Easy Italian Bread

What follows are two Italian bread recipes. The difference is in how they are baked. The first is baked in a conventional way producing a bread with a soft crust. The second recipe incorporates steam to make a crusty bread.

This bread is wonderful but it does take a little planning. The biga should be made one to three days in advance and stored in the refrigerator. The biga is easy to make and the bread made with the biga is easy.

Though this description uses a stand-type mixer with a dough hook, the bread can be made by hand if you prefer. Simply mix and knead as you would other breads.

Italian Bread Recipe

For the biga

2 cups or more of good quality, unbleached bread flour
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
3/4 cup water at 80 degrees

For the bread

2 2/3 cups good quality, unbleached bread flour
1/2 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/3 cup high heat baker’s dry milk
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
3/4 cup, more or less, water at 100 degrees
the biga

Directions

1. For the biga, mix the flour and yeast together in the bowl of your stand-type mixer. Add the water and mix with the dough hook for five or six minutes. As the dough comes together, the dough ball should be soft and tacky but not too sticky. Check the dough ball one to two minutes into the kneading and add more flour if needed. (If the dough ball is too dry, dribble in a bit of water.) Complete the kneading.
2. Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover and let stand on the counter at room temperature for two or three hours or until nearly doubled in size.
3. Punch the dough down and refrigerate it overnight or for up to three days.
4. An hour before you make the bread, remove the biga from the refrigerator and cut the dough ball into eight to ten pieces, cover, and let stand for an hour at room temperature to begin to warm.
5. Mix the flour, salt, sugar, optional dry milk, and yeast together in the bowl of your stand-type mixer. Add the oil and water and the biga and mix with the dough hook for about eight minutes. As the dough comes together, the dough ball should be soft and tacky but not too sticky. (Check the dough ball one to two minutes into the kneading and add more flour if needed. If the dough ball is too dry, dribble in a bit of water.) Complete the kneading.
6. Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover and let stand on the counter at room temperature for two or three hours or until nearly doubled in size.
7. Grease a baking sheet and sprinkle it with cornmeal or semolina flour. Using a knife or bench scraper, divide the dough into two equal pieces for loaves or smaller pieces for rolls. Form the loaves or rolls and place them on the baking sheet. Cover and let stand until they are nearly doubled in size, about one hour.
8. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes or until the bread is browned and the internal temperature reaches 200 degrees. Remove to wire rack to cool.

Crusty Italian Bread Recipe

This difference in this bread recipe and the proceeding recipe is in how the bread is baked. Steam in the oven creates a chewy crust. You create the steam with a pan of water on the lowest shelf in the oven and a mister spray bottle.

Enjoy your bread.

For the biga

2 cups or more of good quality, unbleached bread flour
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
3/4 cup water at 80 degrees

For the bread

2 2/3 cups good quality, unbleached bread flour
1/2 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/3 cup high heat baker’s dry milk
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
3/4 cup, more or less, water at 100 degrees
the biga

Directions

1. For the biga, mix the flour and yeast together in the bowl of your stand-type mixer. Add the water and mix with the dough hook for five or six minutes. As the dough comes together, the dough ball should be soft and tacky but not too sticky. Check the dough ball one to two minutes into the kneading and add more flour if needed. (If the dough ball is too dry, dribble in a bit of water.) Complete the kneading.
2. Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover and let stand on the counter at room temperature for two or three hours or until nearly doubled in size.
3. Punch the dough down and refrigerate it overnight or for up to three days.
4. An hour before you make the bread, remove the biga from the refrigerator and cut the dough ball into eight to ten pieces, cover, and let stand for an hour at room temperature to begin to warm.
5. Mix the flour, salt, sugar, optional dry milk, and yeast together in the bowl of your stand-type mixer. Add the oil and water and the biga and mix with the dough hook for about eight minutes. As the dough comes together, the dough ball should be soft and tacky but not too sticky. (Check the dough ball one to two minutes into the kneading and add more flour if needed. If the dough ball is too dry, dribble in a bit of water.) Complete the kneading.
6. Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover and let stand on the counter at room temperature for two or three hours or until nearly doubled in size.
7. Grease a baking sheet and sprinkle it with cornmeal or semolina flour. Using a knife or bench scraper, divide the dough into two equal pieces for loaves or smaller pieces for rolls. Form the loaves or rolls and place them on the baking sheet. Cover and let stand until they are nearly doubled in size, about one hour.
8. For crusty bread, bake according to the instructions below.

To bake your crusty bread:

To form the thick, chewy crust that is typical of artisan breads, follow these instructions: Place a large, shallow, metal pan in the oven on the lowest shelf. You will pour hot water into this pan to create steam in the oven. (High heat is hard on pans so don’t use one of your better pans and don’t use a glass or ceramic pan which might shatter.) An old sheet pan is ideal. Fill a spray bottle with water. You will use this to spray water into the oven to create even more steam.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. When the oven is hot and the bread is fully risen and is soft and puffy–being very careful not to burn yourself with the rising steam and with a mitted hand—turn your head away and pour two or three cups of very hot water in the pan in the oven. Quickly close the oven door to capture the steam. With spray bottle in hand, open the door and quickly spray the oven walls to create more steam and close the door. The oven is now ready for the loaves.

Work quickly to get the bread in the oven before the steam subsides. Gently invert the loaf or loaves onto a slightly greased non-insulated baking sheet on which a little cornmeal has been dusted. With your sharpest knife, quickly make two or three slashes 1/4-inch deep across the top of each loaf. This will vent the steam in the bread and allow the bread to expand properly. Immediately, put the bread in the steamy oven. After a few moments, open the door and spray the walls again to recharge the steam. Do this twice more during the first fifteen minutes of baking. This steamy environment will create the chewy crust prized in artisan breads.

Let the bread bake at 425 degrees for fifteen minutes in the hot steamy oven then reduce the temperature to 375 degrees and bake for a total of 35 to 40 minutes. Check on the bread ten minutes before the baking should be complete. If the top is browning too quickly, tent the loaf with aluminum foil for the remainder of the baking to keep it from burning. The bread is done when the crust turns a dark golden brown and the internal temperature reaches 210 degrees. It is important that the bread is well-baked to drive moisture from the loaf. If the bread is under baked, the excess moisture will migrate to the crust and you will no longer have the dry chewy crust of a great artisan loaf.

This sourdough bread is to die for. The prolonged rising gives the yeast plenty of time to convert the starch to sugars and the friendly bacteria a chance to impart their nut-like flavors.

Storing your crusty bread:

Unused crusty bread should be stored in a paper bag at room temperature. If the bread is stored in a plastic bag, the crust will become soft.