then French baguettes.

      For a much more detailed discussion of historic French Bread making please refer to Jim Chevallier’s site:


  2. March 27th, 2011

    walter zadan says:

    Great – I’ll try it tomorrow. Is this a Rodney recipe?

  3. March 27th, 2011

    Marie Mercer says:

    This recipe comes only a few days after I noticed this bread rolled in a napkin on the plate of Mr Wood, the carpenter, while watching A Day in the Life.

  4. March 29th, 2011

    Emily says:

    Could you place the dough in a stand mixer w/ the kneading attachment for the kneading part? I’m not sure my arms can do 20 minutes!

    • March 29th, 2011

      Historic Foodways says:

      To Emily,

      Sure, you lucky modern kitchen gadget owners are welcome to use the mixer.


  5. April 24th, 2011

    walter zadan says:

    I had both the blender and the mixer going at the same
    time, as I was making a smoothie and the rolls. Without
    looking I put the ripe banana in the mixer. When I realized
    my mistake, I added some flour to make up for the increase
    in moisture content. I made mini-loaf breads and they

    came out fine.

  6. September 29th, 2011

    Mia says:

    I am doing a project on different recipes of colonial williamsburg for school and really appreciated this website!

  7. October 9th, 2011

    Al Johnson says:

    Gudday to all! Enjoyed your recipe greatly. Have made it several times now. Lastly at our Beaver Club re-enactment at Forts Folle’ Avoine. (Google for Website) It has been greatly acclaimed by Gentry and Commoners alike as some of the “best they ever had”! Will make a couple of comments however. The modern version indicates that the yeast/flour mix should include about half the 2 pounds in the batch – this gives a mix much like the actual dough rather than pancake dough as indicated. In the video I think you are separating the eggs but not in the recipe???? Also, my tweak: You mentioned that the old yeast was usually the dregs from a beer keg giving a slight “beery” smell to the loaf. Hmmmmm??? The substitution of 1/4 cup of dark ale for part of the water gives the bread an entirely new dimension! I used Berghoff Sundown Dark and had better results than with a slightly lighter Sam Adams brew. Make a batch each way and compare. If you go to the Forts site you might even run across a pic of me with our clay ovens. AWJ

  8. November 19th, 2011

    Jo Ann Ptack says:

    I too had noted the inconsistencies between the video and the directions when I began to make the bread…video clearly shows the milk and water being heated…half of the flour added makes a pancake batter…also the egg, one whole or 2 yolks? Probably doesn’t make a difference but is confusing. It is also important to be aware of the different yeasts that are available some you add to liquid, some to the dry ingredients first. A little beer replacing some of the water does add a nice hint of the original yeast flavor.

  9. December 11th, 2011

    Ferris says:

    I am using this, also, for a school history project and I think it is great, but 12-16 hours is a long time to rise and it is due tomorrow! Is there ANYTHING I can do to shorten that time by at least and hour or two????

    • December 11th, 2011

      Historic Foodways says:

      We’re so glad we can be a part of your school project. Unfortunately, you can’t rush yeast. You might try another quicker-cooking recipe from the blog. Have you thought of cracknels?

  10. December 30th, 2011

    Aaron Sowers says:

    They came out little more browned than they should have, but they are still good tasting.

  11. August 27th, 2012

    Charles says:

    I have two questions, one what type of other breads would there have been and where are some of the places you would have went to buy bread for breadcrumbs.

    • August 27th, 2012

      Historic Foodways says:

      There were a few basic breads during this time period. What a family would eat would depend on their economic situation. Poorer people would be reliant on coarse grain breads, and fine white flour for the upper classes. Wheat has been the primary grain throughout the European and Colonial American cultures, with corn and barley coming in behind. Most communities of any sort had some commercial baking operation that townsfolk could rely on if they didn’t bake themselves. As for bread crumbs, you grate whatever bread you have or you let it go stale so you can have a finer crumb for your recipes. Thanks for your comments.

  12. August 30th, 2012

    I know baking soda wasn’t invented yet but what about recipes for pot ash.

  13. August 31st, 2012

    What is a yeast loaf?

    • September 4th, 2012

      Historic Foodways says:

      A quick internet search or trip to your local library will tell you that a yeast loaf is a kind of bread leavened with yeast.

  14. September 21st, 2012

    Would you have in the 18th Century reused the ashes from the oven.

    • September 21st, 2012

      Historic Foodways says:

      Yes, you could have reused the ashes if you had a way of making lye soap. The lye would be extracted from the spent ash by hot water then boiled with hard tallow (fat) to make the soap. If you were near a port city, they could have been sold to a chandler who was a soap and candle maker as they produced ships provisions. Good observation, thanks.

  15. November 15th, 2012

    Just baked whole wheat bread recipe found in an 18th century Scottish magazine.

  16. December 9th, 2012

    Rachel says:

    These look really good!
    I’m doing this for a Language Arts project and I think it’ll be perfect!…
    Do they taste good because I have to bring in a sample..
    Project due: December 14, 2012

    Let me know if it’s good!

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