Making Good Italian Bread At Home


Although I dabbled in bread making over the years, it wasn’t until I returned to North America after living in Italy for 8 years that I was forced to learn to make good Italian bread at home. Having been spoiled in Italy where you can find the very best bread baked daily in bakeries on almost every street corner, I have searched high and low to find something similar here and just can’t, so have had to learn to make my own quality bread at home.

The bread they label as “Italian” in our grocery stores most often cannot compare to what a good loaf of bread should be, and I have no good bakeries within a 30 minute drive of where I live. Even if you have never baked bread before, you will be able to make a good Italian bread at home very easily.

In my opinion, a good every day loaf of Italian bread should have a thick, chewy crust, and a soft but not moist interior. The inside should have a coarse texture, full of small holes to help sop up sauces while you eat. In Italy, although every region has its own specialty breads, most good everyday breads have these same qualities I just mentioned. As important as bread is to the Italian diet, it is no wonder they have managed to perfect bread baking, and in fact, it is estimated there are over one thousand different national breads.

Basically, an everyday, simple bread recipe has only four main ingredients, flour, leavening, water and salt. Although the flour in Italy is very different from what you can find here in the States, I have very good results with an all-purpose, unbleached flour. I try to use King Arthurs brand if it is available, as I find it gives me a nice, coarse texture. I use the general dry packaged yeast you can find in every grocery store and make a biga to begin with the day before I am making my bread. A starter, or biga, is simply a mix of a little yeast, warm water and flour that is left to ferment for a few hours or overnight. It helps give the bread a more complex flavor, and a little extra push when it comes to rising. I often leave my starter in the fridge for a few days, using some as I need, and feeding it with a little more flour and water as I go along. This gives the bread a flavor similar to a sourdough type of bread and is delicious. Carol Field in her book The Italian Baker says biga also freezes well, and keeps up to one week in the refrigerator, although I have never tried freezing mine.

Through trial and error, and from a few tricks I learned from my Mother-in-Law, my method of making bread might be a little different than what you generally find in most cookbooks, but it does work. I use a fairly wet dough, little kneading, and bake it much longer than usual over lower heat. By doing this, I am able to create a nice thick crust, while retaining a soft, coarse interior. Please follow my Basic Bread recipe below, and then try some of the other bread recipes listed in my Bread Collection. I have just been reading about a “no knead” bread recipe that is getting rave reviews from many food bloggers that I am attempting myself. I will share the reviews tomorrow when I bake and taste this no knead bread!

 
Deb’s Basic Italian Bread

This is my method of making good, crusty Italian bread. Once you know how, you can do lots of things with this dough. I start with a biga or starter the day before, and leave it sit in the fridge overnight, and complete the bread the next day. I don’t knead my bread as much as the traditional recipes call for, but I get great results. Even if you’ve never made bread before, you’ll find this recipe easy. The quantity of water is the amount I use to make bread with all-purpose flour. You may need to increase the amount of water you need if using bread or white wheat flours. You can also use half all-purpose flour and half white wheat flour to create a light wheat bread that still remains light in texture with a good, crunchy crust.

Makes 2 Loaves
by Deborah Mele

Biga:
1/2 Teaspoon Active Dry Yeast
1 Cup Lukewarm water
2 Cups Unbleached, All-purpose Flour

Mix the yeast and water together, and then slowly start adding the flour, mixing well. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for up to 6 hours. Refrigerate overnight. Bring out of the refrigerator an hour before you plan to make your bread to allow the biga to come to room temperature.

Bread:

2 Cups Warm Water (about 90 degrees F.)
1 Pkg. Active Dry Yeast
5-6 Cups All-purpose, Unbleached Flour
2 Teaspoons Salt
Optional – Sesame Seeds

Place the water in a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast overtop and mix well. Let sit 10 minutes until bubbly. Add all of the biga, flour, and salt and stir with a wooden spoon (or mix with your hands) until everything is mixed. The dough will be fairly wet and sticky at this point. Cover and let stand in a warm spot for about 1 to 1 1/2 hours until doubled in volume.  Punch down the dough, folding it over on itself two or three times, cover and let rise once more until doubled, about 1 hour. If you choose, you could refrigerate your dough at this time and leave it overnight, or up to three days, and finish baking it later.  When ready to bake your bread, turn out your dough onto a floured baking sheet, and without overworking it too much shape into one large or two smaller round or oval shaped loaves, using as much extra flour as needed to keep it from sticking. Slash across the tops of the loaves with a serrated knife or razor just prior to baking. If using sesame seeds, lightly wet your hands and run them over the bread to moisten. Sprinkle the seeds over the bread, gently patting them to help them adhere to the dough.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. and place a casserole dish with boiling water on the lower oven rack. Bake your bread 30 minutes, turn the baking sheet around, and reduce the heat to 300 degrees and bake for another 30-45 minutes. At this point your bread should be golden brown and should sound hollow when you tap the bottom. Allow the bread to cool to room temperature and serve.

Baking Tip: You could also use a baguette pan to make long thin loaves, or spread your dough across a well-oiled cookie sheet to make focaccia.

Variations:

Rosemary Bread: Add 4 Tbs. finely chopped rosemary to the flour. Brush the loaves with water and sprinkle with coarse sea salt just prior to baking.

Olive Bread: Add 12 oz. flavorful pitted olives, coarsely chopped to the flour mixture.

 
Deborah Mele 2011