Pain de campagne is the classic French country bread. It’s essentially a sourdough, but it’s that bit special with a touch of rye and whole wheat. It needs a little patience, but not much effort, and the wonderfully flavorful loaf is most definitely worth it.
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Some countries are incredibly passionate about bread, and France is most certainly one of them. My sister has a house in a small village in the South of France and while other shops gradually closed their doors, thanks to a hypermarket not too far away, the bar and the bakery were the last to hold out.
When we visited Paris last year, you could be sure to find a bakery not too far from almost anywhere. For most French people, buying Fresh bread to accompany meals is a part of the daily routine. I imagine while some is habit, it’s also partly that one of the most popular breads, the baguette, really doesn’t keep very well.
What is pain de campagne?
The name translates as “country bread” and it’s a bread you’ll find across France. It used to be made in large loaves, baked in a communal bakery to then feed a family over a number of days. Over time, baguettes took over in popularity, but it has made a comeback with the interest in artisan baking.
This bread is a little heartier, with a more complex flavor and rustic appearance. It’s not always, but often, made with a sourdough base which helps add to the wonderful flavor.
The main flour used in this is bread flour (or you can use all purpose), but it also has a little whole wheat and rye flour. Some only use one or the other, but I think both add that extra something.
In other words, it’s an everyday loaf with a bit of character.
Now, you may look at the method for making it and think it seems way too much but believe me, it’s not as drastic as it seems. And thanks to the great method of resting overnight in the fridge, it’s really easy to make this pretty much when suits. You just need a little planning ahead.
A suggested timeline
Evening day 1:
- Prepare the sourdough base, also called the ‘levain’. Mix some active sourdough starter with some of the flour and water to make a relatively thick paste. Leave it for 20-24 hours at room temperature.
Evening day 2:
- The levain might not look like much from above, but if you have a clear bowl you should see bubbles from the side, as in picture above. Mix together the levain with the other ingredients, knead the dough then leave it on the counter, covered, for an hour.
- Fold in the sides of the dough tightly to form a loaf and transfer to a floured banneton (proving basket) or bowl, join side up. Cover and place in the fridge to rise slowly overnight.
Morning day 3:
- Preheat the oven with a Dutch oven in it. Take the bread dough from the fridge and ease it away from the sides gently. Turn the dough upside down, onto a piece of parchment.
- Once the oven comes to temperature, slash the top of the dough, and carefully use the sides of the parchment to lower it in to the warmed Dutch oven.
- Bake part of the time covered, part open, until hollow sounding when tapped. Allow to cool at least 20-30 minutes before slicing.
One of the things I love about this timeline is that there is minimal time needed before you bake. You don’t have to try to fit in a second rise before baking – ie getting up at the crack of dawn if you want bread for lunch.
I also find that the slower overnight prove leads to a lovely even shape in the bread.
What pan should you cook this loaf in?
The best way to cook this is in a Dutch oven or other large, heavy lidded pan/dish. This allows you to cover the loaf for part of the cooking time which lets the bread steam. Then, you remove the lid to allow the top to crisp up.
I also highly recommend pre-heating the pan in the oven as it comes to temperature. This means it’s already hot when you add the loaf, helping it to give the bread a nice crispy bottom.
You do, obviously, just have to be careful as you put the loaf into the hot pan. I suggest measuring the parchment in the pan before you put it in the oven to make sure it’s long enough to line the bottom and go up the sides a bit. This then means you can use the parchment as a kind of sling to lower the loaf into the pan.
This bread has a lovely flavor that’s that bit more interesting than a plain white loaf, even other sourdoughs, thanks to the different flours in there. However it’s not strong or overpowering.
Between the gentle flavor and the relatively tight crumb, this bread is a perfect everyday bread. Fresh, gently warm bread needs minimal toppings on it – just a touch of butter or soft cheese is perfect. However this is also great to use for sandwiches, to make toast or as a side to a meal.
This is probably our favorite bread for lunch at the moment, and my younger son in particular is always happy to see me baking it.
Pain de campagne may seem like it’s a bit of work, since it takes a little bit of planning, but it’s really not that hands on and worth every bit of effort. This country bread has such a wonderful rustic appearance and rounded flavor, you really should try it soon.
Try these other delicious bread recipes:
Pain de campagne (French country bread)
For the levain (day 1)
- 75 g sourdough starter (active)
- 75 g rye flour
- 25 g whole wheat flour (wholemeal)
- 25 g bread flour or use all purpose/plain flour
- 100 g water
For rest of loaf
- 225 g bread flour or use all purpose/plain flour
- 50 g whole wheat flour (wholemeal)
- 25 g rye flour
- 200 g water
- 7 g salt
Evening day 1:
- Prepare the sourdough base, also called the ‘levain’. Mix the active sourdough starter with the flours and water listed in the levain ingredients to make a relatively thick paste. Cover the bowl with cling wrap/film and leave it for 20-24 hours at a cool room temperature.
Evening day 2:
- The levain might not look like much from above, but if you have a clear bowl you should see bubbles from the side. Add all of the other ingredients to the levain and mix to combine.
- Lightly flour a work surface, tip the dough out and knead the dough for around 3-5 minutes, adding a little extra flour if needed. It will be soft and a little sticky, but shouldn’t be so sticky that you can’t handle it.
- Leave the dough as a ball on the counter and cover with an up-tuned bowl for an hour (if the bowl is only slightly larger than the dough, lightly oil it so it doesn’t stick).
- Prepare a round banneton by dusting with flour, or else either line a relatively large bowl with a clean towel and dust with flour, or simply dust a large bowl with flour, turning so it covers up the sides. Fold in the sides of the dough tightly to form a round ball and transfer to the prepared banneton/bowl, join side up. Cover and place in the fridge to rise slowly overnight.
Morning day 3:
- Preheat the oven to 450F/230C. Cut a rectangle of parchment paper large enough to cover the bottom of a Dutch oven ad come up the sides slightly – I typically test it as I’m about to cut. Then put the Dutch oven in the oven to warm as the oven heats up.
- Take the bread dough from the fridge and ease it away from the sides gently, if needed. Turn the dough upside down, onto the middle of the piece of parchment (so the join side is now down). If the top of the dough doesn’t look a little floured, dust it with a bit more flour.
- Once the oven comes to temperature, slash the top of the dough with a lame or sharp knife, and carefully use the sides of the parchment to lower it in to the warmed Dutch oven. Bake the loaf for 20 minutes with the lid on, then remove the lid and cook for a further 20-25 minutes, until it has an even brown color and is hollow sounding when tapped. Allow the bread to cool at least 20-30 minutes on a cooling rack before slicing.
See some of my favorite cooking tools and ingredients in the Caroline’s Cooking Amazon store.
Adapted from a few sources including The Bread She Bakes recipe, particularly re the timeline.
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