RUSTIC ITALIAN BREAD

So you pulled your preferment ( also known as a biga, Jan 21 post: Let’s Bake!) out of the fridge this morning, right?  Before we jump into kneading, let me explain a few things.

The first thing you’ll want to do is read the instructions all the way through so you know where each step is leading.  Pay particular attention to the explanation of the autolyse in Step 2.  I use the technique in almost every bread I make.  You will get a far superior gluten development.  Gluten is the protein in flour.  It is what lets bread hold up under the stress of proofing and baking.  It is what traps pockets of CO2 to let bread proof in the first place.  The autolyse allows gluten to continue to strengthen without the strain of continual kneading, which can actually squeeze water out of gluten strands if performed long enough to develop a good, strong windowpane.  Step 3 takes you through an explanation of the importance of the windowpane test.

I’m not a fan of pumping endless quantities of plastic into the environment.  But if a bench scraper and a white plastic scraper make you a more efficient cook/baker, good quality plastic wrap will create a better loaf of bread.  Many recipes written for home bakers tell you to cover a bowl of proofing bread with a towel.  Your prettiest towel.  A French linen towel, preferably.  Don’t.  Cloth will actually wick moisture out of bread dough.  Remember, water is essential to yeast.  DO spray or oil your bowl, and DO turn the dough over once so that the the top is oiled and therefore won’t stick to the plastic.  After you’ve shaped your dough, DO dust the top with flour so the plastic doesn’t stick to it.  DO re-use your piece of plastic for each step here.  And at the end, if it has noting more than some flour on it, fold it up and use it for the next batch.

Okay, let’s make some bread!

DOUGH

16 ounces warm water

2 teaspoons active dry yeast (or 1 teaspoon instant)

1 tablespoon honey (I eyeball it)

1/4 cup warm milk

All of the preferment

4 cups bread flour

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

  1. Add the water and yeast to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook.  Whisk to blend, then whisk in the honey and the warm milk (nuke it for a few seconds).
  2. Use a white plastic scraper (;0)) to pull the biga into the mixer bowl.  Add the bread flour, all-purpose flour, salt, and olive oil.  Mix until all ingredients are well blended and no visible streaks of flour remain, about 3-4 minutes.  Turn off the mixer and cover the bowl with a piece of plastic.  Allow dough to rest for 20 minutes.  This is called an autolyse.  It permits the protein strands to become fully hydrated without the stress of mixing at the same time.  By the time you turn the mixer back on, you’ll be amazed by how quickly the dough comes together around the hook, and you’ll actually see long, thin strands of gluten as they leave the sides of the bowl.  After turning the mixer back on, knead for 5 minutes.
  3. At the end of the kneading time, turn off the mixer.  Pull off a walnut-sized piece of dough.  Quickly round it up between your palms.  Then start gently teasing the dough down over your fingertips (don’t pull on it from the edges).  What you’re trying to do is get the dough as thin as possible without it tearing in the middle.  This is called a windowpane.  It is the test of how fully developed the gluten in your dough is.  I’ve probably made thousands of batches of bread doughs, and I windowpane every single one.  If your windowpane tears, toss the knob of dough back into the bowl and knead for another couple of minutes.  Repeat the windowpane test.
  4. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface.  Pan-spray the mixing bowl and return the dough, turning it over once.  Cover the bowl with your same piece of plastic and allow to proof at room temperature until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.
  5. At the end of the proofing time, turn the dough out of the bowl and re-spray it.  Divide the dough in half with your bench scraper.  Gently knead one piece a few times, return it to the bowl, cover with plastic, and refrigerate overnight.  The overnight retarding of the dough permits bacterial action to produce a bread of great character and flavor, so it is definitely worth doing so with at least part of your dough.
  6. But to prove that, let’s go ahead and shape and proof a loaf to bake today.  Give it the shape you like best:  either a round boule, or a long-ish oval batârd (French for “bastard” – literally a bastardized baguette, which gives you an idea how seriously the French take their bread).  Handle it gently.  You’ve measured your ingredients carefully.  You kneaded your dough up to a good, strong windowpane.  You proofed it in a place that was neither too warm nor too cool.  The yeast population created lots of lovely CO2 which is all perfectly contained in little sacks of strong gluten.  Why re-knead, and therefore toughen, your dough, and make it create CO2 all over again?  Besides, your dough will just take that much longer to proof.  So shape it carefully.  Set it on a baking sheet lined with parchment.  Dust the top with some flour.  This will give it a lovely, rustic look, and also prevent the plastic from sticking.  Drape a piece of plastic over it and allow to proof at room temp until it passes the finger poke test.
  7. While your dough is proofing, preheat the oven to 450 degrees.  If you use a pizza stone (another good investment, but we’ll talk about that another time), preheat it right along with the oven.
  8. When dough is ready to bake, remove the plastic.  Use a serrated knife held at an acute angle to make 3 or 4 diagonal slashes a good 1/2″ deep.  Reduce heat to 425 degrees.  If you’re using a stone, carefully lift the sheet of parchment holding your dough into the oven and set it on the stone.  If not, set the baking sheet in the oven.  Set a timer for 15 minutes.  When it dings, rotate the bread 180 degrees and reset the timer for 15 minutes.  When bread is done, it should measure 190-200 degrees on an instant-read thermometer (and we’ll talk about that one day soon, too).  Remove bread from the oven and allow to cool until you can comfortably handle it before slicing, about 15 minutes.
  9. As for the rest of the dough, cover it with a fresh piece of plastic and refrigerate overnight.  The next day, remove dough from refrigerator.  Turn it out onto a lightly floured surface.  Divide it as you wish:  1 large or 2 small loaves.  Shape them as you like.  The shaping action will give it just the amount of gentle kneading it needs.  Set it on a baking sheets lined with parchment and dust  with flour.  Drape with plastic.
  10. Follow baking directions in Steps 7 and 8 above.
  11. When you slice the bread, compare it to the same-day-bake loaf and see what a difference in the internal structure you notice.  Then taste it and compare to the previous day’s!  I no longer bake a same-day loaf because I’ve fallen in love with the retarded version.  See how you feel.
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About thesolitarycook

I'm a chef, a cook, a teacher, a reader, a writer, a bike-rider, a dog- and cat-woman
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27 Responses to RUSTIC ITALIAN BREAD

  1. lapadia says:

    Love reading your instructions; I can picture it all, it feels like you are standing right my kitchen!! So, when using a stone you place the parchment on it? I have never done that, I always let the loaf rise on my peel and then I transfer…have nevre had trouble with that. Anyway thanks for sharing your knowledge 🙂 (will be making this soon)

    • Oh, I’m glad you have a peel! Not everyone does, so that’s why I described simply lifting the dough parchment and all onto the stone. Either method works. I’m actually trying to introduce more people to the joys of baking with a stone! Thank you so much.

  2. Hannah says:

    Just pulled my “day 2” loaf out of the oven and am inhaling the wonderful scent. Now to let it cool and taste! We ate (and loved) almost the whole loaf of “day 1” baking last night at dinner but I managed so save some for taste comparison today. How long can the dough stay in the fridge? Could there be a “day 3” baking? Thank you for all your of your detailed instructions.

    • Oh, Hannah, I’m anxious to see how you think the two compare! I’ve never done a day 3 bake before. 48 hours is the longest I’ve let either the biga (preferment) or dough stay in the fridge. What would concern me is this: even the though yeast has slowed way, way down in the fridge in both cases, it isn’t entirely shut off. It would see the light come on in the fridge if you opened the door. For that reason, I would be concerned that enough yeast would consume enough of the sugars in the flour to risk compromising the structure and browning ability of the bread. But, heck, it’s all a science experiment, so I think one of us should try it out and see what happens.

      • Hannah says:

        We thoroughly enjoyed both loaves, but after taste comparisons we prefer the 2nd day bake (as you predicted). I look forward to baking many loaves of this bread!

        Thanks for your feedback on the length of time, too. I was just curious – makes total sense.

      • Isn’t it interesting how different the 2nd day loaf is? Don’t you agree that you just have to try it to discover that? I’ve stopped doing a same-day bake any more because the 2nd day’s is so much better. Thank you for sharing your process. Coming up next in bread: a classic baguette!

  3. AntoniaJames says:

    I have a peel but it’s rather bulky, so it’s not easily stored in my kitchen. I find it easy to use an enormous cookie sheet that has on side open, instead. I shape the loaves on parchment on the baking sheet, then when it’s time to bake, I hold one corner of the paper gently while letting the weight of the loaves slide the whole thing off the cookie sheet and onto my pizza stone. (The paper goes with the loaves.) It works like a charm. Then, when it’s time to remove from the oven the bread — or pizza, because this works beautifully for pizza, too — I just gently pull the parchment with one hand, holding the cookie sheet in the other, right by the closest edge of the stone, and pull the baked good back onto the cookie sheet. ;o)

    • Interesting, AntoniaJames. I do exactly the same thing for the same reason. I keep my peels at work where I have room to shove them around. Your description works perfectly, and I thank you very much for sharing it.

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  5. softpunk says:

    I made this bread 4 days ago, baking half the dough. I used a quarter of the dough the following day for pizzas and it worked beautifully. So now I have a quarter of the dough in the fridge, smelling quite sour. I’d like to use it in my next batch of bread today. How much would you recommend I use? Any tips or tricks I should keep in mind?

    • It’s natural bacteria action that’s making it smell sour. I’d go ahead and use it all (it’s a quarter of a half batch, right?) in today’s dough as a pre-preferment. Go ahead and mix up the preferment, then chop the dough into pieces and stir in. It’s going to be fairly acidic from having sat for a few days, so add a teaspoon of baking soda to the mix to neutralize some of the acid. I’m very much looking forward to hearing how this turns out!

      • softpunk says:

        I thought chopping it up into the pre-ferment would be the way to go, but didn’t know about the baking soda tip. If I didn’t add it, would the bread have a pleasant sourdough sourness, or is there a chance it would taste too sour in a bad way?

        I’ll let you know how it turns out!

      • It’s not going to be remotely unpleasant. At the same time, it won’t be “authentically” sourdough – more about that later when we delve into true sourdough. Without the baking soda, the acid would result in an environment where your yeast would not thrive. Too, a high acid balance results in pale, un-browned bread. You have a wonderful experiment going!

  6. softpunk says:

    I had really great results with incorporating some old dough. The dough seemed much more active,with lots of large bubbles, and my mixing bowl almost overflowed in the fridge. I do wonder if it was so active early on that it didn’t have quite as much rise in the end as it could have. This bread turned out a bit more dense than the previous loaf that didn’t include old dough. The structure was still really nice, and the chew and flavour were definitely better and more complex.

    I’m making a biga using some more old dough, this time 6 not 4 days old. It really smells like beer, so the results might be a little on the strong side. I am also starting the biga with whole wheat flour, just to see what happens.

    Another note: the first time I made this bread I used agave nectar rather than honey, and it had a much paler and crisper crust than when made with honey, which I obviously prefer.

    • softpunk says:

      Sorry about the last sentence. What I meant to say is that the crust of the bread made with agave nectar was paler and softer than the one using honey, which is why I will stick to honey from here on out.

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  9. Hi to every body, it’s my first go to see of this weblog; this blog consists of awesome and
    really good information in faor of readers.

  10. Beautiful loaves! I’m here via Suzanne’s ‘a pug in the kitchen’ blog ☺️ Nice to visit!

  11. I am on my way to making I think my 10th loaf of this delicious bread since December. I love it. Just popping in to say hi and as I type the kitchen aid is kneading away. I can almost make this in my sleep now. Thanks for an awesome recipe.

  12. I can’t wait to give this bread a try. Suzanne did such a beautiful job on it. Thank you for doing such a great job with the instructions!

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