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French Bread

Watch our historic foodways staff cook this recipe, then try it at home

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. (4 cups) 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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