close up of crusty french stick bread

10 types of French bread

By BBC Maestro

Think of French bread, and there’s one thing that immediately springs to mind: the baguette. The classic French stick is the quintessential French bread – but it’s not the only type.

The French love their bread, which means we have a whole host of delicious options to choose from, whether we’re looking to bake them – or simply enjoy eating them. Here are some of the most famous French breads to whet your appetite.

What are the different types of French bread?

Making and eating bread is a way of life in France. It’s part of the country’s culinary heritage, and every town and village in France has a boulangerie – a bakery. There are strict laws around boulangeries, and to call themselves that, they must bake their bread on-site. Baking bread is considered an art form, and bakers have been honing their craft and developing new types of bread for hundreds of years.

That means that there’s a huge number of different types of bread to be found across France, from the traditional French breads like baguette and brioche, to lesser-known options. There are also countless regional varieties – so this isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list of all the breads you might come across in France. But these are some of the best-known types of French bread – and from this list alone, you’re sure to find some new favourites.

1. Baguette

If you can name any French bread, it is sure to be la baguette. This long, thin stick of bread is a staple in any French kitchen, and is perfect for mopping up soups, stews and sauces, or for making into a sandwich.

Baguettes first became popular in the late 18th century, and by 1920, it was officially given the name ‘baguette’. The baguette became so popular that bakers started to look for shortcuts, and were using pre-made, frozen dough to speed up the baking process.

In 1993, Le Décret Pain (‘The Bead Decree’) was passed in an attempt to keep the authenticity of the baguette. It enshrined in law that an authentic baguette must be made by hand, sold in the same bakery in which it’s made, and only made from water, wheat flour, yeast and salt.

As well as the classic baguette – which is crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside – there are lots of other varieties to try, including baguette aux olives (olive baguette), baguette Viennoise (made with milk, butter and sugar for a sweet taste) and baguette aux céréales, made with grains and cereals.

2. Pain d’épi

Pain d’épi is a beautifully decorative type of bread that’s shaped to resemble a stalk of wheat – épi translates to ‘ear of wheat’ in French. It can be made from the same dough as a baguette, but rather than shaping it into a long, thin stick of bread, it’s cut differently to create the appearance of a wheat sheaf.

Richard Bertinet explains the process in his BBC Maestro course, Bread Making:

“An alternative way to cut your dough is to use a pair of scissors, to make a Pain d’épi. Begin at one end and, holding the scissors at a 45-degree angle to the dough, open them out to the width of the baguette, then snip three-quarters of the way through to create a ‘V’ shaped piece of dough. Push this to one side, then make a similar cut a little further along the length of the baguette, and push the pointed piece of dough to the opposite side. Continue doing this, so the effect is of an ear of wheat.”

You’ll end up with beautiful bread that makes for a great centrepiece – and the shape also makes it easy to tear off small portions of bread, meaning it’s the perfect sharing bread.

3. Brioche

This sweet bread is a staple in both French boulangeries and patisseries. It’s a versatile bread that can be eaten on its own, slathered in butter, topped with jam, or even as part of a savoury dish.

Brioche is also one of the easier types of French bread to make, so it’s perfect for beginners. It’s also one of Richard Bertinet’s favourites. In his BBC Maestro course, he explains:

“I love brioche. This classic enriched dough is very special. There are many different recipes and in France every bakery will have its own, sometimes using milk or crème fraiche in addition to eggs and butter.”

Once you’ve mastered the basic recipe, you can put your own spin on it, adding vanilla, citrus zest, chocolate chips, or pink sugar-coated almonds to make brioche aux pralines.

4. Pain de campagne

Pain de campagne – French country bread – is a traditional French bread that’s hearty and rustic. It’s made with a sourdough starter, giving it a slightly tangy flavour that works perfectly with meat and cheese.

This type of bread tends to be chewier than a baguette, and it can come in a variety of different shapes – although all varieties tend to be irregular, which sets this bread apart from the uniform appearance of the baguette. 

5. Fougasse

Fougasse is France’s answer to focaccia – indeed, both types of bread can be made from the same dough. It’s a decorative bread that can be shaped in any way you like. Many bakers opt for a wheat sheaf design, while Richard Bertinet designs his fougasse to look like a cheese plant:

“I shape mine to look like a big leaf from a cheese plant, and it is one of those breads that always makes people smile when they make it for the first time.”

He goes on to explain the origins of this type of bread:

“Fougasse has its roots in the Latin word for hearth (focus) and this was usually just a piece of dough that would be cut and put into a wood fired oven to see how long it took to bake. That way the baker could judge the temperature before putting in the bread. It is funny to think that from such humble beginnings fougasse have become very fashionable!”

6. Pain complet

Pain complet is wholewheat bread, made with wholewheat flour which makes it denser and nuttier-tasting than bread made from white flour. As with any other type of whole wheat bread, its hearty taste and denser texture means it can stand up to robust flavours like stews and soups.

7. Pain aux noix

Pain aux noix translates to ‘nut bread’ in English. It’s typically made with walnuts, giving it a distinctive nutty flavour and satisfyingly crunchy texture, but other nuts can be used. Some bakers use hazelnuts or pecans to make the bread sweeter, and they may also add spices or a little honey.

This type of bread is delicious served with either sweet or savoury dishes. Try topping it with soft cheese, spooning on some honey, or smothering it in jam. Its nutty flavour also lends itself well to cheese and charcuterie, meaning it’s perfect served along with cheese and wine pairings.

8. Boule

Boule de pain simply means ‘round bread’, or translated even more literally, ‘ball bread’, as boule means ‘ball’ in French. This is a type of French bread that looks like a slightly squashed ball, that’s flat on the bottom and round on the top.

It’s an incredibly easy bread to make, made from just four ingredients: water, bread flour, a leavening agent (baker’s yeast), and salt. You can also make variations of boule, like a sourdough boule, spelt boule or a multigrain boule for a more complex texture.

Boule can be used to mop up olive oil and balsamic vinegar, topped high as an open sandwich, or on the side of your main meal. Because it’s so versatile, you can essentially eat it with anything.

9. Pain couronne

Another shaped bread, pain couronne translates to ‘crown bread’ in English. It’s a round bread with a hole in the middle, resembling a crown or a ring. The centre hole is made by joining the two ends of the dough circle, creating a crown-like shape.

The basic ingredients for pain couronne are similar to those of other traditional French breads, including flour, water, yeast (or sourdough starter) and salt – but there are lots of ways to put your own spin on it. Some recipes call for a little olive oil in the dough for added flavour, while others use olives, herbs, cheese or seeds. You can even get sweet pain couronne, with added sugar, honey, spices or dried fruits.

10. Pain de mie

Pain de mie is a soft sandwich bread with a fine crumb, made using a milk-based dough. The main ingredients are flour, milk, water, sugar, yeast and salt – and it’s the addition of sugar and milk which makes this type of bread softer and sweeter than other famous French breads.

Unlike other rustic loaves, pain de mie is baked in a rectangular or square pan, which gives it a uniform shape, meaning it can be cut into even slices. That means it’s perfect for toasting or making sandwiches including classic French sandwiches like the Croque-Monsieur and Croque-Madame. Because it’s a sweeter bread, it’s also the best candidate for making French toast. 

Make your own bread

If you’re tempted by these French breads but don’t have a local boulangerie, the good news is that most of them are easy to make at home. Whether you fancy a fougasse or a baguette, Richard Bertinet’s BBC Maestro course on Bread Making has everything you need to know – as well as plenty of other types of bread. With 26 easy-to-follow lessons, you’ll soon be whipping up the perfect bread at home.

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