I really hesitate to call any bread made with my sourdough “French Bread.” Basically true French Bread can only be made using the yeasts native to France. Part of the taste is the method used to bake the bread, and that can be duplicated — if one happens to have a wood fired oven. (I don’t.) Still, one can make a very good long loaf of “French” bread with sourdough, even though it doesn’t exactly match the taste of the bread made in France.
1 cup of warm whole milk (skim or 2% milk does not work!)
1 tablespoon of cider vinegar
Stir well, and let it sit for 15 minutes. The milk may or may not curdle. Either way is fine.
1 1/3 cups warm water
1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt
2/3 cup very active sourdough starter
Stir in 2 cups of flour until smooth.
Add 2 more cups of flour, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring until it’s too stiff, then mixing with your hands.
Knead in up to another 1/2 cup of flour — you probably won’t use the full half cup, so add it slowly, kneading until the dough is smooth and very elastic.
Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover, and let it rise until doubled in size. (2 to 3 hours) It’s critical to prevent this dough from drying out, so be sure the bowl is tightly covered. If in doubt, lightly spritz the dough with water before you cover it.
Punch the dough down and divide it in half, covering the bowl containing the half you aren’t working with at the moment.
On a lightly oiled surface, shape one piece of dough into a rectangle about the size of a sheet of typing paper and fold in the two short sides to meet in the middle, pinching edges together. Turn over (seam side down), then roll and stretch into a 15-inch-long irregular loaf. Put seam side down in a well oiled French loaf pan, or on a well oiled cookie sheet. Brush the loaf lightly with olive oil. Do the same with the other half of the dough. Let rise, uncovered, in a warm place 30 to 45 minutes. Dough will not double in size.
Meanwhile, fill a large pan with at least 1 inch of hot water and place it in the bottom of your oven. You want to have your oven fill with steam before baking the bread. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Remember the oven is NOT hot enough when the oven “dings.” That pan of water needs to be steaming well!
Make 3 diagonal slashes in each loaf immediately before putting the loaves in the oven. Lightly sprinkle the loaves with Kosher salt if desired.
Bake for 30 minutes, Remove pan of water from oven. Remove the bread from the pans, turn the loaves upside down on upper oven rack, then bake 10 minutes more.
Let the loaves cool on a rack. Don’t even think about cutting a French loaf when it’s still hot!
Note: In terms of appearance, these loaves were a disaster, but in terms of taste … It’s very different from most breads, and very, very good!