At 10AM the day before, mix 150g of King Arthur Bread (or All-Purpose) Flour and 150g of water with the tiniest, tiniest sprinkle of Rapid Rise (Bread Machine) Yeast. I use a steel bowl and then invert a slightly larger steel bowl over it to keep it from drying out much.
At bedtime the day before, add 350g of flour and 350g of water. Mix well. Keep covered as before.
At 10AM the day of, add 500g of flour, 120g of water, 35g of salt. Mix well. Wait 20min. Knead for 8min. Divide into halves or thirds. Wait 10min. Shape into final shape.
For round loaves, put a towel in a bowl that's just barely big enough for the ball of dough so the loaves have to rise up instead of out. Put the loaf inside the towel with the bottom of the loaf up. Cover the whole loaf with the ends of the towel.
For long loaves, use a towel as a couche ( http://www.wildyeastblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/07/batards-in-couche.jpg
) with folds of the towel separating the loaves. Put one edge of it against the wall and use cookbooks or rolled up towels to keep pressure on the opposite edge so the loaves have to rise up instead of out.
Let dough rise for 3hr and 15min (your time may vary depending on the room temperature. Our house stays at 74-degrees).
Pre-heat oven with pizza stone to 550-degrees making sure it is at temperature at least 45min before bread is ready. I also keep a cast-iron skillet on the lowest rack of the oven. For round loaves, I also put a dutch oven (I have one cast-iron and one enamaled, both work quite well but the enameled one is a bit cramped) with lid in the oven for each loaf.
For round loaves, I put them in the dutch ovens, score the tops of the loaves with a razor blade or somewhat-serrated knife, put the lid on, put back in the oven. Lower temp to 485. Bake covered for 30min and uncovered for 10min (or until well-colored).
For long loaves, (or if you don't have dutch ovens): Put parchment on a cookie sheet with no edge (or on upside down sheet). Carefully move the risen loaves to the parchment by hand. Score the tops of the loaves with a razor blade or somewhat-serrated knife. Slide parchment onto the pizza stone. Put 1/2 cup of crushed ice cubes into the iron skillet on the lowest rack. After 5min lower temp to 485 and bake for 17min (or until well-colored).
If the bread is coloring too quickly, cover with foil to slow down the color while getting heat to center.
Remove bread from oven and put on wire racks to cool. There should be audible crackling of the crust here, especially dramatic if you didn't use a dutch oven.
Note: I have tried at least a dozen brands of bread flour and all-purpose flour. King Arthur flour costs at least twice as much but would be a bargain at eight times as much. It's the best by far.
Minimal yeast at the start ensures that the chemicals they use to process and preserve yeast don't dominate. The high water/flour ratio at the start allows the yeast to move around. Salt inhibits yeast development so it comes as late as possible. French bread ratios are 100 flour :: 62 water :: 2-4 salt (by weight). Pizza stone ensures bottom of bread gets blasted with heat when bread goes in. Dutch ovens ensure moisture from bread helps gelatinize the crust rather than waft out of the room. Crushed ice in pan tries to do the same but oven is so porous that it doesn't make all that much difference (still looking for an alternative, may have to get or make some baguette cloches http://www.breadtopia.com/store/media/OblongBrotformandCloche.JPG
but all the ones that I've seen are too wide and too short).
If the times don't work well with your schedule, 4-5hrs in the fridge is about the same as 1hr on the counter.