Making your own bread is probably going to be one of the most interesting, time consuming and rewarding things you will ever do inside your kitchen. Unfortunately, good results when making bread are heavily influenced by so many factors that only trial and error will eventually lead to a perfect loaf of bread, and maybe not every time. My family of farmers even believed – and, as I was able to prove, for good reason, that rising activities were influenced by lunar motions, and that the best results were to be obtained during the periods of crescent moon.
In this guide I am going to collect all the instructions and tips I found to be effective during my bread making experience. I hope I can answer some questions and provide a valid resource to obtain a nice, satisfying first loaf of bread.
1. THE FLOUR
Knowing your flour is key when making bread. For more thorough information, I suggest you read my guide about flours and my guide to the various gluten and gluten free flours for baking. After all, bread is only water, yeast and flour, so try and spend the time to gather as much information as you can about these ingredients. After some experimenting, you’ll figure out the kinds of flours that work best with your environment, water, and tools.
- The Role of Gluten
As explained in the guide, Gluten develops when two aminoacids called Gliadin and Glutenin combine, and together create a ‘web’ structure, which makes the dough very stretchy and pliable. This makes it possible for the dough to trap the air bubbles caused by the fermentation of the yeast, to expand and get the nice bubbly structure you find in bakery breads. This is why it is important to find high gluten flours for your bread. The best flour to use is strong flour, or Canadian flour, which has the highest gluten content on the market. Bread flour is great too, as long as it has a strength value of more than 300W.
If you are planning to integrate low gluten flours or gluten free flours into your bread, make sure the amounts are not higher than 30% of the total to get good results. Even when making whole wheat bread, it is best to use at least 30% of strong flour, at least at the beginning. If your bread turns out cakey or too compact, the flour you used probably didn’t have enough gluten, or something went awry during the leavening process.
- Water Absorption
Each flour absorbs water differently. This is why you might always need to adjust the amount of water indicated in a recipe, and this is one of the reasons why making bread according to a recipe is so difficult. Read carefully the part of this guide about hydration, and after two or three tries you’ll be able to figure things out.
Make sure you never use old flours, and that all of your flours are stored properly to maintain freshness.
- Where to buy the best flour?
It is important to choose flours in their purest forms – meaning, flours that do not have a list of ingredients. No self raising agents, no enrichments, no extras of any sort. Even a good all purpose flour with no enrichments and a high protein/gluten content might be good for bread making.
If you can, try and buy locally produced flour from a mill if you have one nearby. Chances are that even if you live in big cities, there is one right outside of town. Flour you buy from a mill is likely to be less expensive, less processed and of better quality and taste. Nowadays, wheat is awfully exploited and overly manipulated, thus causing a good part of the human population to develop gluten allergies and intolerances. Sourcing good wheat is important for your health and for the planet’s, as well.
2. THE YEAST
Yeast is made up of thousands of microorganisms that feed on the sugars released by the combination of water and flour, thus creating gasses that get trapped by the web of gluten and inflate the dough (kind of like an air balloon, so to speak).
Using the yeast properly and in the right amounts is key to getting good bread. The best kind of leavening for this purpose is a long one, that either includes a sourdough starter or a poolish. The less yeast you use, the longer the fermentation will take, getting you a nice, soft, easily digestible product.
It is important to prevent any direct contact between the yeast and salt, as it inhibits fermentation. On the other hand, sugars perform the opposite action, helping your yeast to come back to life.
- Active Dry Yeast
Active Dry Yeast is yeast in its lyophilized form. Even though fresh yeast produces better results and is also less harsh on digestion, This is the most commonly used as it is easy to find. For normal (fast) rising, you’d need about 7g of ADY for 500g of flour (or, 1g of ADY corresponds to 3g of fresh yeast). It can be added directly to the flour, as long as it doesn’t come in direct contact with salt. It is good practice to dissolve it in liquid ingredients along with sugar or a sweet agent.
- Fresh yeast
Fresh yeast comes in the form of a little block of a very light brown color. As it is alive and active but in a sort of dormant state, it needs to be ‘awakened’ by stirring it in lukewarm water. Even better, this yeast can be activated by adding some sugar or other sweet agent to it, and by waiting for it to produce some bubbles. At that point, liquid can be added and it can be dissolved.
Like ADY, make sure it never comes in direct contact with salt. The proportion used for short raising times is of 25 grams of fresh yeast per 500 grams of flour.
- Sourdough Starter
Sourdough starter is almost a work of love. It takes 15 days to make, and, if well cared for, it can last indefinitely in the fridge. It is not activated by fresh or chemical yeast, but by the addition of some ingredients that already has a bacterial base, or that can create an environment in which bacteria can thrive and develop – like yogurt, or tomato juice. The starter is great for those who make bread often, as it must be regularly ‘fed’, or kneaded again with water and flour – about every 2 days. Amongst all the raising agents, this is the one that will grant you the best results, with incredibly tasty, bubbly doughs. Because bacteria are constantly at work, slowly feeding on the sugars in the dough, it is kind of like the dough has been pre-digested, and this is why this bread is also incredibly easy on the stomach and intestine.
- Pasta di Riporto
Pasta di riporto roughly translates as ‘second-time-around dough’, and it is nothing more than a piece of leftover dough from a preceding batch of bread that has already fermented. It acts as a sort of sourdough starter and needs a long fermentation time. This method can be used pretty much indefinitely, and it is the most used amongst pizza makers in Naples.
The poolish method is the one we are going to use, and it is an easy way to produce a long fermentation without recurring to sourdough starter. It is simply made by mixing water, flour and a pinch of yeast and by letting it sit for several hours, until active and bubbly. It is usually assembled the evening before the day you are planning to bake your loaf.
Poolish is usually a rather liquid, runny preparation. Another kind of starter exists in Italy, called Biga, which uses more flour and less water (the solid sister of poolish, so to speak). Since poolish is more likely to give good results to the inexperienced baker, it is the one we are going to stick to for the time being.
As with all other ingredients, using yeast that has not been sitting on your fridge or shelf for too long is key for good results (unless we are talking about sourdough starter, of course). Make sure your yeast is not old, or it might lose its full power.
3. THE SALT
Salt is important for adding depth of flavor to your breads, but there are several kinds of Italian bread that do not use salt at all, like Tuscan bread. These breads were originally meant to be eaten with very savory preparations, like Tuscan Soups or stews, making the presence of salt in the dough quite unnecessary.
As said before, salt inhibits the activity of the yeast, so always mix it thoroughly with flour before adding yeasted water.
- Salts to use (to add and to top)
Kosher salt is probably the best kind of salt to add to your dough. Sea salt is good as well. If making something like focaccia, or some other bread that requires seasoning on top, you can go fancier with salt, coarse salt being the best kind. Gorgeous as a topping are Pink Himalayan salt, Red salt from Hawaii, Smoked salts, or any kind of quality natural salts you like that would add character to your product.
4. SUGARY AGENTS
It is always a good idea to let the yeast ‘reactivate’ by putting it in direct contact with some sugary agent, or dilute them both in a bit of water. Combine everything, and wait for them to become bubbly. At that point, the yeast will be fully active and ready to use.
Though any kind of sugar or malt is perfect for this purpose, I had the best results with barley malt. Not only it aids leavening wonderfully, it also adds incredibly to the final flavor of the bread.
- How hydration works
The amount of liquid you use to bake your bread will affect the final texture of your crumb, and will help you predict what your finished product will feel like once it’s baked.
Hydration is usually calculated by percentages. For example, you’ll know that a bread with a hydration level of 50%, like bagels, will be quite stiff and dense. On the other hand, breads like focaccia or pizza, which have a hydration level of 80%, will be looser, fluffier and will tend to spread out more.
Note that, depending on what kind of flour you use, the hydration level of the same bread might be different depending on how your flour absorbs water.
Also note that by ‘liquid’, I mean things like milk, alcohol, eggs, and everything that contributes to the general moisture of your dough.
- Calculating hydration level
There is a very simple formula for calculating the hydration of your bread:
Water weight / Flour Weight = result x 100
So, in the case of my bread, the formula will be as follows:
(note that, if using poolish, you should also include the weight of the flour and water you used for it)
290 / 500 x 100 = 58%
Our campagne bread will develop a nice crust with a firm, chewy crumb.
Once you start examining hydration levels in various breads and associate each number to a texture, you will also be able to understand whether a recipe makes sense or not. For example, a good Neapolitan style pizza with an airy crust will hardly have an hydration level lower than 75-80%.
Whenever you want to make a specific kind of bread, try and spend 5 minutes sourcing the water content it should have and do the math.
For a full list of the hydration levels of various kinds of breads, I encourage you to visit this page.
6. FERMENTATION AND PROOFING
Fermentation is the term used to refer to the moments in which the bacteria in the yeast develop and inflate the dough. Proofing is the final fermentation before your product goes in the oven.
- What happens during proofing?
As I already said, Fermentation occurs when the bacteria present in the yeast start to feed on the sugars developed by the mix of water and flour. This process creates carbon dioxide bubbles, which inflate the dough and create the nice holes we all want to see in our bread. Fermentation is a very delicate process, which is influenced by many factors.
Here is a list of things to do and avoid when leaving your dough to rise:
– Keep it well covered: Put your dough in a bowl much larger than your piece of dough, as it may rise a lot, and cover it well with plastic wrap and a tea towel.
– Keep it in a safe environment: For optimal fermentation, you need a place that is absolutely free of any currents and with a constant temperature, possibly at 25C˚ / 77F˚. Air currents are likely to deflate the dough. If your environment is too cold the dough might take way too long to rise, while if it’s too hot it could over-rise and deflate. Anywhere from 20C˚ to 30C˚ will do.
– Do not move it around too much: Once you covered it and tucked it in, leave it be. Don’t move it, or you might destroy the bubbles.
Proofing is usually done right on the tray where you’ll be baking your dough. In this case, though, we will use a floured bowl (or a banneton). Lightly oil or flour your bowls during each fermentation, and turn the dough very carefully over the tray or stone you will be using. The less you handle it, the better it is.
For more information, Wikipedia has some comprehensive scientific specs to share.
7. KNEADING, STRETCHING AND FOLDING
Kneading the dough is important for developing the web of gluten and making your dough suppler. Some breads need to be kneaded for a long time, especially if they will go through a total fermentation time of three hours or less, like in the case of brioche. The rustic bread I’m making here only needs to be kneaded for some 5 minutes or until well mixed, as the total fermentation time can go from 13 to 20 hours. Fermentation develops gluten as well, along with the stretching and folding process, therefore, the longer the fermentation time, the less need for kneading there will be.
Stretching and folding is a French technique in which, during a long fermentation time, the dough is deflated and stretched and folded over itself. Not only this technique is easy and makes the dough accessible to all – as you won’t need any fancy robots for kneading, but it develops gluten amazingly with very little effort. Do not skip this step, and perform the first stretching and folding about 40 minutes after you put your dough to rise.
I found some valuable information in this site.
8. THE BAKING
Breads made by bakeries are baked at a temperature that is usually higher than the one reached by the ovens we have at home, But good results can be obtained with a home oven, even without a stone.
The trick to developing a good crust is to create humidity in a very hot environment. To do so, add some water to a vessel that can withstand the highest temperature in the oven and put it in the bottom of the oven, then turn it on full whack (270C˚ ~ 250C˚ / 520F˚ ~ 480F˚). Wait for it to heat up properly, about 15-20 minutes, before adding your bread. 5 minutes after you added the bread, turn it down to 240C˚, then down to 230C˚ after 5 more minutes. Then, halfway through the cooking, remove the water. This process in needed to help sugar caramelization and develop the crunchy, golden crust we all love.
Since the bottom of our bread might not bake as gorgeously as the top if we’re not using a stone, I found a good alternative in a well oiled, black baking tray. The oil helps with crispness, while the black colored trays heat up more than regular metal ones, helping a lot with crust development. Try baking any bread in a black oiled tray and in a regular, metal-colored oiled tray, and see the difference yourself.
9. KINDS OF ITALIAN BREAD
A flat, square-ish shaped loaf, well known for its slightly chewy consistency and big bubbles. Ciabatta means ‘slipper’ in Italian, probably to recall the shape. Perfect for sandwiches. Its preparation is quite simple and peculiar, and I will probably cover it at some point in the future.
A very famous, crusty loaf with a chewy interior, made out of durum wheat and born in the Puglia region. Brilliant for bruschetta and for eating plain with olive oil.
A kind of rustic bread made without salt, originally used for dipping in savory stews and broths. Gorgeous when made out of whole wheat flours, which was commonly used amongst farmers.
- Pane all’Acqua
A kind of bread made with no salt and a higher hydration than usual (hence the name, ‘water bread’). It is very light and airy, quite easy to make at home.
- Pane all’Olio
A kind of bread kneaded with olive oil, usually made into smaller loaves. It develops a very light and airy crumb and a flaky crust. It is loved by kids and used to stuff small rolls for their school snacks.
- Pane al Latte
A kind of bread kneaded with milk instead of water, which remains very soft and fluffy, with barely any crust at all. It is the quintessential breakfast and snack of most Italian kids, spread with butter and jam or other spreads.
A well known and loved kind of flat yet soft bread, most common in the Puglia, Liguria and Lazio regions, which reaches its levels of softness with a heavy enrichment of olive oil. Some bakeries and food shops even knead it with lard, for a richer texture.
- Enriched Breads
Some common breads in Italy are enriched with walnuts, rosemary or olives. The recipe below is perfect for such enrichments, maybe by adding a tablespoon of oil to the dough, as well.
- Other Kinds of Bread
Each region has their own bread: Ferrara has the Croce Ferrarese (Ferrara cross); Romagna has Piadina, a flatbread kneaded with milk and lard; Torino has Grissini or breadsticks, and so on. Many other kinds exist all throughout the country. Even Italian markets abroad probably bake some of these wonderful, unique breads.
The recipe I am giving here is for a very classic country loaf, or ‘campagne’ bread. It is the whole wheat version of Pugliese bread, and it is the only bread I really, really like. It is perfect for most uses, and, even though I believe it to be best in the form of one big loaf, it can be made into smaller shapes
Now, after all this talking, on to the recipe!
HOW TO MAKE RUSTIC COUNTRY BREAD
(Makes a loaf weighing about 800 grams)
For the Poolish
150g Strong bread or Manitoba flour
130 to 140ml Water
A pinch of Active Dry yeast, or 1 gram of fresh yeast
Assemble the poolish the evening before the day you want to bake your bread. Stir all the ingredients in a bowl. If 130ml of water make your dough quite loose and wobbly, perfect. If it looks too much like a kneadable piece of dough, add more water. Cover well with plastic wrap, and let it sit for at least 10 hours and up to 18, in a place with a room temperature anywhere from 20C˚ to 28C˚. It must look bubbly and become quite sticky.
For the Bread
350g Flours of choice, of which 30% strong bread or Manitoba flour, and no more of 30% gluten free flour, if using*
130 to 140ml Water
A pinch of Active Dry Yeast
1 tbsp Barley malt (or sugar)
1 abundant teaspoon of salt
*For my mix of flours, I used: 100g Strong flour, 100g Whole wheat flour, 100g Spelt flour, 50g Rye flour.
- Once your poolish is active, put it in a bowl, robot or bread machine. Prepare the same amount of water you used for the poolish, and warm it up a bit. Dissolve the malt and the yeast in it, and add it to the poolish. Add the flour as well, along with the salt. Knead everything until a uniform ball of dough forms. It should be quite sticky.
- Turn it in a glass bowl and cover well with plastic wrap, and leave it to proof in an environment free of currents, possibly at a temperature of 25C˚. The oven with just the light turned on creates a rather favorable environment. The dough will need to rise for a total of 2 and a half to 3 hours, during which we will need to perform the stretch&fold technique for 2 to 3 times.
- 1st Fermentation and Stretch&Fold
Stretch one end of the dough and fold it over itself, for something like 6-8 times. Pinch one edge of the ball of dough, stretch it by shaking it a little, and fold it over. Turn it, and do the same (as shown in the pictures).
Do this every 40 minutes, or at least 2 times during the 3 hours of proofing.
- 2nd Fermentation
Take the tray where you’ll be baking your bread, and arrange a sheet of plastic wrap on top. Oil it lightly, and turn your dough over it. Gently press it down to flatten it a bit (as in the picture below), and cover it with another piece of plastic wrap. Leave it repaired by air or currents, as before, for 30 minutes.
- 3rd Fermentation / Proofing
Once ready, fold the 4 edges over themselves to make a ball again. Flour well a proofing basket, or a wooden or glass bowl, and put the ball of dough in it. Leave it be, well covered, for another hour.
- Preparing for baking
Prepare everything 30-25 minutes before the proofing time is over. Add water to an oven-proof vessel (about one cup) and put it in the bottom of the oven. Turn it on at the highest temperature.
If you have a baking stone, just make sure it has all the time to get extremely hot. If not, prepare your tray.
Once the oven and dough are ready, turn it over the tray or stone you will use for cooking. Don’t over handle the dough. At this point you can make cuts in it: You can choose to keep a round shape and cut a cross on top, or, like I did, shape the bread into a longer loaf. I cut a long line in the middle (see picture below).
Cook for 5 minutes at full whack. After that, bring the temperature down to 240C˚ / 465F˚. After 5 more minutes, bring it down to 230C˚ / 445F˚. After 5 more minutes, carefully remove the water, and finish baking. It should only take 10 more minutes. To check for doneness, control the color of the crust, which should be dark and brown, and knock on it to check its crustiness. It should be tough and crisp. Turn off the oven, and leave the bread there for a further 5 minutes. Then take it out and, if you can resist, cool before slicing.
This bread will keep for quite some time: It will be perfectly soft for two days, and the third day it will be just gorgeous toasted (provided it makes it to the third day). If you have leftovers after 4 or 5 days, use it for meatballs, more toast, or wait for it to get really hard and grate it to make breadcrumbs.
To store it properly, wrap it well in a clean cotton tea towel, and put it in a current-free, dark place.
I love to slice this bread when it is still slightly warm. It is, of course, gorgeous for every kind of usage, but, amongst its many uses, you know what my favorite way to enjoy it is?
Just plain, with a simple glass of milk, possibly whole. It hardly ever happens, so it is a real treat for me. Possibly, even more than ice cream. Home made bread tastes so clean and genuine – with the addendum of the satisfaction of knowing that it was your hands that made it! Few treats are so precious. In the memories of my childhood, bread also had a thin layer of butter and jam. If I am feeling a bit nostalgic and up for a treat, nothing is better than biting into that piece of nutty, soft and crusty heaven, dripping with sweet milk.
I would love to know about all of your bread experiments, and about the breads of your childhood.
If you do have any questions, or if there are unclear points, please let me know by leaving a comment (or by pointing it out via Facebook) and I will oblige as soon as I can. This post will be probably updated in the future. You will be able to read about updates and changes on Hortus Cuisine’s Facebook Page.
Have fun in the kitchen!